If Not Us, Who Are the Death Educators?

Most people avoid death conversations like the plague. When I have the opportunity, I try to stir up conversations around the topic of death, dying and grief. I know most people prefer to talk about lighter things, but I find it fascinating how often people will engage in the topic if given a chance. I’m certain that many of you do as well.

For me, it’s quite easy to start these conversations, because I just wait for people to ask me what I do. I’m a grief counselor and a thanatologist. As soon as they hear my occupation, people ask me “What’s a thanatologist?” “It’s a person who is interested in and studies death, dying and bereavement,” I continue looking for that perplexed expression on their face.

Now you would think that this would be a conversation stopper, but it isn’t. Because the next leading question that I like to ask is, “So, have you experienced death in your family recently?” Chances are they have. They are most likely dealing with either a family member who has terminal illness, a parent with dementia, or friend who has died recently. And because they know that I am a counselor, they seem to trust me. And the conversation begins.

I recently flew home from an educational symposium on Depression and Grief. A taxi driver picked me up to take me to the airport. A few minutes into the drive, he said, “Were you here on a holiday or on business?”

“On business,” I replied. And then he asked me the question I love to hear, “So what do you do?” (Got him!)

You know what’s next – “I’m a grief counselor and a thanatologist.”

“What’s a thanatologist?” he asked.

“It’s a person who is interested in and studies death, dying and bereavement.” He looked at me a little oddly. So I continued, “Do you have some experience with grief?” I asked. What a conversation ensued! In 15 minutes, I learned this about him:

  • His sister died from suicide.
  • His father went into a mental institution following his sister’s death
  • His mother died when he was 14 years old
  • He ended up living with an abusive uncle
  • He left the uncle’s at age 16 to live with his grandma
  • He never married and he lives alone

Each of these experiences spawned further interesting conversation with questions like: “Tell me more about that. What was it like for you as child? How did you manage? Did that influence you?” For a moment, while I was in his taxi, I became a death educator. The most important part of that conversation is that we had a conversation about death, dying and grief.

We got to the airport and as I was getting out, he said, “You are a good counselor.” I smiled, about to pay him and get out of the taxi, but he continued to share more thoughts on the topic. As we were talking, the dispatch came over his radio with another pick-up and he nonchalantly turned down the volume, not wanting to answer the call – so I listened for another ten minutes. Then I left.

The underlying challenge I keep hearing about in the world of palliative care is the importance of educating people and having the conversations that lead us to talk more deeply about death, dying and bereavement.

Maybe it begins with us. We are the nearest people to this type of work. We need to take leadership and have conversations, one at a time, with our family, friends, and neighbors. It’s a lot easier to have conversations with people who are already invested in the topic, but what about those who are not?

One conversation at a time – that’s a fair start. Maybe that should be a goal for each of us as people educated in this area. It’s actually kind of fun too…in a weird kind of way.

Written by Rick Bergh, Bereavement Educator.

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