Tuesday, June 26, 2007


My blogger pal Joel asked in a post comment about the course in Death & Dying that I used to teach. I started to just fire off an e-mail to answer his questions, but decided I'd go ahead and post my reply about it here.

Thanantology is the study of death and dying. About a dozen years ago I taught a course in Death and Dying for a couple terms at a community college in Michigan. Then I taught it again as a special topics seminar at my old Alma mater, Western Michigan University. I did quite a bit of research in preparation for the course. I volunteered with hospice. I got to know a homicide detective pretty well. I went out with a coroner's assistant to the scene of a deceased man to investigate cause and legally declare the person dead. I hung out in funeral homes a lot. I researched cross-cultural traditions related to death. I attended workshops and read A LOT of books.

In my class we talked about all sorts of things - from violent death to pet death to SIDS. We discussed the businesses that profit from death. We had speaker panels - a man who had lost his partner to HIV/AIDS, a woman whose teen aged daughter had been killed by a drunk driver, a guy whose dad had committed suicide.

My students all had to write their own obituaries and plan whatever form of body disposal & service they wanted. We had field trips to cemeteries and funeral homes. We talked a lot about how death adds meaning to life.

But no matter how much research I may have done, no matter how many books on the subject I read - nothing really prepares your heart for letting go of those we love.

When I was in my early 20's my parents both died. Although divorced for over five years and completely out of contact with each other they died the very same week. My mother was 53. My father was 55. Both deaths were sudden and completely unexpected.

In 2000 my stepdaughter, Stacy, died of cancer. She was 25. That wound still stings my soul in ways I can scarcely name.

Some years before that my beloved sister-in-law, Donna, also died of cancer. That loss was savage business that robbed every one who ever knew her of a very special spirit.

I worked for a while doing HIV/AIDS intervention work, and through that job got to know several people who were in their final stages of life.

Then a couple years ago I lost four different people dear to me over a six month span. With that cluster of grief I learned something that all the study in the world could never teach.

Dealing with death is different from just about every other experience in that it doesn't get better or easier with practice. If I throw a ball or play a flute or cut stained glass long enough, over time I get better at it. I build skill sets that create a level of proficiency in place of early bumbling attempts or mediocrity. Do a deed over and over and over again long enough and you WILL get better. But it doesn't work that way with letting go of those we love.

My experience has been that grief piggy backs. When I have a new loss, it triggers many of the old emotions from former letting go episodes to come tumbling out again, so that I end up confronting stacks of sorrow, piles of pain. Each new repose serves as a reminder of what I've not entirely resolved in the earlier losses. Also, knowing lots about the dynamics of grief, even being called a "trained expert" by some, in no way gets me off the hook from my own breaking heart.

Right now both of my older brothers' wives are facing the approaching deaths of their mothers. While I don't know those women well I DO know and care deeply for my sisters-in-law whose lives are reeling from the events that are unfolding. Also a co-worker of mine just lost her son, and is at this time feeling utterly desolate over that. In my church family there are people who are seriously ill whose lives may be short. Compound that with the fact that nearly every week we hear of losses of soldiers in far away lands...it all piles up to taunt me with how pervasive death is in this fallen mortal world.

Because of my religious faith I truly do believe in a life after death and I am confidant that the next phase of our eternal progression will be an amazing, wonderful thing. Still, I kick against death - recoil from its approach among those I know and love.

Yet I recognize that LIFE is terminal. Ain't none of us gettin' out of here alive. We are all dying from the moment we first take breath. It's just that some people get some warning in the form of a diabolical diagnosis and a message from doctors to put affairs in order while others, like my parents, meet death like a thief in the night.

Life is precious to us primarily BECAUSE we know it is a limited commodity. If I've learned anything from the precious time I've spent among those who were terminally ill it is to respect life every moment that we have of it, drink it in deep, appreciate it and say what we really mean. Life is too short for posing, hypocrisy, unkindness or lies.

Also I've learned that there never was a hearse with a U-haul trailer full of stuff attached. In the end, the shiny things just get passed on or sold in a tag sale.

Death is one of the great mysteries. No matter how strong my faith in the here after, there is no way to really KNOW what death will bring until it's actually my turn. As I get closer with each passing year to the age my parents were when they crossed over, I've thought quite a bit about what life and death mean to me.

Mostly I want to live my life with as much passion, compassion, and humor as I can muster, hoping to build some integrity along the way. Whenever my time does come, I want to leave behind lots of people who knew they were very well loved, and hopefully be remembered with more laughter than tears.

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