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Morbid fascination? Interest in "Death and Dying" class strong

4/8/2002
April 8, 2002

Austin Peay, like most campuses, is permeated with youthful energy and a sense of life at its most intense. During the midmorning change of classes, the air seems to hum with it.

Which makes it all the more interesting that one of the University's most popular course offerings centers on death.

Enrollment in the course "Death, Dying, and Bereavement" maxed out in spring semester, and attendance in the class has been consistently high.

Taught by Dr. Jean Lewis of the psychology department, "Death, Dying and Bereavement" looks at the global issues of death as well as highly personal ones: American attitudes toward death, near-death experiences, suicide, caring for the dying and rituals surrounding death in various cultures.

Registration for the course actually began last fall, which raises the question of whether the surge in interest might be related to Sept. 11. Lewis can only speculate.

"It might have made people more interested in the subject," she says. "Or it might have kept people from signing up." Their feelings of loss may simply have been too fresh, she adds.

Not that the tone of the class is somber. Far from it, she adds. "We've had some quiet moments, but we've also laughed."

Lewis created the course for one reason: need. "This type of course is critical for health care professionals as well as others. With AIDS touching more lives, the increasing violence in schools, terrorist actions, and so on, we all need to understand death and the process of grieving."

Open to students on any level, the course has a wide range of participants: psych majors, graduate students in counseling or gerontology, pre-med students and people who simply have an interest in the issue.

Some sections of the course deal with straightforward questions: What are we likely to die of? (Heart disease or cancer.) Where are we likely to die? (In the hospital, though most would prefer to die at home.) When are most likely to die? (In winter. January seems to be a particularly "deadly" month.) Who is most likely to commit suicide? (Males over 65.)

Other sections address social and psychological issues: Do we have a "right" to die? Are near-death experiences a glimpse at life after death, or a physiological response to a physical crisis? Is death a wall, or a door?

The questions prompt interesting discussions among students as well as new insights-and it emphasizes the need for acceptance in the caregiver. "If the person who's dying believes in life after death, you work with that," Lewis says. "If they don't, you don't try to convince them. You meet them where they are."

The American culture and, particularly, American medicine, tend to look at death as a failure. But "Death and Dying" asks students to consider that by learning to accept and successfully cope with loss, we can live life more fully.

"If you talk to people who are dying, they say that in many ways they've never been so alive," Lewis says. "They appreciate sunsets. Starry nights. People.

"Life," she adds, "is the art of relinquishing."