Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Death Education on the Horizon

One of my former interns and death studies students, Krista

I've been teaching a class on traumatic death and loss at Arizona State University for several years. When I first proposed the new course, the only death-related course on campus was one that had a gerontological focus. I actually took that course to experience it. The deaths of children weren't discussed. Even in a death course, this epidemiological microcosm remained the last taboo.

There were concerns that my course would not be well attended; that it would repel rather than attract students.  Yet, during the first offering of this class, we met and exceeded the cap of 30 students. Then, another ten enrolled. The first course of its kind would bring 47 students to the new death studies course.

Years later and registration remains the same. This Spring, I will meet between 45-50 students wanting - yearning - to learn.  We could have easily enrolled 60 or more students based on the demand, but the classroom will not accommodate that number.  In fact, I have a waiting list in my office now.

I have never experienced such enthusiasm for a topic as I  have for this course.  It's an academic course, indeed. We explore Worden and Rando and Kastenbaum and Kubler-Ross. We discuss evidence based practice relative to psychosocial care.  The course includes cultural competency, ritualization in the historical context, and both epidemiological trends and etiology.  Yet, the most meaningful part of the course includes some self-awareness exercises.  Very few students come to this course without having experience some profound loss. They come to share, to discover, to confront, and to heal. They often develop an increased understanding of their own experiences of loss that leads them to something profound. And these profundities invariably help these students become better counselors, social workers, nurses, doctors, or just human beings.  Death studies is more than a course about death. It's a course about life.

And many express to me, at the end of the semester, their gratitude, noting that the simple act of confronting death has, indeed, helped them to really live again.

And so it is. And so it is.

7 comments:

Carly said...

"They often develop an increased understanding of their own experiences of loss that leads them to something profound. And these profundities invariably help these students become better counselors, social workers, nurses, doctors, or just human beings. Death studies is more than a course about death. It's a course about life."

I so resonate with this. My doctor was worried about me. He said that surrounding myself with so much death is toxic to my body. In some parts I guess it can be. But if I have learned anything from working with so many people grieving the deaths of their children its to appreciate my life and to love my children's lives and to help them live with as much passion as possible.

I know confronting my son's death has really taught me to live for the first time in my life.

I don't know if any of what I just wrote makes sense or not.... I'm tired.

Loved what you wrote :)

xxx

Amy said...

Thank you for helping others not only to better understand the emotions of death, but the little talked about world of child/infant death. What an amazing course. Those students are lucky.

p.s. Vicktor Frankl is on my Christmas list!

Amy

janis said...

Hear, hear.

I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, "Death whispered in my ear, 'Live! For I am coming...'"

Without Death, we are incomplete.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

Carly- thank you so much.

Amy- let me know after you read Frankl.

Janis- here, here reiterated!

caitsmom said...

It's interesting. I wasn't shielded from death as a child, but now some would prefer that I not confront and talk about death since losing my daughter. Makes so sense. I'd love to study more seriously, and I'm grateful you share your knowledge in this and other forums.

Your course sounds terrific. I hope other institutions are considering revising curriculum and including this kind of course in their curricula.

Camille said...

Wish I lived near by, I would take your course.

Tzippi Moss said...

How great that you are teaching this material. I think there is a tremendous longing to confront our mortality as it's considered fairly taboo in our Western culture. I'm even finding the same thirst here in Israel, which often faces death as part of our daily news and is making headlines now. A course I begin teaching next week on similar subjects filled up almost immediately. James Dean once said "Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die today." We'd have a lot less fighting if we faced our mortality square in the face, while simultaneously exploring what's on the other side of the curtain...

http://inneralchemists.blogspot.com/

Becoming...

""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul


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