Once a month, people gather in a room at the Laguna Beach Community & Susi Q Center to discuss a topic that stirs a range of emotions — death.
Last year, Laguna Beach Seniors latched onto an international program called Death Cafe, which allows attendees to discuss death and related end-of-life issues in an informal setting. Attendees last year gave the program, facilitated by Andrea Deerheart, rave reviews, so Laguna Beach Seniors brought the cafe back for another year, Executive Director Nadia Babayi said.
On Monday, Deerheart, who holds a doctorate in mythology and death psychology and founded the organization HeartWay, led a group of 15, including five newcomers. HeartWay "is dedicated to reversing the culturally prevalent denial of death and encouraging a return of intimacy, reverence, and sanctity to death and dying," according to the organization's website.
"This is not a support group, not a grief group," Deerheart said. "It's a place for conversation in a safe place. It's not an advice-giving group."
The group was silent for a minute before the first person spoke. Dialogue continued, with Deerheart summing up people's comments along the way.
While each person told a different story, most speakers extolled the term "patient advocate," one who takes responsibility for his or her healthcare without giving too much power to doctors and prescription medications.
Ruthe Gluckson, 85, switched to medical marijuana as a cancer treatment six months ago after her body reacted negatively to chemotherapy. Doctors discovered tumors on Gluckson's lungs two years ago.
"I was totally incapacitated," she said, describing chemotherapy's effects. "I would stop in the middle of a sentence and had no idea what I wanted to tell you. I don't want to live like my body is reacting to me."
Gluckson said she has felt better since the switch, and has seen a shaman — a person believed by some cultures to cure the sick through magic — who provided encouragement.
"I felt good for a whole day, and a week later, for two consecutive days, I felt good," Gluckson said. "Hearing his voice, just the simple things he said, I felt so positive."
Briar said patients become confused when doctors suggest differing treatment plans.
"Two doctors may read the same paper, and one says, 'You must take this,' and another says, 'You must take that,'" Gluckson's son, Jeff Briar, said. "My dad was a doctor, and my buddies were doctors. They have their own opinions, are educated, but are absolute idiots about making conclusions."
Group members said doctors are valuable, but should be part of a patient's larger support team when facing a serious or terminal illness. Bengt Robbert, 66, had open heart surgery two years ago at Surgeons at Santa Barbara's Cottage Hospital to correct a damaged valve caused by a bacteria infection.
"I don't think doctors are evil," said Robbert, a nutrition salesman and plumber. "They are hog-tied by the [Food and Drug Administration] and big pharma."
Robbert, a surfer and traveler, said the surgery altered his perspective.
"I had always been a good guy, ethical, person who tried to do the right thing," Robbert said, "but also had another side that was self-serving. This took me to another realm of life. It made me ask, 'What is the purpose of life?'"
Deerheart, a Laguna Beach resident, said discussions about death often lead people to ask more questions, such as, "What is that place or point in life where it's not worth living anymore?' For me, it's when I become a burden on someone [such as a caregiver] to where their life starts to diminish."
Briar willingly decided to take care of his mother after his father died.
"I don't want her to feel guilty saying, 'Oh, I ruined his life,'" Briar said. "This is my gift. It's joyful for me."
The Death Cafe meets from 3:30 to 5 p.m. the last Monday of every month at the Susi Q at 380 Third St. It's free, and dessert and coffee are served.
For more information about Death Cafe and its origins, visit deathcafe.com.