By Jeanne Denney
This column is a rewrite of a blog I did years ago at the beginning of the Kairos Network Blog. It seemed a good time to reflect and reform the issue in the wake of current events and 10 years of learning as an educator.
I started to offer Death Education programs in public about 10 years ago. My years of Hospice work taught me that preparing for death took a lifetime. It had to start long before the final weeks. I called my first program “Planning on Dying”. I hoped to help people contemplate mortality and claim a role in their own dying process. I called another program for somatic practitioners “The Core of Dying”, and later taught college Death and Dying classes. These classes were different, but each were strong medicine that changed lives before my eyes. Eventually, as my work took me deeper, I facilitated programs on Life exploration in a program called “The Art of Dying” and “Integrative Thanatology” and presented at conferences and training institutes.
Over the years, as I have asked for friends, family and enlightened souls for feedback on what I am doing, I will often hear responses like these. ”Do you have to use the words ‘death’ or ‘dying’ in your title? Can’t you just say ‘end of life’, ‘passing on’, ‘crossing over’?” ”Can’t you talk about life, not death?” ”Can’t you somehow be more reassuring in your title?” “Can you bring in sex?” “Can you make it entertaining?” I hear that there is something off-putting about the ‘D’ words that will instantly drive people away in droves if I use them, much like a leaf-blower on an autumn driveway. Death doesn’t sell. Every marketer knows this.
I have been stunned at the consistency of these remarks over the years, the creativity of the euphemisms for death, and the truth of the resistance the ‘D’ words bring about. Obviously I didn’t take this advice. I say it. And then I wrestle with the question: Why is Death so hard to say? Or perhaps more accurately, so hard to hear?
Of course now I have many more answers to that question than I did in my first years of Death Ed. I know that we Americans deny the facts and the processes in our life and culture and this denial is a silent and solemn pact between us. As a result, when death comes, is most often experienced as a foreign and traumatic event. It is rarely a simple and beautiful processes to be supported, celebrated and enjoyed, no less than a first birthday or a graduation. The ICU and organ harvesting has not made this process any friendlier.
I now know the psychological research which shows how existentially anxious we are as a species in our time, and how this unconscious fear animates much human behavior. I know that this fact has been linked to racial and religious hatred and human violence. Death, in other words, is the big elephant in the room of our human psyche. I know we protect our psyches from things that seem too large.
I also see that we generally make two faulty correlations:
1) Death, pain and trauma are the same thing. This is probably because death CAN include trauma and pain, because there has been a lot of traumatic death in history and perhaps because Hollywood and the internet makes a lot of money obsessively re-creating these now fairly atypical deaths.
2) Life and death are opposites. This pervasive assumption is seen in the way that these two words are commonly paired as opposites: “Life and Death”, “Life OR Death”, ”End of life” (for death), etc. We sometimes correct ourselves at bedsides or wakes by remembering a deeper truth: “Death is part of life”. Indeed. But we might ask how death can be a part of life and also its opposite.
But here is the most important thing I have learned about teaching death in these years. Even though speaking directly of death can evoke fear, denial, resistance and hostility, learning about death heals the very wounds our fear emanate from. Time and again, class after class I have seen that real death education opens hearts, fosters unusually deep bonds between unlikely friends and offers relief for existential distress. What is most feared seems to be the deepest, and safest, medicine on the planet, especially in a time of epidemic loneliness and existential anxiety. And so I teach using the “D” word, challenging folks to come forward for a much needed renewal of life. Because death is not, after all, the opposite of life any more than rain is the opposite of water. It is one of life’s most essential healing processes. Life, as far as I can see, is a constantly pulsing, expanding and contracting energy which has no opposite.
Maybe Death does not sell. That is…. until its teachings are so necessary that we can’t look away. In this moment of our great, collective, existential spasm, I offer this column so that our relationship with death may be healed and its teachings received. I bring up the ‘D’ words so that they can be restored to a place of dignity, and associated with words like lightness, ease, delight, and joy. Pain may be involved with death, but also even ecstasy and transformation. I write and teach that we can see death in its true and necessary place in the dance of life, and how deeply we each need its teaching. Now. More than ever.
May our study begin.