Years ago, one cold December night, I approached St. Christopher’s Hospice in South London. Through the window, I could see several people getting seated around a table. I went to the main entrance and informed the receptionist that I was here for the Death Chat, and she pointed me toward the room that I had seen through the window.
Those who were there greeted me warmly. A man named Anthony was speaking and it was the opposite of small talk. After a few others had arrived, Kostas, a principal social worker in Social Work, Bereavement, and Welfare, facilitated the introductions.
Everyone was kindly pouring wine for one another and attentively ensuring that everyone had a plate and napkin. An Indian man, probably in his sixties, shared that his wife had died at St. Christopher’s Hospice. He mentioned that it’s difficult to look forward to Christmas without her. Olivia, a woman who was seated to my right, lost her husband six months ago. He also died at St. Christopher’s. She said, “I come to these things because I think it’s better than bereavement counselling which is medicalizing something that isn’t a medical problem; grief is natural and ordinary.” There was also Sophie, a community volunteer whose mother died at age 67, suddenly and in her sleep; John, a middle-aged man whose brother had died; and Andrew, a Spiritual Care Lead, who had worked in hospice care for more than thirty years.
I appreciated that Kostas had introduced himself mentioning that his interest in hospice work was piqued by studying existential philosophy. As for me, I had been drawn to visit this particular hospice because of the life and legacy of its founder – Cecily Saunders.
Several commented at the outset that they appreciate discussing death with strangers because it is possible to do so more freely and naturally than with family and friends. This opportunity allows everyone a way to, in a sense, objectivize their own experiences. And because strangers do not know those with whom they speak very well, they do not purport to give advice or interfere with their own meddling judgments. Rather, they listen compassionately, even delicately.
Sometimes, at Death Chats, the St. Christopher’s Hospice facilitators provide a prompt for discussion. On this occasion, Kostas mentioned that there is a questionnaire that hospice patients are asked to complete as they live their final weeks. Some of the questions concern physical well-being and others concern psycho-spiritual topics. In the latter category, one of the questions is: “Are you at peace?”
He then proposed that we discuss the question amongst ourselves – what does it mean to be at peace? And, are we ourselves at peace now?
I was struck by the question and how it was possible, in all likelihood, that some people are confronted with this particular question for the first time in their lives only a couple of weeks before their death.
Olivia discussed that her husband was an atheist and that she thinks he was at peace about his approaching death because he had put all of his affairs in order. Then Olivia asked, “Is being at peace good? If heaven is peace, then I don’t want it because that sounds boring! An end to restlessness and striving isn’t desirable.”
Sophie said, “My mom thought that peace is to be with God. All her life, she just wanted to be with Jesus. I became a Christian in 2013, so I am quite a new one. Now I have this hope, too – that I can be with Him and reunited with her.”
John suggested that being at peace involves not having regrets. “Regrets happen from putting things off. Just do the things you want to do now,” he offered.
It was impressive how everyone listened to one another with respect and patience and interest. We also tried to work out the distinctions between acceptance, resignation, peace, and hope.
The event passed quickly and, in no time, it was over. I took out my £5 pound note to give to Andrew, but he said they no longer charge for these wine and cheese Death Chats.
As I was leaving St. Christopher’s, I passed a large room near reception where a Christmas concert was being performed and enjoyed by the hospice residents and their relatives.
Then, as I walked back to my AirBnB, I reflected on being at peace and I thought about how I am most at peace when I am grateful. And, at the end of this especially existentially rich evening, I was truly thankful.