In the United States, death isn’t comfortable.
We don’t like talking about it, and we certainly don’t want to experience it. Making plans for what will happen after we or our loved ones die is often the last thing on our minds. But when one of us inevitably crosses over, this pressure to keep quiet leaves survivors alone in their grief.
Cory Bolkan, associate professor at Washington State University Vancouver, and Raven Weaver, assistant professor at WSU Pullman, seek to change that norm. Their course, Human Development 360: Death and Dying, gives students the tools to form a healthy relationship with death.
“When students come into this class, the perception is that it’s going to be really morbid and sad and depressing,” Bolkan says. “But the more we talk openly about death, the more it helps us lead productive and intentional lives.”
With topics like terminal illness, suicide, burial practices, and cross-cultural norms around death, the course is particularly relevant to students in criminal justice, social work, psychology, and medical fields, but Bolkan and Weaver say the course is useful for everyone.
“If you work with people, you’re going to work with people who experience loss and grief,” Bolkan says. “Having an outlet to study what loss means and how to manage those feelings will help you be a better employee and human service worker, but it’ll also have a personal benefit.”
The first page of the syllabus lists WSU counseling resources, keeping students mindful of the course’s heavy subject.
“We check in and see how students are doing and grappling with their material throughout the semester and via their weekly reflection assignments,” Weaver says. “I’m really intentional about monitoring students’ assignments and reaching out because of the sensitive topic.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic, feelings of loss are higher than before. Students reported higher feelings of anxiety about death in the last three semesters compared to students who took the course between 2012–2016, according to Bolkan and Weaver.
“We have this grief pandemic, and there’s no timeline for how long that’ll last or when that’ll end,” Weaver says.
Though it is typical for programs focusing on human development to discuss death and dying, Bolkan and Weaver say many institutions aren’t teaching the subject.
“Maybe they just don’t have someone who feels comfortable teaching it, but this attitude of death denial is reflected in the lack of course offerings,” Bolkan says. “A good portion of medical students and social workers say they don’t feel sufficiently trained on it.”
“Some students say after starting the course, it feels like there was a world of knowledge being kept from them,” Weaver adds.
Only a third of adults over the age of 18 have a plan for their care during a medical crisis, Weaver says. While life expectancy has increased and people are less likely to die unexpectedly now than in past decades, having this conversation can help facilitate a more productive experience of grief when the time comes.
Resources like the Death Café in Pullman and Vancouver and the international organization Death Over Dinner provide a good starting point for those interested in tackling the topic, Weaver says. She also recommends conversation starter games like “Hello” to get comfortable talking with family and friends.
“It’s a gift you give each other to have these conversations with your loved ones,” Bolkan says.