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Walden Magazine // Jul 09, 2014

Life Before Death

Dr. Norma Bowe explains how her Death in Perspective class has transformed the lives of her students—and why it is the focus of a new book.

Dr. Norma Bowe. Photo credit: Peter Howard

Dr. Norma Bowe
Photo credit: Peter Howard

There’s a three-year waiting list to get into Dr. Norma Bowe’s Death in Perspective course at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. That’s because Bowe, a former psychiatric nurse and a 2003 PhD in Health Services graduate, uses the taboo subject to inspire her students to rethink how they live. Bowe’s story and those of her remarkable students are now chronicled in The Death Class: A True Story About Life (Simon & Schuster, 2014) by Erika Hayasaki. Here, Bowe shares why she was compelled to create this life-altering course.

“People are afraid of death even though we’re all going to face it—whether watching a loved one die or dying ourselves. Why are we so scared? This is the question my students consider. “I stopped being
scared early on in my life. From the moment my mother knew I existed, she was trying to get rid of me. I’m here against all odds. This is going to sound crazy, but I made friends with death as a child because I really didn’t know if I would live day to day. So instead of being afraid of it, I thought, ‘If it happens today, it happens today. I can’t let myself be paralyzed with fear all the time. I just have to live today and hope I have tomorrow.’

“I thought I was going to be a pediatric nurse after I finished my master’s in health administration at New Jersey City University. But then I got a job as a psychiatric nurse and felt immediately at home. Watching people throw things and scream at each other was very familiar. My upbringing is why I’m not afraid of a lot of things that scare most people. Other people might see a schizophrenic talking to himself and feel fearful—I feel compassion. I understand that person has a terrible illness—it’s not anything they signed up for.

“I liked being a nurse, but when Kean University asked me to teach a class in mental health in 1997, I discovered I loved teaching even more. When a full-time position opened up a few years later, I applied—even though I didn’t have a PhD, and I was up against four people who did. I was offered the position with the caveat that I finish my degree in three years.

“I needed an accredited university with a flexible schedule, which is how I found Walden. When I started in 2000, I was already engaged in my community through my work as a nurse. But Walden poured Miracle-Gro on the activist in me. Every single course I took had an emphasis on social change and, more important, a way to instigate it through breadth, depth, and application, which I use in my classroom daily. I start every course by first looking at the broad perspective (breadth) before going deeper to focus on a particular problem (depth). And then the application component is key: What’s the point of learning anything if you can’t apply it?

“I had already been using this approach when I was asked to take over a class called Death in Perspective at Kean. The professor who had taught it was retiring and the class coordinator had the foresight to know a mental health background would be helpful. But when I looked at the syllabus, I knew it would be incredibly boring to continue teaching it the same way: lectures based on a dull textbook. The course was designed to look at various sociology theories of dying and end-of-life issues—issues far removed from my students’ experiences. So I decided to focus on the perspective piece instead to make the class more relatable.

“On the very first day of class, I have everyone sit in a circle. I ask each student why they chose this class. Many say, ‘I needed three credits,’ or, ‘I heard it was cool.’ They’re reticent to reveal anything. Then I do the ‘attitude inventory,’ and ask questions like, ‘How many of you have taken care of a dying person?’ and ‘How many of you have had a conversation with a dying person?’ That’s where I begin to really learn about my students.

“I ask, ‘How many of you know someone who’s died in an accident?’ Three-quarters of the class raise their hands. ‘How many of you know someone who’s attempted suicide?’ Half the class raise their hands. And, ‘How many of you know someone who’s been murdered?’ At least three-quarters of the class raise their hands for that one.

“Our campus is in Union, which is close to Newark, a city known for its high crime rate. Three-quarters of our students are the first generation in their families to go to college and many come from very rough places—they’ve lost parents or have friends or family members who have been murdered. They come in with so much grief—what’s the point of a lecture-style class when you have that much to work with?

“On that first day, we’re actually establishing a bereavement group. This is the depth piece. We’re sharing stories and witnessing one another’s grief. I always say it’s extra credit for crying—and explain there’s an enzyme in tears that is healing. Crying is a physiological process that boosts your immune system. I try to normalize it for the guys who get uncomfortable. Witnessing someone’s grief opens you up to your own grief, and it bonds people.

“I also talk about the biology of dying and what happens to the body, organ system by organ system, up until the moment the heart stops beating. Someone inevitably says, ‘I was with my mother right up until she took her last breath—I saw everything you said.’ Or, ‘I wish I had known this because I wouldn’t have been at work the day my grandma died.’

“I’ve been teaching the course for 14 years, but knew I was onto something from my very first class. I noticed immediately how much grief these young people carry around. There’s no place to talk about death—we’re expected to get over it quickly, to keep moving forward, and to be perfectly OK all the time. But people can get physically ill if they don’t process their grief. I want my class to be the place where students can start talking about death and then do their own interpersonal work around it.

“We start by writing our ‘fire’ stories, which detail the most difficult experience in our lives and how it made us who we are today. Students also write a goodbye letter to someone or something lost. We share these stories in class, which is a bonding experience.

Dr. Norma Bowe. Photo credit: Peter Howard

Photo credit: Peter Howard

“We also go on field trips—to a cemetery, a funeral home, a prison, a hospice, and a morgue. People don’t like to see death. We have a very warped idea of what it looks like. On the final field trip, students see an autopsy, usually of young people who have died either by suicide, drug overdose, alcohol poisoning, homicide, or an accident. My students learn about anatomy and physiology, but they also see how fragile life is. That’s the most profound lesson, and it leads to making better choices.

“When we go to a funeral home, the director does a lecture about everything from embalming to cremation. Then we go to the casket showroom where students can climb in one if they’d like. I had one student, Lisa, who had lost her brother suddenly. She couldn’t wrap her head around the fact he was in a casket underground. I was amazed when Lisa said, ‘I’m going in.’ She had someone take her picture and then asked me to lower the lid. When she emerged several minutes later, she looked like a totally different person. She said, ‘It’s so peaceful and quiet in there. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ Later that day, Lisa posted the picture of her in a casket on her Facebook page and wrote that she could rest a little easier about her brother’s death.

“Transformations like this happen all the time. Lindsay was a student in my class last semester. She has an inoperable brain tumor that causes seizures. Her goal is to make it to graduation. She’s got good days and bad days. One day, we were doing a movement exercise. Lindsay wasn’t feeling well, so she sat out. As we started to move, I noticed Mohammed, a big shy football player, walk across the room and carefully pick Lindsay up. He carried her to the center of the room and danced with her on his back so she could be part of the group. It was the most beautiful, simple, amazing act of compassion—it brought me to tears. We all need to be carried sometimes.

“Erika Hayasaki, an award-winning journalist, contacted me a few years ago. She was working for the Los Angeles Times and wanted to write a story about the course. I asked for samples of her work and she sent me a story she’d written about the Virginia Tech tragedy. Every other article I’d read was about the shooter, but Erika focused on the French class where the most people died that day, including the teacher. She spoke to all the survivors and the family members of those who had died, and reconstructed the classroom and the people in it. I liked her approach and invited her to take the class.

“After her story appeared on the front page of the L.A. Times, I got three book offers. I trusted Erika to write it. I wanted to include my birth story—my own fire story. I felt I owed that to my students. It connects me to everyone else in the classroom and in the book. I know it will connect to many other people who read it, which is why I hope it reaches many people.

“On the very last day of every class, every semester, my students say, ‘This class was not really about death, Dr. Bowe. This class is about life.’ That’s the absolute truth. Death is inevitable. How we live is our choice. How we plan each day, how we face ourselves and each other, those are the lessons I want to teach, and the story I want to share.”

Recommended Reading

Wish you could take Dr. Norma Bowe’s Death in Perspective course? We have the next best thing: recommended reading from the syllabus.

Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom
Albom visited his favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz, late in life and realized Schwartz was close to death. Wanting to make up for lost time, Albom visited Schwartz every Tuesday until he died and in the process learned just how precious life is. Use this as a guide to live your own life.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Bauby was 44 when he had a massive stroke that left him paralyzed. The only way he could communicate was by blinking his left eyelid. He wrote this memoir by blinking each letter with the use of an alphabet chart. This book is a rich narrative that reveals his undying zest for life.

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia
“This is particularly good for discussing death with children,” Bowe says. In it, you’ll follow a character through the seasons of his life.

A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen
“Knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gives us,” Quindlen writes, “because unless you know the clock is ticking, it is so easy to waste our days, our lives.” Use this as a guide to reflect on how to enrich your life.