Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The Potter’s House in Adams Morgan smells of chai and books. On a cold January Monday, its front room is half-full and silent, save for an anonymous coffee house soundtrack. It’s quaint. It’s unassuming. It’s not the place you’d expect to find 30 strangers ready to talk about death and grief at the latest D.C. Death Cafe

In the District, a city confronting a rising homicide rate and declining access to mental health care, a looming election year can overshadow the realities of grief. But each Death Cafe, hosted bi-monthly at Potter’s House, attracts 20 or more strangers, and reflects a growing interest in openly discussing these realities in all their forms.

“Humans experience grief throughout our life,” says Nicole Heidbreder, the cafe’s host. “Grief over lost childhoods, grief over the dream not working out, and now grief over mass shootings and the trauma of seeing our country’s leadership lack strength and power.” 

Since 2017, Heidbreder, a birth doula turned hospice nurse and self-professed “angel of death,” has hosted 10 Death Cafes in the District. The salon-style series originated in London, and expanded to cities across the globe. The cafes never include a religious agenda, sales pitch, or teaching moment. Just conversation. 

On this particular night, the room is a hodgepodge of faces, some older or younger, some darker or lighter. Attendees have traveled from every ward and parts of Maryland. One man is new to D.C., having just arrived from Spain. For two hours, everyone discusses the insecurities, regrets, and curiosities they have about one of life’s biggest taboos. 

“One thing I’ve noticed is that because it is a room of strangers there’s an emotional distance that allows people to share in a way they might not if they were with friends,” Heidbreder says.

Heidbreder brought the Death Cafe to the Potter’s House as part of her larger “death work” that includes a death meditation series, her podcast The Magical Deathcast, and a “Death Over Dinner” potluck series she hopes to expand to include as many diners as her home allows. 

“America does not think of grief as work,” Heidbreder explains. “There’s no conversation about it as a physical thing, about how to deal with it and discharge it.” 

Heidbreder first recognized D.C.’s difficulty dealing with death in 2012 while pursuing her nursing degree at Georgetown University. While performing her clinical rotations in the emergency room of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, she found that patients with chronic, sometimes terminal, diseases didn’t have access to end-of-life care or counseling, and often came to the ER sick and desperate.

One patient begged Heidbreder to convince doctors to administer a treatment sure to poison her rather than accept her own death. The woman became hysterical when Heidbreder refused.

“She was scratching and clawing at me and saying I was killing her,” Heidbreder remembers. “There’s only so much of that a human can take. My definition of death wouldn’t allow it.”

Heidbreder’s definition of death insists that harm-reduction, compassion, and dignity must run parallel to medical procedure. This holistic approach was first formed in a workshop in New York City’s West Village. Then a graduate student at New York University, Heidbreder was working in event production—she was a regular at afterparties that included Alicia Keys, Aretha Franklin, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed—when she came across a flyer for a weekend retreat on death and dying. 

The workshop was taught by Roshi Joan Halifax, a Buddhist teacher and leader in end-of-life care. Heidbreder, then 23, spent a weekend confronting her own death through meditation. Engaged in empathic conversation with experts in end-of-life care, she was also able to purge the grief stored in her body, including the loss of several high school friends in her hometown of Quincy, Illinois. 

“I grew up in a ‘corn field town.’ There was no talking about [death],” Heidbreder says. 

As a teenager unsupported in her loss, she was haunted by questions about life, death, and grief. Those questions continued to circulate after her work with Halifax, and remained in the back of her mind when, disillusioned by her rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, Heidbreder sold or gave away most of her possessions and left New York City to look for personal meaning and life’s purpose in work that supported other women.  

Heidbreder eventually found herself in Indonesia, assisting an American expat and midwife, Ibu Robin Lim, with local births in the province of Aceh, one of the regions most impacted by the  2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. During the first birth Heidbreder attended, a woman who lost 22 family members in the tsunami delivered a near-death baby. While Lim worked to resuscitate the baby, Heidbreder discovered the woman was having twins and helped deliver a second, surprise child. 

While that experience inspired Heidbreder to train as a birth doula, she never forgot that “there’s always a little bit of death in birth, like two snakes chasing each other’s tails.”

Annelies Winborne, an attorney, grappled with the cyclical nature of life and death after losing five pregnancies in three years. 

“When I lost my babies I didn’t have much public or community acknowledgement because we just don’t do that when women lose babies before they’re born,” Winborne remembers. “You’re really expected to keep it private.”

Winborne, a friend of Heidbreder, joined the attendees at the Potter’s House and shared her story to support Heidbreder’s effort to inspire openness to grief. 

“Grief is an opening to so many things, but especially to love,” Winborne says. “[Heidbreder] was with me on my journey to understanding that.” 

Since transitioning from birth work to hospice care, Heidbreder has found many people who want to grieve openly. The Death Cafes provide individuals with a public forum to do so that’s free from what Cafe attendees call the “suffering Olympics,” instances where grief is judged and sympathy is doled out accordingly. 

To foster this equanimity, Heidbreder cracks jokes when appropriate, is comfortable around tears, and provides expert insight on cremation, assisted suicide law, and resources for hospice care and coping with grief. She also allows conversation topics to grow from attendees’ collective intelligence and guides them in expressing themselves. 

Participants freely admit to feeling frustration and guilt—one woman is upset her sister insists she have a gravesite and another woman is hesitant to admit she thinks her mentally ill sibling may be happier in death than in life—without fear of reprisal. 

“We are meant to hold each other as we grapple with the deep and complex feelings of human life without having to understand them,” Heidbreder explains. “The medicine of grief is witnessing someone come undone and being able to stand firmly and loyally by their side.” 

Heidbreder considers it an inspiration and a privilege to stand by so many strangers in their grief. Even with the loss of her own father fresh in her heart, Heidbreder insists that grief must be confronted and shared, or society will always hurt. 

“Grief is a verb,” she says. “You have to write about it, you have to beat pillows, you have to go on walks, you have to talk about it, and, hopefully, there’s a process that happens so we’re a conduit of grief, not a container of it.”