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A Life-and-Death Experience: 3 Positive Writing Prompts on Dying

Professor Patrick Ashwood, PhD, challenges sociology students’ perspectives on death by helping them explore history, culture, and their own assumptions.

Educator

Patrick Ashwood, PhD

Professor Emeritus of Social Sciences, Hawkeye Community College, Waterloo, Iowa

PhD in Urban Studies; MA in History (concentrations: Urban Studies, Geography, and Sociology); BA in History, with minors in French and English; Certification in Thanatology—Death and Dying Education and Counseling

For college students just striking out on their own, death is likely the last thing on their minds. But for 27 years, Patrick Ashwood, PhD, has led a unique course called Death and Dying to teach them how to look it in the face.

While few such courses exist, Ashwood notes that his approach likely differs from those that do. Having studied history, sociology, psychology, and thanatology (the science of death and loss), he has designed a curriculum to enhance and even strengthen students’ sense of well-being, resilience, and appreciation of the here and now.

Challenge

Death and dying are complex and uncomfortable subjects

Death and dying are perplexing yet inevitable aspects of human life. No matter how much we use traditions, ceremonies, and academic study to unravel its complexities, the subject remains a mystery, especially to young people. “My students are amazingly open,” says Ashwood. “But many of them have had no experience with death whatsoever.”

Innovation

Put death in perspective by reflecting on life

Ashwood believes in helping students explore how their perceptions about death and dying have been shaped by history, culture, and modern-day practices, some of which have only recently emerged (e.g., green funerals, palliative care, and music therapy). He also has them consider their own lives, values, and assumptions through a trio of “planning papers” that focus their thinking and can change the trajectory of their lives.

Context

“With students who are 18 to 20 years old, the [idea of death and dying] is in the future. A lot of them don’t know what they’re majoring in or what they’re going to do next. So you’re pushing them to think forward. It’s a death and dying class, but it’s also about life.”

— Patrick Ashwood, PhD

Course: SOC 135 Death and Dying

Course description: This course provides a basic background on historical and contemporary perspectives on death and dying. Attention is given to current American practices regarding death, as well as cross-cultural interpretation. Emphasis is also placed on the special situation of the terminally ill and bereaved.

See resources shared by Patrick Ashwood, PhD

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Lesson: 3 writing exercises for examining death (and life)

Ashwood kicks off his Death and Dying class by asking his students to write about their personal experiences with death, as well as their views of the afterlife. Next, he introduces the classic textbook The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying, by Lynne Ann DeSpelder and Albert Lee Strickland. Ashwood treats his curriculum almost like a study of Western civilization, using the book as a blueprint to explore the many changing historical perceptions, practices, and developments that have surrounded the subject of death over the centuries.

Ashwood then explores contemporary practices and traditions, such as how end-of-life care and funerals have recently evolved. He also delves deeply into the subject of grief, noting that modern views of the grieving process are much more varied and specific than they were five decades ago. He covers coping mechanisms (such as artistic commemoration), therapies (ranging from exercise to counseling), and dealing with trauma-associated grief. Ashwood also explores topics that can be difficult to understand, such as “death humor,” which, he explains, has historically served as a mysterious but necessary coping mechanism both for those facing their own deaths and those who are left behind.

Ashwood’s Advanced Training in Thanatology

Dr. Patrick Ashwood earned his Certification in Thanatology (CT) from the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) more than a decade ago (and he also taught certification courses to other thanatology professionals). Earning this credential is not easy: Before taking the ADEC CT exam, a person must produce documentation of education—bachelor’s degree plus two or more years in a master’s or doctoral program—plus verification of experience at approved facilities and letters of recommendation.

Finally, to place his students in a state of serious (but positive) contemplation of their own inevitable death, Ashwood punctuates the semester with three writing projects designed to shake up students’ assumptions about how the future might play out.

1. Write your own obituary

As a way to get his students thinking about how their lives might turn out, Ashwood first assigns them the job of writing their obituary—not as it would be today but as they hope it may read in future. This paper makes them rethink their possible life trajectory.

Though an obituary, by definition, is an official statement about death, Ashwood views it as a chronicle of life—and one that makes students face up to pungent realities they may not have considered before. Once they have written a paragraph about their career-to-be, for example, students soon realize that it is unrealistic to assume that they will have the same job for 40 years. “And I tell them you can’t just ‘travel’ when you retire, either. That isn’t what people do,” he says. “I’m trying to get them to think about what their life is going to be like.”

To make the most of the assignment, Ashwood encourages students to write widely and deeply about their future lives and not to settle for the kinds of short, pointed obituaries that appear in newspapers. “It’s a little autobiography, and you can have fun with it,” he says.

2. Reflect on personal losses

To investigate their current perceptions on death and dying, Ashwood has his students take an introspective view. They must provide a written account of personal losses they have suffered and offer up memories of their earliest experiences with them. Then, to help them break apart old assumptions, he requests a summary at the end of the paper that allows them to examine how their perspectives of death and dying have changed throughout their lives.

Though Ashwood grades his students on their insightfulness and honesty, he recognizes some students have little to no experience with death; he allows these students to forgo the writing assignment and instead answer questions based on specific reading assignments.

In other cases, individual students have had numerous life tragedies that the paper assignment unearths in painfully emotional ways. Ashwood carefully steers these students to campus mental health professionals, if he believes that is warranted.

3. Put end-of-life plans on paper

Ashwood asks his students to write a paper that helps them think about how they might like to organize their exit and how they wish to be celebrated when the end comes.

Using a worksheet with a preset format, Ashwood has students consider end-of-life logistics such as hospice care, bereavement leave, physician-assisted suicide, and other variables attending the modern death experience. This exercise allows him an extra opportunity to explain these planning steps in greater depth and detail.

He also has them focus on modern-day practices for how they wish their bodies to be disposed of. Cremation, alkaline dissolution of remains, and “green” burials are, Ashwood notes, new options that are often embraced as a way to skirt the high cost of funeral services.

“There’s a little consumerism and environmentalism in there. Who’s going to pay the funeral costs? And in Iowa, we’re the happiest state—we love to spend money on funerals!” he jokes.

Outcomes

Because of the delicate nature of his course, Ashwood takes care to seek out regular feedback about it, including asking students to submit opinions (or qualms) on small notecards after class. He is also careful to answer any questions at the beginning of each class. He says a number of graduates have told him they remember and appreciate his careful shepherding of their emotions during the course.

In fact, a number of former students have carried on in the field: Some have continued their education in mortuary science or passed the ADEC CT exam and written relevant books, taught, or become therapists. He has also helped a few professors set up death and dying courses at their own colleges.

One former student remains connected with Ashwood through social media. She is currently exchanging regular messages with him as her husband deals with debilitating cancer.

Ashwood recalls her saying only recently, “Doc, this reminds me of class.”

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