Chris Fitzgerald talks to David McKendrick and Val Howatson about how Death Cafés are being used to ready students for one of the toughest situations they’ll face in their career.
However, this is exactly how some GCU students and academics are increasing their knowledge and viewpoints in this area.
Death Cafés, as they are known – an idea established by founder Jon Underwood in 2011 – are being utilised within certain GCU programmes to enhance professional perspectives concerning death, dying and bereavement, and how personal values and beliefs can influence practice.
Underwood originally created these group-directed discussions “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their lives”, adding: “It is a discussion group rather than a grief-support or counselling session”.
And far from being a quirky sideshow here at the University, Death Cafés were highlighted as an area of good practice in GCU’s 2016 Annual Monitoring of Programme process.
David McKendrick, lecturer in social work within the School of Health and Life Sciences, is an advocate of the concept.
“I ran the first one for the BA (Hons) Social Work programme as part of the Practising Social Work Skills module,” he says. “We spent some considerable time working with the class to prepare them for it.
“Social workers deal with death and issues of mortality in their work.
“We also expect social workers to build relationships that have high levels of trust. Here, we use the Death Café as an experiential learning activity that allows students to engage in a safe, well-constructed, trusting environment that encourages the exploration of issues that may be seen as taboo by wider society.
“The module that uses the Death Café model is aimed at developing students’ skills in communication and engagement. The session consists of five stations, each with a conversation topic that relates to death. Some are personal, some more professional.
“The level of ‘share’ in the group depends a lot on the level of trust, which is developed over the time the students are together. For us, the five-day induction period in Level 1 is vital to this, as we can develop high levels of trust quickly and so increase the amount of ‘share’ we get at the Cafés.”
Val Howatson, senior lecturer in mental health on the BSc/BSc (Hons) Nursing Studies programmes, is equally effusive in her endorsement.
“I had been aware of Death Cafés for some time, mostly via Twitter and through the Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief website,” she says.
“It was through the latter that I saw a blog by an academic colleague at the University of Dundee, who had delivered Cafés within their nursing undergraduate programmes. I made contact with her to find out more. I was particularly keen to incorporate the topic of death and dying into the Values in Nursing Practice modules across years two and three of the nursing programme and felt that the format of the Death Café would be an excellent way to introduce this subject area to students.
“This is a very powerful learning experience for students and for facilitators.
“Hosting the Café provides a safe and informal setting for students to share with peers their thoughts, feelings, fears and questions about death and dying.
“The focus is not on their personal experience, but their professional nursing experience.”
Dr Alison Nimmo, Head of Academic Development, believes the Death Cafés reflect a key focus of the University’s Strategy for Learning.
“Student engagement and creating a sense of belonging for our students is paramount,” she says. “Designing the curriculum through such innovative experiential learning approaches and through creating authentic, but safe, learning environments is motivating to our students. Importantly, such programme designs are also helping to develop our students as confident new professionals.”