Teaching Death to Youth: Toward a Culture of Death Literacy
January 16, 2012
I have not posted a column here for several months. Main reason? I taught an academic college class in Death and Dying this fall. I didn’t write much, but I learned a lot about bringing death studies to the vulnerable psyche, particularly how youth relate to mortality as they embark on adult lives. It has been way interesting. I share first reflections on the adventure here.
I have offered programs on death and dying in the community for years. Showing up for a program on dying is hard. Taking up concrete details of personal death is exponentially harder. Those that show up usually are in middle age and in winter months when days are short and thoughts of death are natural. Before this class I thought twenty-year-olds had little interest in death and focused mainly on the buzz: clothes, media, the sexiest technology. I did not expect “Death and Dying” to be popular on a college campus. Yet it is. I didn’t know then how much death occupies the thoughts, imaginations and fears of the young, or how unprepared they are for encounters with it. I was surprised when my class filled to capacity at 30. When the Dean’s secretary told me that Death and Dying classes fill pretty much regardless of the number of sections they offer, I was even more surprised. What connection could there be between coming of age and questions of death?
What I learned
Since I have survived my first semester it seemed worthwhile to share what I have learned. Here are highlights:
• The image of death to people in their 20’s is of trauma and drama. The idea of a “good” death was new. I concluded that this was based:
1) on media portrayals of violent and unprocessed death and grief experiences
2) their experiences with youth suicides, overdoses, accidents, gang violence, and the occasional experience of untimely death of a parent or friend’s parent.
• Most were motivated by unresolved grief, personal confrontation with death of friend or relative, or their own life/death questions .
• This age group has a hard time holding the general idea of detachment, or differentiation, as a potential positive. One might suspect that this betrays early attachment issues.
• Students had a hard time generalizing individual human death to the “little deaths” and losses of their lives. Asked to write about large and small deaths of their experience 3 x a week, and given many examples of how they might do this, most chose to process experiences with friends and relatives who died over and over. Most never noticed the seasons changing for example.
Facing the Reaper
At the beginning of this course I gave students three choices for a final project:
1. Creative Arts Portfolio
2. Preparation work for their own dying
3. A traditional 8 – 10 page academic paper.
The thought of preparing for their own dying was a bizarre, even creepy idea to most students at the beginning. By the end of the course 26 of 29 chose to plan for their own death, completing worksheet on pre-death through after death, covering advance directives, rituals, posessions and bringing the body to its final state. Almost all students that did this project reported a reduction in their death anxiety, found it life enriching, even fun by the end. They reported that it gave them insight on what was most important to them. In this they were just like their older counterparts. Many found themselves courageously encouraging older family members to take responsibility for their deathwork as well. I couldn’t be more delighted.
The student’s projects were highly individual, creative and full of life (of course to enjoy this you had to neglect the obvious fact that we were talking of their tragic, untimely death). I observed a few more things about my young contemplatives. I offer them to the curious.
1. Felt that it did not matter at all what happened to their body after death.
2. Elected to donate all or part of their organs.
3. Chose the least expensive means of body disposal: Cremation. (No Sky Burials however)
4. Had little or no interest in funeral services or rituals except as it comforted family.
5. Gave high value to limiting family bereavement and maximizing eco-friendliness.
6. Wanted no tears. (Seemed a little unrealistic I told them, but hey, they could ask).
Finally, almost all wanted the “big party”, most with an open bar and a playlist of their favorite songs.
Issues of autonomy came up strongly. Whose funeral was it, their parents or theirs? Would they be allowed to have what they wanted (cremation for example)? Who did this body and this life belong to? Most had not yet claimed it from their families as their own. I was struck by how strongly their own “deathwork” mirrored their current “lifework” of individuation. It was empowering to take pragmatic responsibility for their own death, to assert their right to leave world and body in ways authentic for them. I was reminded that beauty exists only when dissolution and creation work together (consider natural versus plastic flowers for example). Even as they enter adulthood and craft an identity, it makes weird sense for them to have a conversation with their demise. To a person, each student found something surprising and took a large step toward adulthood.
I warned that the course was an initiation. “Death is a life principle” I had told them early in the term. “You aren’t alive without it.” By the end, most had drunk the kool-aid and seemed more settled in themselves, at least no worse for wear. We ended it celebrating both their life and accomplishment.
This kind of “deathwork” is not for the squimish, but with support it seems possible to enhance young life as well as older life. I commend my first young class for wrestling with this difficult material and look forward to greeting my second in just… a week or so.
Your well wishes for their guide are most appreciated.
Jeanne Denney is a therapist and hospice worker in Rockland County, NY and the author of The Effects of Compassionate Presence on the Dying. She directs the Rockland Institute for Mind/Body Education and Kairos, an organization for helping professionals. She also teaches Death and Dying at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
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