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Milwaukee Area 'Death Cafe' Offers Frank Discussion About Difficult Topics

Marti Mikkelson
Shami Lock (left) and others talk about difficult topics at the death cafe

Talking about death and dying can be hard. But an ongoing event in West Milwaukee aims to change that.

It’s called the “death cafe.” It's been held once a month on Sundays for about a year — and the conversations are candid. 

In a basement of a community center in West Milwaukee called the Womb Room, about nine women met for a recent meeting. After grabbing refreshments, they lounge on couches and arm chairs. Some have never been to one of these sessions. So, the host and founder of the gathering, Shantell Riley, explains the premise. 

“What we like to do is have conversations with no judgment, not having people feel like something is right or wrong. It’s your feelings, those are your perceptions and we are allowing people to have a space to share that,” Riley says.

This is the third time Shami Lock has attended the death cafe. She says she’s been coping with some sad news about her sibling.

"Just two days ago, I found out that my brother has prostate cancer. He’s choosing not to fight, and he’s getting married in October. Even with his wedding plans and everything, he’s like, 'I’m not doing chemo. I’m not taking medicine,' "Lock says.

"What we like to do is have conversations with no judgment, not having people feel like something is right or wrong," says Shantell Riley.

She says it’s been hard to cope with the news – and with the reaction from some family members who want her brother to accept treatment.

“Everybody in the family is like what? I think it’s very courageous that he decided to do that and he should be supported. But I don’t want to waste time trying to get the family to support him. I just want to support him," she says.

Another person at this month’s discussion is Octavia Manuel-Wright, a nurse practitioner. She says her cousin is in the end stages of cancer and it’s hard to find the words to comfort him.

“I don’t even want to talk to him because how do you talk to somebody who’s going to die, like what do you say? Do you say, 'How are you doing today?' 'I’m dying, so I’m OK.' So, I text him and I just text 'I love you' and 'I’m sending you money,' " Wright explains.

Wright says it’s hard to keep her emotions in check when she’s around her cousin. Another woman, Jen Vargas, offers advice:

Wright: “I don’t want to make him cry.” Vargas: “Why not? Why are you thinking that tears are so awful? Tears aren’t necessarily bad.”Wright: “I don’t want to make him feel bad.” Vargas: “Tell him you love him so much that it brings you to tears.”

The women say they’re grateful for this group. Star Twaddle, who’s pregnant, says it’s helped her get through some difficult days.

“I also lost a child last year and had a fetal demise with this pregnancy. I was originally pregnant with twins so, this is helping me process that better. And I lost my brother last year. So, this group has sort of helped me cope and process things better than I did last year. It was really rough there for a while,” says Twaddle.

Registered nurse Shantell Riley says she started the monthly gathering because she wants to help others cope with loss – and feel comfortable talking about death. Riley says she’s dealing with loss herself.

“I ended up losing my son that was murdered in 2016. It was a process of losing a lot, and that breakdown and then rebuilding and having something that makes sure your son didn’t die and not have a purpose or have something come out of that,” she says.

Riley says the death cafe is modeled on other gatherings held around the world. She says there are more than 7,500. Riley would like to expand the meeting to assisted living facilities and community groups or organizations.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.