(If you are not religious or are atheist, please do not be dissuaded from reading this article by the title:)
We just had a member of our congregation die relatively unexpectedly. He was in his early 50s and a father of 6. (That’s a big equation.)
My religious job is to teach our youth (teenager) Sunday School class, when I am not working in the ER or traveling to lecture. So, in this regard, today was like most other Sundays- I had gotten up early to prepare my lesson for the day. The problem was, the lesson wasn’t relevant for the day…meaning the death of this man was on everyone’s mind, and two of his children were in my class.
I spent most of the morning wrestling with whether to teach the lesson as planned or to toss it out to talk about what would be the elephant in the room.
I chose the latter.
Instead of me standing at the front of the room in front of rows of chairs, I rearranged the room into a circle of seats. The kids all came in and I leaned back in my chair and stretched out my legs. I was a little nervous. In contrast to my “Death Café” and “Ok to Die” lectures, this audience had no idea what they were in for…and this was a very fresh and raw topic. Plus, I had no idea how this was going to go over.
Shortly after the opening prayer and some social chat I announced that I was throwing out my planned lesson and instead we were going to talk about what was on everyone’s mind…A few of the kids appeared to hold their breaths.
“Today, we are going to talk about death and dying,” I paused only briefly, “Now, I am not going to scare you, but we are just going to talk about this out in the open in a very relaxed way. It’s OK to talk about the end of life.”
I continued, “Now I am going to ask you a few very dumb questions…”
By now I had everyone’s attention. I could see their thoughts by the expressions on their faces, “How are we going talk about a taboo topic such as death so casually AND have the teacher start off by asking “dumb” questions?”
I pushed on. “Ok, raise your hand if you have ever had a friend who died?” 50% raised their hands.
“Raise your hand if you have ever had a family member who died?” We all raised our hands.
“Raise your hand if you have ever known anyone who has died?” No hand was down.
“Raise your hand if you have ever died?” A bunch of hands went up and everyone laughed…
Finally, I said, “Raise your hand if you are not going to die?” A couple of the same jokesters raised their hands and again there was laughter in the room and the kids looked around at each other smiling. The thoughts that were radiating from their faces were, “OK, we might be able to get through this.” (Including the children of our deceased friend).
I began to relax. Hurdle number one overcome, being able to speak of death publically, and no one had left the room yet.
Encouraged, I pressed on, “So now I want to take some time for us to discuss any experience that we have had with the death of someone we’ve known.” And I followed this with excusing the bereaved children from the verbal conversation if they didn’t want to speak, they could simply listen if they wished. My goal of course was to let them know that they are not alone in their experience.
As the teacher, I started with my own experience- the death of a college boyfriend who was killed while drinking and driving. I didn’t hold back. I told them everything from the fear, to the pain, to the confusion, even regrets and guilt. And finally, I told them about the peace that settled in after years.
Then, we just went around the room. Some had very little to share other than, “My grandmother died.” While others talked in more detail about dead loved ones and a few even wept. I verbally applauded them for being open, “See this is an experience we all share and sometimes we feel great and strong feelings for years to come. Death changes us forever. Sometimes it makes us strive to become better people in our daily lives when we see for ourselves that life is finite and it ends.”
Goal number two reached: normalizing the universal experience of death and allowing people to describe it aloud, publically.
Next, I asked another question; “What kinds of things do we feel when someone dies?”
One of the grieving children spoke up first, “Shock. Sadness. Disbelief.”
A cacophony of voices offered other feelings: “Fear!”, “Anger” “Denial” “Numbness” “Hurt”…. (Yes, I know, I’ve got a very smart Sunday School Class!)
“Yes, yes, yes,” I said to them all. “These are all normal reactions.” I went on to tell them a few stories from the ER of how people react when I “announce death”. I have had people grab me and pull me to the floor with them, or attempt to strike me in anger. I have had people say, “No this is not happening and literally walk out of the hospital.” I have had people bargain with me, “No, please doctor try again! Do something else! I will do anything!” I have had people react with everything from guilt (“This is my fault!”) to relief (“I’m glad she isn’t suffering anymore.”). Of course, sometimes people respond with guilt about their sense of relief.
I ended this portion by saying, “Long after everyone else in the room has stopped talking about (this person’s death) and started talking about cars and new iPhones, our friends here (the children of the deceased) will still be feeling these feelings and dealing with healing. We need to remember this and be here for them.”
3rd goal attained: Affirming the range and time of grief responses- and needed support
Time was running out, so I decided to end the class with one of my favorite challenges: “Imagine that you have only 24 hours to live. What are the most important things you could do?”
This got their imaginations revved up and laughter returned to the room… answers ranged from “Skydiving” to “Calling up a famous rock band and asking to play with them” to “Telling my family I love them” to “Texting people to forgive me.” I was impressed.
The bell rang.
This was the right lesson for today.
Some of the main goals of religion are to give support and guidance as we grapple with the big questions of life and the sure knowledge of death. Religious or not, we all need to find better ways to speak about and support conversations about death, dying and the end of life…for all of our sakes.
|Our Book: It's OK to Die|
"It's OK to Die" is a ground-breaking book filled with graphic stories straight out of the Emergency Room illustrating how most Americans are completely unprepared for death and dying. In response, the authors have created a unique and comprehensive guide urging EVERYONE to prepare in advance, to assure their own peace and to prevent the suffering of their loved ones.