Bellingham's Death Café: Talking at heaven's door

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 6, 2014 

Death Cafe

Heidi Ruth, left, chats with Sandy Stork, right, about their local chapter of Death Cafe, Tuesday, April 1 2014 at Ruth's house in Bellingham. The Death Cafe group meets monthly to discuss death and dying.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Heidi Ruth and Sandy Stork agree that people live better lives when they're comfortable talking about death.

Both women have helped organize a local affiliate of Death Café so residents can discuss the topic that affects everyone sooner or later, from the details of end-of-life planning to coping with grief to discussions about the soul.

At the meetings, people talk over coffee and cookies about all matters related to death and dying. Such gatherings began in Europe and spread to other countries, including the United States, which has more than 400 affiliates, including the one in Bellingham.

"Changing the way you think about death transforms the life you're living," Stork said.

Admission to the monthly meetings is free. The sessions are nondenominational, with no guest speakers and no sales pitches for death-related products or services.

The Bellingham gatherings began in August 2013, with three to four dozen people showing up each month. After a brief welcome and overview, people break into small groups to discuss topics and share stories. People are free to switch groups during the meeting.

"We have no agenda," Ruth said. "We have conversations."

The meetings are not, however, intended to provide therapy or group support for people in the midst of grieving. Those people can be referred to counselors or support groups for help.

Most participants are local, but some people travel from lower B.C. and the Seattle area to attend. Most are women 55 or older.

"The whole idea is for people to share from the heart," said Stork, who lives near Deming.

Stork was a mental health counselor in the Seattle area before she moved to Whatcom County in the late '90s. She has worked with the elderly and with people who care for those with Alzheimer's disease.

Her husband died five years ago while in intensive care - "It was not a good death," she said - so when she heard a program on National Public Radio about Death Café, she knew she wanted to explore the idea of starting a local group.

"It just clicked," she said.

Ruth lived in Bellingham during the '70s while a student at Western Washington University. She returned nearly two years ago after teaching applied linguistics at the University of Washington. She also taught in Asia and Africa, where she watched other cultures deal with death.

Ruth now facilitates home funerals and helps dying people and their families in her role as a death midwife through her business, The Road Home.

While a group of people talking about death and dying certainly includes sober discussion, there's also plenty of lighter moments and laughter.

"It's the delightful surprise of this," Stork said.

COMING UP

- Whatcom Death Café meets at 6:30 p.m. April 22 at The Center for Spiritual Living, 2224 Yew Street Road. Details: Sandy Stork, 360-592-5065 or sandystock@gmail.com, or see deathandcoffee.com.

- Trudy James, a hospital chaplain and community facilitator in Seattle, will lead a confidential grief retreat in Bellingham for women from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. April 26 and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 27. Cost: $150, with sliding scale and scholarship help available. Call 206-985-0400 or email tjheartwork3@gmail.com.

- "The Art of Death" exhibit will be held Oct. 10-11 at The Majestic, 1027 N. Forest St. A reception for the artists will be Oct. 10, with $15 suggested donation. The exhibit will be open to the public Oct. 11, with performers and information tables.

Organizer Ashley Benem of Bellingham said artists are eager to participate.

"A lot of their pieces were inspired by losses in their lives," she said.

Film showings, workshops and author readings about death and dying are planned in conjunction with the exhibit. Details: 360-927-5040 or ashleybenem@gmail.com.

- Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement will present free workshops this month on end-of-life care and advance care planning;

April 9: Spring Creek Retirement & Assisted Living, 223 E. Bakerview Road, 1:30 to 3 p.m.

April 17 and April 22: St. Luke's Health Education Center, 3333 Squalicum Parkway, 4 to 5:30 p.m.

Details: 360-788-6594, whatcomalliance.org

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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