Death and dying is a topic that tends to be avoided in our society but it is one of the most significant events we will ever have to face. Our lack of exposure to death has led us to become ill-equipped to deal with it. Social work students often find it difficult to engage in conversations with dying clients and their families. Prior research reports that if students do not receive support in fostering therapeutic relationships with dying clients during their education, they are less likely to be conversation ready with their clients in practice. The Death Café allows for a safe and casual context in which to explore one of the most challenging topics in social work.
Cross-sectional surveys were given to 15 BSW students in Spring 2019 enrolled in Social Work with Groups immediately following them having participated in a 60-minute, self-led small group discussion regarding death and dying while eating cake and drinking iced tea. Conversation prompts were provided but the conversation was unstructured. Most of the participants were Caucasian (79%), female (79%), students with a class ranking of junior (79%) and traditional age (79%). Fourteen surveys were returned, a 93% response rate. The four indicators of the construct for evaluating the Death Café are: effective tool, safe and casual context, new approach without sadness, and beneficial to students. The indicators were measured on a two-point scale (1=Yes, 0=No). Due to the small sample size, only descriptive statistics are presented. There was one open-ended question on the survey that asked participants to provide additional feedback on their experience with the Death Café. IRB approval was obtained by the authors home institution.
This pilot study provided an exploratory overview of the success of using the Death Café in social work. Based on the social work and Death Café literature, the findings were not all that surprising. Our results suggest that utilizing the Death Café in social work is an effective educational tool including this response from a student, “I think this is a great idea. My group had a hard time talking about death, which means these types of convo needs to happen more.” However, more analysis is needed before we can confidently make this conclusion.
The Death Café has implications for social work education in that it is a tool to open conversations to the taboo subject of death and dying. Death cafes shift the paradigm from a topic that is viewed as too gloomy to approach to one that participants enjoy engaging in and learning from different perspectives. Additionally, Death Cafés may be an experiential activity used to prepare BSW students for field placements.
This pilot study points to promising findings, but a larger sample size will allow for robust modeling of variables beyond descriptive analysis. Larger sample size will also permit for analysis by age, race, gender, and academic class ranking. By doing so, it may reveal cultural differences across age, gender, and race.