Shootings propel new look at an old objective: Preparing youth for the inevitable
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
The decades-long rise of gun-related violence in U.S. schools reached a zenith of sorts with the February shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The shooting has led to an upwelling of attention given to pre-empting further shootings.
Seemingly, it has also led to a new interest in educating students about death as a part of life.
That process will naturally fall to teachers, parents, school counselors and psychologists. But it will have been conceived and gestated by the wider community — as if the country had undergone an involuntary indoctrination and can right the balance with this willful gesture.
And why shouldn’t death be proactively prepared for? After all, it comes for everyone, including for one’s friends and loved ones; for great leaders and scholars; for everyone and anyone, all of the time.
Some death education proponents think such a program should start with elementary school children. The revered children’s publishing house, Scholastic, in a piece quoting at length a guide for teachers on how students grieve, recommends adults impart to kids four basic truths about death: 1) that it is irreversible; 2) that it means that all life functions cease (the entire body dies); 3) that everything living finally dies; and 4) that death is categorically a physical phenomenon.
The post especially encourages parents, if they find themselves attempting to comfort the young with statements about heaven or an afterlife, to insert reminders that death is final. Otherwise, children may remain confused or frightened, having bought into the idea that physical suffering may still dog the dead in heaven or an afterlife.
That the willful destruction of innocent older youths at a high school or community venue might spotlight the need to educate students and the community about death is not surprising.
The point of death education would be much like that of sex education — to prepare students to cope with something with the potential, if not managed well, to disrupt or destroy their lives, sooner or later.
Likewise, it would be important to conduct such programs while subjects are young and healthy — that is, relatively remote from their own deaths. For it is those students who have the most time to go in their lives, and will therefore benefit most from being prepared for death’s inevitable, intrusive disillusion and distress.
A leading physician specializing in intensive care has articulated just such a rationale. Not long ago, Dr. Jessica Zitter, a critical and palliative care specialist at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California, was featured in a stunning film. She was, in effect, the protagonist of an award-winning documentary produced by Netflix called "Extremis."
The film’s trailer exhibits Zitter’s daily wild ride making the rounds of intensive care units, where she faces a recurring dilemma: Almost by definition, the quality of life of a patient in intensive care has peaked.
Someone like Zitter is trained to pull out all the stops to keep a patient alive. But often she and a patient’s loved ones are immediately beset by the irony of such measures. Often, so is the patient, if he or she is lucky enough to be able, in extremis, to communicate as much.
What Zitter noticed, as she explained in a recent interview with NPR, is that modern souls, whether patients or loved ones, wait ill-prepared for the imposing issues raised by a sudden ICU experience or, by extension, by the death of a loved one or their own impending death.
This actually inspired her to go into her own children’s middle school to speak about death. She had been thinking about the issue a long time and had even taught sex education there a few years before.
As with her foray into sex education, she felt, "there was no one else to do it. I wanted to be the one to do it so that I could really do it honestly and not sort of talk about it in euphemistic ways…Why are we not talking to our children about this idea of preparing for death…I just wanted to give them a basic understanding of this phenomenon."
How did the kids respond? What were their questions?
At first they were nonplussed: What’s the big deal? What’s there to talk about? But they perked up, evidently, after Zitter gradually related that dying is often not a short, painless and passing experience.
It can happen over a protracted time period. They then started to ask questions such as, "Would I be able to live at home on that machine?" and "Who will keep me clean?" Says Zitter, "they just started asking questions that were really, honestly about living, not so much about dying."
An obvious question: Wouldn’t efforts like Zitter's be better spent on those, like the middle-aged, more likely to face end-of-life issues sooner (whether regarding their own demise or that of others)?
"I really believe that if people start to open this up and bring it into their lives at a time when it’s not really as threatening," she says, "that that is the kind of thing that I think starts to make a change in our culture."
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