It’s 6 p.m. and a group of students from an array of programs at Ryerson gather in a brightly lit seminar room on the second floor of Eric Palin Hall. Artwork hangs on the white and teal walls. Smiling and talking, the students help themselves to an assortment of cookies, cakes and beverages. They’ve all gathered together to talk about something that has affected or will inevitably affect them: death.
Hosted by the Faculty of Community Services, this event aimed to examine three main points in relation to death — discussing personal experiences with death and dying, culturally embedded experiences and death in professional practice.
“It’s not something we’d talked a lot about in my program,” said Drew Silverthorn, a master’s of social work student who attended the event.
“Death and grieving weren’t things that were really covered in our curriculum. So I thought this was an interesting way to fill that gap.”
After students helped themselves to the light beverages and snacks, they were broken off into groups and assigned to sit at designated tables. After a brief explanation of what the death café’s purpose was, a facilitator joined each table and passed out sheets of paper that had multiple questions pertaining to death.
Some of the questions were simple: “When did you first become aware of death?” and, “Is there anything good about death?” Others were more intricate, “When have your personal and cultural experiences of death and dying come into conflict with professional context death, and what happened?”
Although the conversations started off a bit uneasy and awkward, students soon became more comfortable sharing their stories and relating to one another’s opinions and experiences. The idea of having small and intimate group discussions, versus sharing everything amongst everyone partaking in the event, seemed to be a hit with students.
“I really appreciate the facilitated small group discussions and I learned a lot about the other participants because of that set up,” said Silverthorn. “I think having these conversations before actually being out in the workforce full-time is really helpful.”
A range of issues were discussed amongst the tables, from how funerals are held within different cultures to how death is taught in their individual programs. Students also examined how death is conveyed through the media by discussing groups like “Black Lives Matter” and “Walking With Our Sisters.”
“Being a nursing student, we often deal with death in the hospital and in the community so I thought that joining this workshop would help me facilitate that into my practice,” said Kavita Patel, a third-year nursing student.
An hour of discussions quickly passed, and the evening started to wrap up. Students spent the last half hour of the event reflecting on what they learned about death and the connections they made with their peers in the short time period.
“We don’t really understand death and probably never will, but it’s nice to have discussions like this and open our perspectives and really trying to gain a better understanding of how to deal with death and the whole grieving process,” said Patel.