Terminally ill, retired social worker hosting weekly discussions on loss at cafe

Dennis Van Hook has been given about 12 months left to live.

He was diagnosed with cancer two years ago and at the time, it wasn’t terminal.

But after chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer returned.

Van Hook spent his career as a licensed clinical social worker and with the time he has left, he wants to do something good.

Dennis Van Hook

Dennis Van Hook. Courtesy photo.

So for the foreseeable future, Van Hook will be at Electric City Coffee from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays beginning Feb. 18, talking about loss, death and dying, “things that have become taboo,” he said. They’ll meet in the back of the cafe, by the bookshelves, he said.

His plan is to just have conversations with anyone who chooses to join him and it’s modeled after the Death Cafe movement that began in 2011 in London and since spread across the globe.

“Throughout our life, we have lots of issues of loss,” Van Hook said. “That’s how we learn to deal with disappointment in life. I’ve always believed how you deal with that lifetime of loss issues, that’s going to train you to deal with the biggest loss issue in the end.”

He’s been a longtime customer at Electric City Cafe and become friends with owner Thad Reiste who said Van Hook is “driving the bus, he’s doing it his way,” in facing death.

Reiste said he recently read an article about dying cafes in France and the government’s effort to save them because of the significant role they play as social spaces.

“So what better space to talk about this than a coffee shop,” Reiste said of the effort to talk about difficult subjects and connect with people in a significant way.

Van Hook said he intends to focus primarily on issues of loss rather than death specifically.

Loss could be the loss of a pet, a job, a marriage, a loved one or anything that causes a feeling of loss.

“I want to do this because I’m not through teaching yet,” he said. After 30 years of teaching at Park University at Malmstrom Air Force Base, he said, “I’ve got things I still want to share.”

Van Hook also worked at Benefis and the Sletten Cancer Institute.

He’ll be working with Jenna Anderson, who has a masters in health promotion. They met about a year ago when he was working as a counselor on base and she came to see him.

They became friends, which is unusual for counselors and clients, he said, but when he quit his job about a month ago they decided to write a book together, from his perspective, but also from hers of becoming friends with a person who is terminally ill.

It’s a bit like Tuesdays with Morrie, they said.

With her health background, she said there’s importance to self care and understanding emotions, versus running from it.

“I tried running for a long time and it didn’t work,” she said.

They’ve become good friends, but it’s a vulnerable space, she said, to become friends with someone “who has maybe a year. I’m choosing not to run from that friendship even though I know this loss is coming. It’s a unique friendship. We’re teaching each other a lot with this time that we’ve had. What is the loss if I didn’t develop this friendship. It’s a loss either way. You have to go full force into life or you miss out on so much.”