Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Clawing your way through irreversible loss...

Every Spring, I experience the great privilege to teach SWU591, a graduate course in traumatic death and grief. This Spring, more than 100 students filled the room for the five-day, eight-hour long class.

This is a course that changes lives. It's changed my life nine times, one for each year I've taught it.  The students give more than they take. They open their hearts and their minds to that which most others intentionally avoid. They laugh together, weep together, question together, explore together.  It's one of the most profoundly intense and rewarding teaching experiences a professor could ever have. And I'm honored and privileged to be able to teach this class.

Here are some student comments about Death, the Great Teacher of Life:

"This class literally changed me."
"What a true gift."
"I am inspired to be better, to live better."
"Beautiful beyond belief."
"This will stay with me and make me a better person and social worker."
"I have a hunger now to continue this journey so I will always know who I am."
"Reminded me of why I got into this field: to connect and be present with others' suffering."
"...A life changing experience and I wouldn't change one exhausting moment of it!"
"Every person should learn about this. Every person on earth!"
"Helped me to realize that I have my own grief, still. Thank you."
"There aren't words for this class. I'm still speechless to describe how I feel."
"Forever changed my life."

This was a class on traumatic death. Pain. Suffering. "Beautiful beyond belief"?  Really? Yes, really.  It's the great secret about which I've spoken the past two decades:  being with death brings us to life. It's the message of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: we must talk about death, we must. These students have learned what Rollo May meant when he said that one does not become fully human painlessly and what Jung said about pain:

So, we journeyed through cavernous pain, our own and the pain of others. Pain from our professional past, pain from our deeply personal present. There were experiences outside of the classroom that left me speechless: Families reconnecting after decades, forgiveness, hearts opening, old wounds healing, remuneration overdue. There's no way I can explain this except to say - extraordinary.

For the final assignment, students have a choice between interviewing a spiritual leader and a creative arts project.  Many chose the creative arts assignments and I'd like to share some here:

Then, we partake in the end of class Death Studies Smorgasboard:

I received an email from one student, Angela Lieber, about a meditation she experienced after the class. With her permission, I share it here:

Look at the palm of your hand. Now imagine constantly holding a single grain of rice in your hand. It is so small that it would be easy for you to forget it is there, and you might not even feel its presence in your hand—but the minute you aren’t aware of it and let go to do something, the grain will fall out and be lost. Now imagine not your hand but your heart, and imagine the grain of rice is the person you love most deeply in all the world, resting in your heart so securely that you might not even feel his or her presence in your heart. Try to go a day holding that person tightly and desperately and intentionally in your heart, as a grain of rice in your palm. Do not forget, do not let go. Because at any moment that person could be lost, and you will be searching and scratching at the floor and you will not be able to find the grain of rice and you will feel the empty impression it has left in your hand more sharply than you ever felt its presence while you had the chance and you will wish you had held on longer—even a minute longer—as you continue clawing your way through its irreversible loss.

And on that final class, Sunday, in the afternoon, I drove north as the dark, dank storm clouds moved across the sky, and saw the most vibrant rainbow in the eastern sky, a perfect metaphor from nature to illuminate the beauty right there standing beside the pain:

I would see three more rainbows on my drive home that Sunday afternoon.

And for the irreversible losses and for the storm and for the rainbow, I am grateful.


Thank you to the families of Jacob, Tyler & Brandon, Braden, Zach, and Violet.
And, thank you Kara, the best PhD student ever, and thank you Roland.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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