Teaching Death and Dying

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Kenneth Adams, Jacksonville State University

I often begin my classes on death and dying — which are attended by upper-level sociology, social work, and nursing majors — by asking the students how they would like to die.  There is unanimity.  Like the rest of us, they all want to die in their sleep, a variation on an old Woody Allen joke:  “I’m not afraid of dying.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  Defensiveness is pervasive.

Next I ask the students to imagine what death would look like if death were a person.  I tell them to draw a picture of death and then describe what they have drawn.  Although the images they draw are varied, five metaphors are discernable.

The first, and one of the least common images, is death as an Automaton — a dispassionate killing machine.  This sort of death seems cold, heartless.  It is an anonymous, asexual, death by android — a “terminator” sans the malice.

The second, and also an infrequent image of mortality, is death as the Gay Deceiver, a jovial person who attracts through physical and social magnetism.  Urbane, witty, wearing a fedora, carrying a cane and calling card, a frequenter of expensive establishments, an intelligent and sophisticated gentleman — this manifestation of death is polite, courteous and deadly.  This is Ted Bundy in real life; James Mason in Heaven Can Wait; Robert Redford as Mr. Death on the “Twilight Zone;” and Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black — each an engaging, enticing sophisticate come to claim his victim.

The third, easily the most benevolent conception, is that of the Gentle Comforter.  Generally, this image is manifest as the Angel of Death — a beautiful blonde with wings and halo who will usher the deceased out of this life and into an unearthly existence.  She is feminine, kind, and gentle; or, alternatively, the meek and mild Jesus waits with a loving heart and open arms to receive and succor the dying.  Death is beautiful, peaceful, pure, soft, loving, warm, caring, saintly, wise, compassionate, and welcome.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is the fourth image.  The Macabre is a horrific image of macho death as fiendishly cruel, merciless, grotesque, and diabolical.  In this personification, death is fantasized as evil incarnate, a ferocious death monster, such as the Devil, a hideous skeleton or bloodsucking vampire, or even a real person, such as Hitler.  Macabre death is hideous and bloodthirsty, with agonizing pain and suffering as key components of the image.  It is cold, black evil that is vulgar, haunting, harsh, merciless, and mocking.  In this nightmare incarnation, death is the Grim Reaper, an equal opportunity destroyer, whose scythe cuts down all, whoever they may be.

Finally, there is the view of death as Janus, the keeper of the doorway, a being looking in two directions simultaneously.  In this ambivalent metaphor, the oxymoronic quality of death, its contradictory nature, is dominant.  Death is viewed through bifocal lenses as a wall and/or door, a devil and/or angel, Heaven and/or Hell, good and/or evil, comfort and/or torment, a friend and/or foe, beautiful and/or horrifying, the end and/or beginning, loss and/or gain.  Such ambivalent imagery pervades virtually every metaphor that my students concoct.

In Alabama during a typical day in college, students — like so many everywhere — want to avoid death.  They want to evade the reality captured in one of my student’s drawings: a grotesque Uncle Sam-death monster, finger pointing toward the viewer, saying, “I want you — for my very best friend!”  They see death as horrific and comforting, and they hope for Heaven, while seeking to avoid Hell.  They yearn for the good death, a peaceful end to an earthly life and eternal happiness.  They are young and, in the words of Fame, “gonna live forever!”  They try to avoid the bad death — the hell of pain and suffering, and in avoiding their own personal awareness of this reality principle, they inevitably avoid knowing about the horrors of the ethnic cleansings and genocides that are in the newspapers and the history books.  The Nanking Massacre in China, the Holocaust, Cambodia, and Rwanda — the bad death is the horrific reality so common in history, so easy to push out of consciousness in our uneasiness with our own mortality.

My students want to function in terms of the pleasure principle.  They want what they want when they want it — an “A” without effort, a death without loss.  They want to continue to row their boats “gently down the stream,” blissfully unaware, believing that “life is but a dream.”  They do not want to embrace all the negatives that death entails.

However, as one of my teachers, Philip E. Slater, wrote, “Teaching is an erotic irritant” whose function it is to break through the basic defensive postures of group life, and further rationality and consciousness.  In important ways that is at least part of what a class in death and dying is about.  It is also what I try to accomplish in my class.

Bertrand Russell once observed, “Many people would rather die than think.  In fact, they do.”  Part of my job in class is to get students to reverse that scenario, and to feel, and feeling involves pain where death is involved.  Stalin may have put things brutally, but his message was similar: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

To fathom the emotional reality of contemporary life, my students and I must face our own mortality.  We must grapple with its pain and significance to have even a hope of unraveling the realities of Nanking, Dachau, or nuclear war, and insure that those who have passed away are more than just statistics.

Toward that end, we talk, share, and try to defuse anxiety.  I utilize my own experiences with death.  I tell the students about my fears at night when my ego defenses are permeable.  I talk about my friends who have died and my feelings of loss.  I describe putting my dog to sleep.  Mostly, however, I discuss the deaths of my parents.

My mother died while I was a grad student at Brandeis.  In 1972, 10 years after a bout with lung cancer, she was stricken with pancreatic cancer.  I made it home to see her before her death, but was not there when she died.  She had seemed stable on my first night home, and so, since my wife and I had a six-week-old son, I chose to stay with them during the night instead of being with my mother.  She died that night, and I have always felt guilty about that decision.  I felt I should have been there, and I determined that I would never feel that sort of pain again.

Twenty-two years later, in 1994, my father was dying of colon cancer, and I was teaching Death and Dying.  After my classes, four or five times a week, I made the 45-minute drive over to spend some time with him.  He had entered a hospice program and was reasonably comfortable until the last week of his life.  I had never seen my father behave so magnificently.  In young adulthood, he had a blazing temper and could be tyrannical.  oedipal issues were a family trademark.  Yet, in his seventies, dying of cancer, he was a genuine hero — a strong, loving man, meeting death with equanimity.  He died in my arms, and I was there because I had not been there for my mother.  I use these experiences with my parents as cautionary tales for my students.  “Take care of unfinished business,” I tell them, “while there is time.  Get your priorities in order.”

Studying death and dying is a Janus-like endeavor.  On the one hand, death is natural, the boundary of life.  To appreciate how miraculous our existence is, we must focus on what it is not.  Mozart’s advice is exemplary: “Death is the key that unlocks the door to our true happiness.”  On the other hand, such a perspective may lead to Pollyannaism and the derogation of human suffering as merely the prerequisite to beatitude.  Death can be unspeakably brutal, as evidenced by the gruesome pictures from the Nanking Massacre and the Holocaust.  An emotional appreciation of the agony endured while dying is a prerequisite for humanity.  Finding a means of helping students in Alabama become less anxious about their own deaths, while developing an awareness and sympathy for the anguish of anonymous others, is no more, nor less, than the goal of thanatology.  It is why I teach my classes the way that I do.

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