‘Death cafe’ starts conversation about sometimes discomforting topics

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Editor’s note: This is the second article in an occasional series about Daniel Morii’s end-of-life journey, called The Dying Project. Morii and his spouse, Shari, invited Tribune-Herald reporter Jeff Hansel and photographer Hollyn Johnson to share the couple’s journey with readers as he seeks to raise awareness about focusing on quality of life despite terminal illness. Readers may themselves decide to have conversations about end-of-life wishes as the series progresses.

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Editor’s note: This is the second article in an occasional series about Daniel Morii’s end-of-life journey, called The Dying Project. Morii and his spouse, Shari, invited Tribune-Herald reporter Jeff Hansel and photographer Hollyn Johnson to share the couple’s journey with readers as he seeks to raise awareness about focusing on quality of life despite terminal illness. Readers may themselves decide to have conversations about end-of-life wishes as the series progresses.

When someone is dying, what do you want to tell that person?

Now — change the question.

You are dying.

What do you want people to tell you?

What do you want the tone to be during your final days?

A film shown during a “death cafe” recently hosted in Hilo by Daniel Morii of Hakalau asked those questions.

It’s part of Morii’s effort to spark community discussion about death and dying.

Would you want to celebrate every moment of life with joy, music and laughter while dying? Would you rather those around you offer peace, quiet and solitude? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do — but haven’t done yet?

Those conversations started Oct. 13 as chairs filled Sweet Cane Cafe, the venue for the death cafe. Morii mingled with new arrivals, offered technical advice to a crew filming the event and thought to himself about the importance of reaching out to the community during his own journey.

Morii, 64, was given a terminal prognosis of squamous cell carcinoma in July.

He invited friends, spiritual advisers, hospice workers and friends of friends to “Death Cafe — It’s All About Living!”

About 40 people attended.

If you scrunched your nose about the term death cafe, you’re not alone. Many attendees wondered aloud when they received their invitation.

“What’s a death cafe?” several said they asked.

Started in Europe, the death cafe concept has spread around the globe, and Morii’s was the first thought to be hosted on Hawaii Island. The gatherings are expressly to talk about topics related to dying.

Morii organized the death cafe in part for a film on which he’s working, but also to get community members talking about topics that, for some, can be discomforting.

A century ago, a decedent’s body would be cleansed, at home, and prepared for burial by loved ones. Family members, young and old, spent a great deal of time near the body.

This helped people, especially children, become more comfortable talking about death than folks are today, Lani Weigert told death cafe attendees. Weigert is hospice clinical relations manager for Kupu Care and Hospice Care at Hospice of Hilo.

“We are here for Daniel. We are here for life. We breathe together in one breath,” said Akiko Masuda of Wailea, blessing the death cafe’s opening. “A-lo-ha! Feel the power of breath, the power of life. Because we are human, we treasure every breath, every moment, every continuation, every hand-touch, every sharing.”

Those at the cafe with death-related experience spoke with familiarity.

“As a gay man, I experienced an awful lot of death during the early days of the AIDS crisis,” said Jeff Calley of Hawaiian Paradise Park, who also had a sibling die by suicide and a parent of heart disease.

Death’s inevitability can be easier to accept when thinking about others than about oneself.

But Georgia Bannon of Hilo, who once worked as a hospice grief counselor, tries to live joyously, knowing any day could be a person’s last of life, including her own.

“I have made it a practice to say to myself, ‘This is a good day’ — and then I eat my breakfast and go for my walk,” she said.

For Morii, who is just reaching normal retirement age for most men, a terminal diagnosis seemed to come out of nowhere.

“I had this sore throat that had been bothering me for a little while,” Morii said.

He went to the University of California, San Francisco while visiting the mainland, and “that’s when they found this massive growth in my throat.”

In July, it was confirmed as stage 4 skin cancer that had metastasized to his tonsils, tongue and lymph nodes.

“The list goes on,” Morii said. “I’m really blooming inside and, sure enough, it’s gone into my spine.”

During the death cafe, Bannon said she believes deeply in examining “the issue of our own mortality.”

Such meaningful conversations, she said, are the only way society will progress.

Bannon wants humanity to emulate the philosophy of Mother Teresa, who was declared a patron saint of the Catholic Church, that “no one — no one — should die alone.”

A veteran of the Vietnam War in the death cafe audience said he’s had “real close calls” when diabetes almost killed him.

“When you see a lot of death, it makes you stop and think,” he said. “I’m here. Just be happy that you’re here, and that we can talk together. I had two friends who died in my arms when I was overseas — and it was not fun. Live your life as positive as you can, as long as you can. You’re here. Just be happy that you’re here.”

Rebekah Bernard, Kupu Care spiritual counselor, told death cafe attendees she had her own near-death experience, “and I’ve been the companion to many deaths personally and professionally.”

Rosie Said of Wailea said she thought when she was younger that death was a release for a person’s spirit.

“As a young person, I think I romanticized death,” she told the death cafe audience. When a person dies, she celebrates the life that was lived. Even now, she said, “for me, it’s a liberation.”

Sara Bresnahan of Hilo said, “I’ve helped bring people into this plane, and I’ve helped people leave this plane. Nobody wants to have the conversation — and it’s important that we have it. It’s important that we embrace this process.”

“What Daniel is doing is, he’s bringing this out. He’s bringing this to the people of the island,” said Hospice of Hilo CEO Brenda Ho.

By the end of the evening, Morii said, he recognized his focus changed to a realization that he should be more introspective about life. Until the death cafe, he said, he was thinking outwardly — about serving others. But by the end of the evening, Morii realized his focus changed to a need to look inward.

Within each stage of the dying process, Morii is learning quality of life can remain the focus.

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“I’m trying to still do my projects and it’s just been wonderful that I’ve had the support of all my friends and the folks at Hospice,” Morii said the night of the death cafe. “I have such wonderful friends and loved ones that have been here for me.”

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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‘Death cafe’ starts conversation about sometimes discomforting topics

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    Daniel Morii gives an introduction during “Death Cafe — It’s All About Living!” in October at Sweet Cane Cafe in Hilo.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    Daniel Morii and guests hold hands during an opening prayer for “Death Cafe — It’s All About Living!” in October at Sweet Cane Cafe in Hilo.

Editor’s note: This is the second article in an occasional series about Daniel Morii’s end-of-life journey, called The Dying Project. Morii and his spouse, Shari, invited Tribune-Herald reporter Jeff Hansel and photographer Hollyn Johnson to share the couple’s journey with readers as he seeks to raise awareness about focusing on quality of life despite terminal illness. Readers may themselves decide to have conversations about end-of-life wishes as the series progresses.

When someone is dying, what do you want to tell that person?

ADVERTISING


Now — change the question.

You are dying.

What do you want people to tell you?

What do you want the tone to be during your final days?

A film shown during a “death cafe” recently hosted in Hilo by Daniel Morii of Hakalau asked those questions.

It’s part of Morii’s effort to spark community discussion about death and dying.

Would you want to celebrate every moment of life with joy, music and laughter while dying? Would you rather those around you offer peace, quiet and solitude? Is there something you’ve always wanted to do — but haven’t done yet?

Those conversations started Oct. 13 as chairs filled Sweet Cane Cafe, the venue for the death cafe. Morii mingled with new arrivals, offered technical advice to a crew filming the event and thought to himself about the importance of reaching out to the community during his own journey.

Morii, 64, was given a terminal prognosis of squamous cell carcinoma in July.

He invited friends, spiritual advisers, hospice workers and friends of friends to “Death Cafe — It’s All About Living!”

About 40 people attended.

If you scrunched your nose about the term death cafe, you’re not alone. Many attendees wondered aloud when they received their invitation.

“What’s a death cafe?” several said they asked.

Started in Europe, the death cafe concept has spread around the globe, and Morii’s was the first thought to be hosted on Hawaii Island. The gatherings are expressly to talk about topics related to dying.

Morii organized the death cafe in part for a film on which he’s working, but also to get community members talking about topics that, for some, can be discomforting.

A century ago, a decedent’s body would be cleansed, at home, and prepared for burial by loved ones. Family members, young and old, spent a great deal of time near the body.

This helped people, especially children, become more comfortable talking about death than folks are today, Lani Weigert told death cafe attendees. Weigert is hospice clinical relations manager for Kupu Care and Hospice Care at Hospice of Hilo.

“We are here for Daniel. We are here for life. We breathe together in one breath,” said Akiko Masuda of Wailea, blessing the death cafe’s opening. “A-lo-ha! Feel the power of breath, the power of life. Because we are human, we treasure every breath, every moment, every continuation, every hand-touch, every sharing.”

Those at the cafe with death-related experience spoke with familiarity.

“As a gay man, I experienced an awful lot of death during the early days of the AIDS crisis,” said Jeff Calley of Hawaiian Paradise Park, who also had a sibling die by suicide and a parent of heart disease.

Death’s inevitability can be easier to accept when thinking about others than about oneself.

But Georgia Bannon of Hilo, who once worked as a hospice grief counselor, tries to live joyously, knowing any day could be a person’s last of life, including her own.

“I have made it a practice to say to myself, ‘This is a good day’ — and then I eat my breakfast and go for my walk,” she said.

For Morii, who is just reaching normal retirement age for most men, a terminal diagnosis seemed to come out of nowhere.

“I had this sore throat that had been bothering me for a little while,” Morii said.

He went to the University of California, San Francisco while visiting the mainland, and “that’s when they found this massive growth in my throat.”

In July, it was confirmed as stage 4 skin cancer that had metastasized to his tonsils, tongue and lymph nodes.

“The list goes on,” Morii said. “I’m really blooming inside and, sure enough, it’s gone into my spine.”

During the death cafe, Bannon said she believes deeply in examining “the issue of our own mortality.”

Such meaningful conversations, she said, are the only way society will progress.

Bannon wants humanity to emulate the philosophy of Mother Teresa, who was declared a patron saint of the Catholic Church, that “no one — no one — should die alone.”

A veteran of the Vietnam War in the death cafe audience said he’s had “real close calls” when diabetes almost killed him.

“When you see a lot of death, it makes you stop and think,” he said. “I’m here. Just be happy that you’re here, and that we can talk together. I had two friends who died in my arms when I was overseas — and it was not fun. Live your life as positive as you can, as long as you can. You’re here. Just be happy that you’re here.”

Rebekah Bernard, Kupu Care spiritual counselor, told death cafe attendees she had her own near-death experience, “and I’ve been the companion to many deaths personally and professionally.”

Rosie Said of Wailea said she thought when she was younger that death was a release for a person’s spirit.

“As a young person, I think I romanticized death,” she told the death cafe audience. When a person dies, she celebrates the life that was lived. Even now, she said, “for me, it’s a liberation.”

Sara Bresnahan of Hilo said, “I’ve helped bring people into this plane, and I’ve helped people leave this plane. Nobody wants to have the conversation — and it’s important that we have it. It’s important that we embrace this process.”

“What Daniel is doing is, he’s bringing this out. He’s bringing this to the people of the island,” said Hospice of Hilo CEO Brenda Ho.

By the end of the evening, Morii said, he recognized his focus changed to a realization that he should be more introspective about life. Until the death cafe, he said, he was thinking outwardly — about serving others. But by the end of the evening, Morii realized his focus changed to a need to look inward.

Within each stage of the dying process, Morii is learning quality of life can remain the focus.

ADVERTISING


“I’m trying to still do my projects and it’s just been wonderful that I’ve had the support of all my friends and the folks at Hospice,” Morii said the night of the death cafe. “I have such wonderful friends and loved ones that have been here for me.”

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.