Gateway: Living

Gig Harbor Death Café draws forward-thinking crowd

From left: Jannet Larson, Bill Gerald, Jean Unger and Sherry Dougherty all attend Death Café meetings at the Gig Harbor Public Library. Death Café is a monthly group discussion about death.
From left: Jannet Larson, Bill Gerald, Jean Unger and Sherry Dougherty all attend Death Café meetings at the Gig Harbor Public Library. Death Café is a monthly group discussion about death. jbessex@gateline.com

Death and dying are topics that many people try to avoid talking or thinking about.

But these are the exact topics that draws a group of people to the monthly meetings of Gig Harbor’s own Death Café.

The group is facilitated by Kriss Kevorkian, 52, who holds a doctoral degree in thanatology — the study and science of death, dying and bereavement — and started the group in Gig Harbor to provide a safe space for people to explore these issues.

“We talk a lot about quality of life,” Kevorkian — no relation to the famous Dr. Jack Kevorkian — said. “It’s nice that there’s a forum for people to get some answers. It takes a lot of courage for some people to come because (death) is just not something we talk about.”

For Jean Unger, 68, death and the process of dying had been part of her life for several years as a hospice nurse and a geriatric care manager.

We talk a lot about quality of life. It’s nice that there’s a forum for people to get some answers. It takes a lot of courage for some people to come because (death) is just not something we talk about.

Kriss Kevorkian

“One of my main things is increasing public awareness of what’s available for seniors,” Unger said. “This (group) is creating a space, a safe place, where we can talk about what our wishes are.”

This safe space and freedom to talk about some of the practicalities that are involved in dying — ranging from funeral wishes to life-saving measures — is a common draw for many attendees of the Death Café.

“It’s life changing when you feel empowered when you speak your mind without fear,” Unger said. “People have different ways of dealing with end-of-life issues. I think talking about it is very important.”

Janet Larson, 75, agrees with Unger that talking and dealing with end-of-life issues are important, and has been attending the café for two years to talk about these issues. Having been widowed twice, she is familiar with the often confusing tangle of paperwork and legal requirements that go along with a death.

“I know the level of effort it takes to plow through things,” Larson said. “I thought it would be a good idea to at least have an awareness and preparation for the moment.”

It’s life changing when you feel empowered when you speak your mind without fear. People have different ways of dealing with end-of-life issues. I think talking about it is very important.

Jean Unger

In addition to wanting her own desires known, Larson, along with many Death Café attendees, wants to make sure that her children are not caught dealing with this mess of paperwork.

“I want my sons to know what my wishes are,” she said. “I think it’s helpful for those we leave behind to not contend with everything in addition to the immediate grief.”

This mess of paperwork is something that William “Just Plain Bill” Gerald, 85, wants to avoid conflict and division in his family, which he has seen following the death of friends and other family members.

“These things have to be done or it’s really going to leave a mess for everyone who follows,” Gerald said. “All these details that people never really think about. People are not aware that this is going to be a real mess. Many families find a real division.”

As a young man, Gerald worked in a funeral home and saw this confusion, division and uncertainty in the families mourning their relatives.

This uncertainty is something that Sherry Dougherty has worked through first in dealing with the death of her father in 1988 and then her mother, who died in February.

“With every death you experience, you learn more,” Dougherty said. “In my opinion, you should have some experience with death before your own parents die.”

Dealing with the death of her parents has brought to Dougherty’s attention how taboo the subject of death and dying is in our culture and how afraid of the process and subject many people are.

“As I’ve attended the café, I’m no longer afraid of death. I was able to be with my mother not out of fear but out of love and compassion,” she said. “(In being with my mother) I have no questions about how it all happened.”

This taboo on the conversation is why so many attend the Death Café every month, for a chance to listen and speak about issues concerning them or to ask questions.

I’ve learned so much about how we need everything in place. We all are born and we all die. No one’s going to get out of it.

Sherry Dougherty

“It’s an opportunity to discuss,” Kevorikian said, adding that the atmosphere of the café is casual and welcoming for new people.

The original idea for a venue to talk about death came from a Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who organized the café mortel in 2004, with the idea spreading to Paris in 2010. Jon Underwood held the first Death Café in London in 2011 and the idea was brought to the United States Death Café by Lizzy Miles, an Ohio hospice worker, in 2012.

Kevorkian has been organizing and holding her café in Gig Harbor since she moved here four years ago. The regulars at the café appreciate Kevorkian’s insight, experience and empathy while facilitating the café conversations.

Dougherty said that the café, along with her experiences with her parents death, have made her more open with her children about the process and her wishes.

“I’ve learned so much about how we need everything in place,” she said. “We all are born and we all die. No one’s going to get out of it.”

Andrea Haffly: 253-358-4155, @gateway_andrea

Death Café

The next meeting will be held from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Monday (Aug. 8) and then Sept. 12 at the Gig Harbor Pierce County Library.

Future meetings can be found online at gigharborguide.com.

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