Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Death Class - A True Story About Life

Title: The Death Class - A True Story About Life
Author:  Erika Hayasaki
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2014. 263 pages.

Book Source:  I read this book after reading a description of it on GoodReads.

Favorite Quote:  "Norma Bowe often said she believed there was a wonder in unleashing your story, horrible as it might be, out into the world. ... Give it voice, and you never know what kind of gift might find its way back in return."

Dr. Norma Bowe is a nurse turned college professor. She teaches at Kean University in New Jersey. Her most popular class is titled "Death in Perspective." The Kean University catalog course description reads as follows: "The past, present and future individual and societal concepts of dying, death and bereavement, death education, and exploration of related ethical issues. A field trip is required." The class has a three year waiting list.

Erika Hayasaki is an assistant professor at University of California Irvine. Before that, she spent almost a decade reporting on breaking stories for the LA Times - story such as terrorist attacks, university and school shootings, and others involving death and destruction.

She learned about Dr. Bowe's class and spent the next three years becoming a part of the class and following Dr. Bowe and the students in the class. This book is a culmination of that research.

This book is not a textbook description of the class. Rather, it is an account of the personal journeys of the author, Dr. Bowe, and some of the students in the class. As the author points out, those who sign up for this class usually do so for some specific reason - something unresolved in their lives that they need to deal with.

There is Jonathon who lost his mother to murder and his father to prison, and who is trying to hold his brother close as the only family he has left. There is Caitlin who is repeatedly told she was an unwanted child and who constantly battles to save her drug-addicted mother. There is Israel who escapes a life and possibly a violent death in the gangs. There is Carl who is serving a long prison sentence. There is Isis, who is a young teen with no one to rely on except for herself. There is Dr. Bowe herself and the reasons that bring her to teach this topic.

The class in an intensely personal journey for each of these individuals. The class includes field trips ranging from a cemetery to a local prison to a local funeral home. For each person, the trips trigger a different reaction. The class also includes introspective assignments such as:

  • If you could eliminate one disease from the planet, which would you choose and why?
  • Write your own eulogy.
  • Write a good-bye letter to someone you have lost.
  • How do the stories of who we are survive our death?

The structure of the book leads the reader through the class but through the experiences of the individuals. As the author points out, "That was why attending one of Norma's classes often felt like having a front-row seat at a one-woman monologue, interspersed with improv moments drawn from audience participation; she could build an entire lesson out of one student's personal experience. You never knew what to expect from the show or its spectators. Some days it was laughter; other days, rage or tears."

Interestingly, a book and a class with "death" in the title ends up being a testament to survival and life. "Adulthood, Norma believed, is about giving back and passing lessons on to the next generation, so that the virtues you work so hard to develop live on even after your death. Norma came to embrace the idea ..... this period .... comes down to questions such as: What is my legacy? What will I leave behind for the next generation?"

I was completely pulled into the individual stories and the application of the ideas to my own life. Fortunately, my life experiences are relatively safe and calm. However, all of us including me experience loss and can relate to those emotions and can learn to express and process those feelings in a healthy way. Maybe I will put myself on the wait list for this class. In the meantime, I will continue to think about this book for a long time to come. Maybe I will re-read it to learn more. And then maybe reread it again.

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