THE SEMESTER IS ALMOST OVER and I am in the midst of grading psychology exams. “I don’t want to deal with this. I do not want to talk about death!” This answer to the essay question in the last Human Growth and Development exam grabs my attention. The question—“What do you want for your funeral, memorial service or last goodbye?”—is simple enough, but obviously isn’t going over well with this young nursing student. I smile at her candor, admiring her courage to speak her truth, and possibly lose some credit in the process. She’s young, just out of high school. I’ve noticed that younger students tend to avoid the question or parrot what they have grown up with. Death, after all, seems far, far down the road. Mature students give it a go. They are more candid with their traditional and nontraditional beliefs and afterlife hopes. They may want their ashes strewn over the mountains or their loved ones to dance at their memorial. It’s a wild mix of creative last hurrahs and tenderness.
Occasionally, near the end of the semester, we have a class discussion in which students share their thoughts and experiences on death and dying. I tread these waters cautiously, not particularly wanting to kick up religious fervor or secret grief. I want to know where my fellow travelers are with this topic, so I plum my small corner of the culture—community college students. Sometimes nothing happens. No one is in the mood and the discussion dies on the vine. Other times, the clouds open. Pain, fear and dogma arise. Some admit to sweat-laced terror. “I have faith. I’m a Christian, but I’m terrified,” admits one woman in her early 40s, showing her trembling hands for all to see.
We are winding down the fast-paced summer session. The classroom is finally cooling in the early evening. She sits with three other women friends at the back of the room. Two nod their heads in agreement, too uncomfortable to speak. The fourth one declares, “No, not me. I’m calm. I’m not afraid. I have things I want to accomplish first, like raising my children, but I’m good to go.”
The room is hushed as each, in his or her own way, peers into the face of death with someone else’s hand to hold. “Since my grandfather died, I’m not afraid anymore,” says a young mother, holding her two-year-old on her lap. “I just feel a lot of peace now.” Then things get rolling. Another 20-something courageously mentions reincarnation. She is comforted knowing that not only will she reconnect with her deceased father when she passes over, but they will get to have another life together. The sharing becomes more genuine. Eyes open, ears perk up.
Suddenly a dose of religion is thrown in as a youthful college athlete declares that if everyone knew Jesus as their savior, all that fear would be gone because they would have reassurance of eternal life. A Bible passage is quoted for good measure. People begin to squirm again, this time in reaction to the “preaching,” not the subject matter. I listen, guiding our ship through these potentially choppy waters as the class winds to a close. The students have dropped the bored-student look. Some are genuinely invigorated. It’s been a good hour of thought-provoking interchange, as far as I’m concerned. Personally, I can empathize with that gut-gripping fear. I’ve known it intimately. And in my youth, I must confess to quoting a few Bible verses. I also know the ease of the student who found comfort in a deeper sense of the afterlife and rebirth.
My psychology class reminds me of my family. Old school meets new thought. Once again, a wide spectrum of fears, calm, absolutes and indifference presents itself. To be honest, many of my students seem more identified with my father's conservative Christianity than my ever-changing system of thought. But they are searching. Recently I asked them to participate in a small death/dying survey. One question asked, “What do you feel would be helpful in assisting us as a culture to become more informed (less avoidant) on the subject of death and afterlife possibilities?” I was pleasantly surprised when a number of them listed education as a key component. They wanted exposure to new ideas and research. They were cautiously ready to expand their minds, their consciousness.
If, in my corner of the world, people want to get more educated and see the dying-well topic as viable outside the perimeter of church and synagogue, then let’s proceed. For it’s likely, people in all corners are discovering a need for more understanding.
To do this, we may need to re-examine our mental closets a bit and update our departure wardrobe. Let’s start with the basic attitude styles we might find.
Basic Blinders Style
Horses sometimes wear bridles with small leather shields or blinders on the outer sides of their eyes to limit their peripheral vision. This makes them less likely to shy at sudden movements around them, thereby enabling the carriage driver or rider to remain in control of his or her steed. When we say someone “has blinders on,” we mean he or she can’t see what is going on—and probably doesn’t really want to. This is similar to “putting your head in the sand,” a myth of ostrich behavior. Ostriches were rumored to play this trick on themselves when suddenly frightened, providing a brief reprieve from fear.
My daughter, Gwendolyn, told me the story of a golden retriever she knew with similar propensities. Hobbs would be let out into his fenced backyard to play, which he dearly loved to do. Then, alas, it would be time to come in. His owners would stand on the back porch and call for him to return to the house. Hobbs, not being at all ready to go inside, would run to a certain tree and hide his head behind the trunk, holding very still. The calls continued while Hobbs held motionless. Although the rest of his body was plainly visible from the back porch, to Hobbs’ way of thinking, if he couldn’t see them—voila!—they couldn’t see him and he wouldn’t have to surrender to the inevitable. When we chuckle at Hobbs’ magical thinking, we can also smile at our own.
Simple, funny, illogical avoidance. The core belief in this way of thinking is, “If I don’t see it then it will go away and I don’t have to deal with it!” It’s the great illusion of escape from that which makes us frightened, uncomfortable or just isn’t any fun. We have this attitude for all types of feelings and difficulties. At some time in our lives we have all put on blinders when it comes to death.
When we are in Basic Blinders Style thinking, we might say things like:
• Don’t know. Don’t care!
• I’m not dying. I’m fine. So why talk about it?
• In fact, I’m not going to die—ever!
• Yuck, who wants to think about dying? How morbid!
• That scares the bejeebers out of me! No way am I talking about dying!
• Not now. Maybe when I’m old…
• I don’t want to talk about it, okay?
You get the drift. You don’t need to be a young nursing student taking a Human Growth and Development exam to realize how firmly anchored death-denial blinders can be.