I blinked as I saw the course title presented on my class schedule for the first time: thanatology.
The study of dying and death.
I am a social worker, specializing in geriatrics. I have seen death. I have supported older adults through the final stages of their lives, and I have received the calls about their passing. I have sat hand-in-hand with children and spouses, grandchildren, and friends as they grieve. I have seen the depth and range of their emotions and heard the questions they ask such as, “Is this right? Is this how I am supposed to feel?”
But despite these experiences, I felt ill-prepared to step into teaching this subject. Like most, perhaps, I began my preparations logically:
Part One: Legislation and legal documents
Part Two: Practical skills when supporting dying people
Part Three: Definitions and review of grief and bereavement
This is how my brain functions; I see a problem, and I make it logical and structured.
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Those who have far more experience than I will know why I saw this. Teaching thanatology cannot be reduced down to a set of practical steps. The class is as much about course content as it is a safe space for students to hear and process topics that they have never confronted before.
As with many Canadian colleges, our student body is culturally diverse and composed of people from a range of different countries and cultures. Some speak of death with great confidence while others fear that death will be invited when announced. Some worked fiercely through the COVID-19 pandemic and are in the throws of ongoing grief. Others have not yet faced dying or death. All, though, shuffle in their seats when I enter the room and announce the purpose of our course.
My logical itinerary was quickly thrown out.
Instead, I introduced a Death Café, a concept pioneered by Jon Underwood, based on the teachings of Bernard Crettaz. Students gather together once per week, sitting in small clusters, and they talk about death openly and without agenda. Over the first few weeks, the air feels heavy with anxiety, and room is filled with nervous laughter—nonverbally communicating, “can you believe she is making us do this???!”
Over time, the space settles. Students become accustomed to the ritual. They enter the space, find their groups, and open up about death. They discuss their cultural norms and rituals. They discuss their losses. They discuss their hopes for a good death, and they tease as each of them dreams of a pain-free end (with their full capacities, of course). I scan the room and witness tears, smiles, hugs, connection.
Teaching thanatology includes these logical pieces, checked neatly off over the term. But it also includes normalizing an event that each of us will face (but none of us wishes to state). It includes building comfort in the discomfort, remaining calm through big expressions, and honouring all reactions and responses to death. It encourages students to practice uttering these words: “dying” and “death.” It combats the stigma associated with death, and it promotes personhood in end-of-life care.
Overall, I hope that the course allows students to feel confident in sitting bedside with dying people, in normalizing these experiences, and in saying, “I am here with you, and I am comfortable being with you, and you are not alone.”
Kimberly Schlegel, MSW RSW, is a social worker and a professor at Fanshawe College. She is a death doula candidate through HHA, and runs an Instagram account for dementia care @beam.dementiacommunity