Where does death sit in your field of vision?
Putting death directly into our central focus area can be panic-inducing. But pushing death into our blindspot allows us to take too much for granted.
“We sort of coast through life not appreciating the breaths that we breathe, not appreciating the sun on our shoulders, not appreciating the taste of the orange in our mouth,” says Dr. DeAnn Kalich, professor of sociology. “We just take so much for granted and go on autopilot — we’re not really living a fully engaged life.”
Dr. Kalich, who also serves as the Department Head of Sociology, Anthropology, & Child and Family Studies, invites her Sociology 480 students to allow death into their peripheral vision as they learn about confronting and surviving death and loss.
“When we have it out there in the periphery, it sharpens our focus on living in this moment,” Dr. Kalich says. “It’s really about life and living as fully as possible in the present moment so we don’t have regret. That is the worst thing about death — the if-onlies and what-ifs.”
Dr. Kalich took the death and dying class herself as an undergraduate at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and says she was drawn then to the idea of teaching the course. In 1998, she had the opportunity and has been teaching it ever since.
“The way I approach the death and dying class is a social psychological approach. We look at death and dying and bereavement in a social context in the modern Western world and cross-culturally, as well,” says Dr. Kalich.
“We look very broadly at how loss changes us as we go through life. That’s really the way the course is set up. Even though it’s called death and dying, it’s about life and living and how do we do that in the midst of loss.”
In 2017, Dr. Kalich made the leap to offer the course online, taking pains to ensure important course elements translated to the new format and that students continued to feel supported.
“Sometimes people are afraid of the topic. Sometimes that’s appropriate. They may have background that’s important for us to take into account,” Dr. Kalich says. “I always commit myself fully to the students who enroll in the course. I tell them if they decide to continue in the course, we’re going to contract with one another, and here’s the contract: I will commit to being with them if they are triggered by this material until I can get them to somewhere safe or someone safe, so they’re never going to be in a situation where they don’t have support.”
Loss derailed Kennette Toussaint’s initial attempts to earn her bachelor’s degree. When she was ready to complete her degree, she enrolled in UL Lafayette’s General Studies online program. As part of her degree requirements, she needed a 400-level sociology course. She was hesitant about taking Death and Dying.
“But when you do those activities, it makes you think about life, not death,” says Toussaint. “It forces you to want to do better and achieve your goals because you have to take advantage of your life now.
“It’s a really interesting class.”
Dr. Kalich takes students through the ways we deny death, face death, and survive loss, as well as some of the controversial issues and practices surrounding end-of-life care. That includes considering our own wishes and those of loved ones.
Student Edmond Talbot says he was more concerned about tackling a 400-level online sociology course than he was about the material but found both manageable. He was even able to make the coursework more meaningful to him by researching hospice practices at Angola Penitentiary. Talbot says he has family in nearby St. Francisville and was able to learn more about the area through his project.
“It was challenging, but doable,” Talbot says. “The subject matter is something that most people avoid talking or even thinking about. Tackling it head-on was pretty amazing. The way Dr. Kalich teaches it, the content was presented in a very sensitive and thoughtful way without trying to sugarcoat it.”
Many students who enroll in the course plan careers in medicine or counseling where they may work with those facing death or bereavement. Through the course content, students begin to consider approaches and best practices for helping loved ones or patients to face death on their terms; the terms that make them most at peace.
“I want every one of my students to leave the class able to focus on living in this moment as fully as they can, even if that moment is a moment of dying,” Dr. Kalich says. “How do we best experience that by companioning someone or if we ourselves are dying?”
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