An interesting article about death cafés, some of which host workshops at which participants write their own obituaries, recently appeared in The Washington Post. Now, I’ve heard of internet cafés and cat cafés, but this was the first I’d heard of a destination where one can get a steaming mug of java along with a side of pondering one’s own mortality.
I find the timing of the Post article rather appropriate. While there is so much outward Christmas cheer to be had, with carols old and new playing everywhere I go, and my grandnieces and grandnephews declaring every piece of schlock touted on YouTube videos as their heart’s desire, it’s easy to ignore the sadness lurking just below the surface for many of us. We hear annually of the spike in suicides during the holiday season. The spirit of the season does not resonate for many of us who have suffered losses or who feel lonely, disenfranchised or marginalized. The mental health challenges that are always with us seem to be accentuated in the month of December.
In the hustle and bustle of work, family and holiday preparations, it can be easy to overlook our neighbors who are struggling. Some of them may not make it to the new year. For those of us who work in social services, it’s harder not to notice. It’s in your face every day. We know to expect an uptick in calls about child and elder abuse, an increase in applications for cash aid, and more stories of epic family squabbles than could fill a telenovela.
It’s a good thing that the media and charitable organizations make us more aware of the needy at this time of year. We don’t want any child to be without gifts on Christmas morning, nor do we want to see impoverished families settling for cereal or soup for Christmas dinner. So we try to do our part. We give extra to the food bank; we haul a box of board games over to the toy drive. And yet, it’s just so little. We know it’s a drop in the bucket and we only hope that our tiny contribution makes a difference to someone.
But no one rings bells outside Wal-Mart or holds bake sales to benefit those whose suffering extends far beyond the financial. There are too many whose pain is invisible, who drag themselves through the holiday season like zombies, who pray for January or maybe just to make it through another day. I regret that the holidays are such a trigger for so many, in the midst of what is supposed to be a season of joy. And I don’t know what we can do to be of much help. Lend a listening ear? Maybe. Kindness, understanding? Reaching out instead of pretending it’s not our problem? I fear I am lapsing into serious cliché here, but that’s an occupational hazard of looking in the mirror, is it not?
I don’t think I’d do a very good job of writing my own obituary at a death café, no matter how strong the coffee. But I do know that the one line I do not want in my obituary is “He could have done something, but he chose not to.”
Perhaps Dickens got it right when he had the Ghost of Christmas Future pass judgment on old Ebenezer and his self-imposed blindness to the suffering of others.