I am so grateful to be alive. Yet, recently, my contemplations about enjoying the present have been influenced by a newfound interest in learning more about others' views on death and dying. I was inspired by an article on The Guardian about Pieter Hintjiens and his blog, Protocol For Dying. Hintjiens, a Belgian software developer based in Brussels and father of two, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer last month. He has since been preparing for his death.
In its radical earnestness, Protocol is heart-wrenching and conciliatory. Hintjiens details the sudden diagnosis as if his reader was a close friend: A cough in February, his father's death in March, an E.R. visit and cancer diagnosis by mid-April. He considers euthanasia. He makes himself dispensable at work. Most of all, he reveals how he's processing his impending death: "Be honest and transparent with others," he tells himself. "It takes time to grieve and it is far easier to process [a] death when you can talk about it with [the dying]. There is no shame in dying, it is not a failure." He encourages friends and readers to add comments and farewells, referring to the blog as a living archive for his children to peruse long after he is gone. "I'd really like a single place where my kids can come and read what other people say about their dad," he writes.
Hintjiens illuminates the benefits of educating ourselves about death, especially when we are healthy. "I know we're supposed to be super afraid of death. But [death's] good, isn't it?" says Professor Laura King, of the University of Missouri. "[Isn't immortality the plot of] every vampire story or sci-fi movie? [After a while], life no longer has any meaning, because it's commonplace." We could all benefit from learning the many dimensions of death and dying. Educational resources could include medical descriptions of what it is like to die and how to manage the psychological impact of knowing we are dying. We would gain a sense of the social implications of death: how to talk to the dying, how to talk about the dead, and how to process the deaths of everyone from family members to lovers to coworkers to passersby.
Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts, houses the National Center for Death Education, with online courses and certificates on Thanatology (described as the 'field of death, dying, and grief') that are open to the public. Other proponents of death education recommend starting with children in elementary school. Scholastic, the children's publishing house, recommends that, "To fully grieve, and come to terms with a death," children must know four basic truths: that death is irreversible, that all parts of a human die at once, that everything dies, and that death is "caused by physical reasons." They especially encourage parents to accompany comforting conversations about heaven or the afterlife with reminders of the finality of death as these may confuse or frighten children, preoccupying them with "the physical suffering of the deceased."
Supplementing secular knowledge with an understanding of the cultural and theological interpretations of death may provide a sense of ownership to the experience. From the acceptance of death in Zen Buddhism to notions of Heaven in Christianity, learning how each culture grapples with death helps us come to terms with living.
In a 1978 death education course designed by Professor Edwin Stefan at the Church of God-affiliated Findlay University, a post-course survey revealed that half of his students felt more comfortable about their death. More than a third felt more comfortable with the deaths of others. Students also reported feeling more comfortable talking about forgiveness, and listed improved coping with anxiety. Though this population may have already been open to learning about death -- they were taking a class on it, after all -- perhaps Hintjien, King, and Stefan are onto something. Death education may enhance our appreciation of the every day until the moment comes that we are gone.