Teaching Death to Youth: Toward a Culture of Death Literacy

January 16, 2012

byJeanne Denney

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.

Most students:

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.

If you are interested in subscribing to this blog, contributing to the Kairos Network or participating in a process of “Planning on Dying” contact jeannedenney@gmail.com. You can also just hit the subscription icon above.


20 Responses to “Teaching Death to Youth: Toward a Culture of Death Literacy”

  1. Mark Brady said

    This seems pretty indicative of something …” Many found themselves courageously encouraging older family members to take responsibility for their deathwork as well. I couldn’t be more delighted.” Especially the “delighted” part! 😉

  2. Jaimie said

    Healthy project – and interesting to read… As facing death tends to wake us up to what life offers us, what better time than young adulthood!

    I’m wondering, did any of your students express fear of their own process of dying? Did any associate the prospect of their physical death with loss of their consciousness? If so, did any mention struggling with, and/or fearing, this? And did any express any sense of the continuation of consciousness in any way?

    • Hi Jaimie,

      Thanks for your comment. It was a large group so of course there was all of what you mention above. Walking through the fears with support seemed to give some kind of courage and solace even when there was not any certainty about afterlife. Of course some did have this, even most I would say. We did cover the issue of continuation of consciousness looking at NDE’s, different culture’s take on afterlife as well as psychadelics and spirituality through death. Enough hopefully to fuel a lifetime of exploration.


      • Jaimie said

        😉 I’m delighted to hear this, Jeanne… I warmly appreciate how fortunate your students are that you were there to offer them such a nourishing opportunity.

  3. Martha Denney said

    Well described, Jeanne. I find their desire to have a party that looks like the parties they go to now interesting- more of a wake atmosphere. I am sure this is learning that will follow them throughout life in some form! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Heike Bill said

    That is so refreshing Jeanne! Thank you for doing this work as in my eyes it does not only nurture love for one’s own life as well as the lives of others but to appreciate age, change, the flow of life, the up and down of emotions, the coming and going of people or other beings, being a parent, being a child. At least it opens the door to all this.

    On another layer, there are other things which may come along, empathy, a better understanding, appreciation of honesty and of deeper emotions and relationships. (which might lead to a more responsible attitude towards our planet, nature, other beings…) – to another feeling of connectedness and thus interdependence..
    Maybe I am overdoing this. But for me this (and more) is the potential of your work. What a chance for all of you!

    • Hi Heike,

      Thanks for your comment and support. I couldn’t agree with you more about the impacts of this education on many larger things. Death avoidance may be THE big distortion behind so many others. Though people think it strange that I am passionate about it, this is exactly why.

      Thanks again.


  5. els said

    Hi Jeanne
    What a wonderful course. I used to teach a course entitled ‘care of the dying and their relatives’ to nurses. As part of that I asked students to engage with their own death – if it felt right I guided them through a visualisation (something I experienced myself with Jean Sayre Adams). I found that often the engagement with death and dying helps to remove the fear. Invariably it was a wonderful course to teach that gave me as much as (I hope) it gave the students.

    • Thank you Els. Yes, I have most often had that experience with teaching death, which to me just proves that it is truly a part of the life force. If it weren’t, why would we feel somehow healthier and better at the end of doing it? Hope to hear from you sometime again. By the way, this blog is for caregivers and their experiences. If you would ever like to share yours in a short article or story I would welcome it here. Just drop me a line at my email address.

      All the best.


  6. I have found in my personal life, and as a Hospice volunteer, that it is the Older Generation that has this fear, and denial, of death.
    My adult grandchildren are much more accepting that death is part of life. Unless of course they still believe that they are immortal…..
    Thank you for teaching the Young Ones the truth!

  7. I am extremely moved by this piece. I am not sure why – only that, like the cello music in this cafe, which is resonating, today, to some deep melody inside of me, your words have also met me there.

    I am 54, with parents in their eighties and, lately, I’ve been thinking about dying every day. Tomorrow, I will drive to Long Island to attend the funeral of my friend’s mother – one of the moms who helped raise me. At the same time, with two college age children, 21 and 23, currently home for the winter break.

    This perspective – of sitting between the bursting open of my children’s lives and the closing chords of the lives of my parents… is humbling, confusing, deep.

    I would like to work on a death plan, I think. I would like to bring this work to my students. Thank you for bringing it, today, to me.

    • So good to have your voice here Amy. You know me, I am supportive of almost anyone who wants to explore these waters when they are ready. The word planning is kind of a joke really (like we can really do that?) but we can plan on dying someday and prepare I guess. And keep remembering…

      Thanks for being in here.


  8. Bella said

    This piece is such a breath of fresh air. I am fortunate to be a part of a family where the topic of “death” has always been (relatively) openly discussed. Starting at a young age, I’ve sat at the bedside of several relatives as they’ve died. I’ve often thought of myself as a sort of “midwife” to this process. I am currently a middle-aged daughter of an elderly mother who is not at all physically healthy, but is still full of life, opinions, dignity. She is open to talking about her own death and making a death plan. I am doing my best to navigate all of this (and feel quite comfortable with her) but it is hard to share this experience with my larger community, as it is so uncomfortable for so many.

  9. A very unique article that really touched me! I love those kind of courses! As long as we believe we r going to die, then planing death is totally logical as well as planing life!

  10. LorraineS said

    Thank you for sharing your and your students’ experience Jeanne.

    I am particularly interested in yr comment abt this age group having difficulty seeing detachment/differentiation as potentially positive and the possible connection with early attachment issues. I have recently been reading a collection of essays on several philosophers’ view on authenticity and was struck by Hegel’s (I think) assertion that an inauthentic life is a desperate flight from the awareness of our own mortality. Do you have more to say on the question of attachment issues as the basis for this ongoing difficulty, or could you refer me to others who do?

    Our western society seems to offer all of us so much that is inauthentic and insubstantial and I applaud you for bringing something so valuable as conscious awareness to young people.

    • Hi Lorraine,

      There is a lot to be said about this. Do you know the work of Ernst Becker (Denial of Death) and the mortality salience people? Says a lot about how denial of death may work in our psyche and politics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortality_salience

      As to attachment..attachment research (in psychology) seems to indicate that secure attachment begets greater ease with detachment or differentiation, or recovery from. Disrupted attachment experiences often produce less resilience in separation from our love objects or indifference. If you know the “strange situation” videos of Ainsworth you can see some of how this might evolve.

      Thanks for your comment.

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