Recently, I decided to fill up my spare time (ha ha) by taking a psychology class at my local community college. Subject? Death and Dying. Many see this as the ultimate act of sadomasochism, and I have to say, even I was uncertain about it until about five minutes into the first class. Once there, I found that the teacher took on this most difficult of subjects in a funny, honest, and ballsy manner — in other words, a sorely needed breath of fresh air on what is otherwise a truly stifling subject.

The class is taught in a somewhat unique way, in that you meet once a week for a short semester (11 weeks) of class. This is then supplemented by a weekend long intensive seminar on key subjects in the class, which I took this past weekend. Luckily, the weather was appropriately gloomy for spending a weekend with Death and Dying — I couldn’t imagine doing it in April, which was the other alternative on offer. Far too cheerful.

When I told people what I was doing all weekend, the unanimous reaction was, “Good God, why are you doing that?” Even my brother reacted that way at first, but after a minute’s thought, he added, “Actually, that would be pretty cool.” He got it, but it just took him a while to get past that initial reaction to those ultra-taboo words, “death” and “dying”. This is a very telling reaction, by the way, since at this point my brother is almost as comfortable with those concepts as I am. You can’t have a father with a terminal illness and be in the Rangers without increasing your familiarity with death in leaps and bounds.

At the end of the weekend, I came out of that classroom feeling like I’d run an emotional marathon, or at least done a really freaking long training run for one. I was wrung out, exhausted, barely able to think straight, but somehow strangely peaceful. I felt lighter, as though a huge burden had been lifted, just a tiny bit.

I think what made me feel this way was the simple fact that for once, I could talk about my experience candidly and openly without feeling the usual stigma or revulsion that the concept of death usually inspires in people. I didn’t have to watch my words, or moderate them to save other people’s feelings. No, for the first time I was not only allowed but encouraged to speak openly about my experience, and people listened without judgement. I felt somewhat guilty at first for using these poor kids as my group therapy, but I was encouraged when the teacher started asking me questions about my experience with terminal illness. I hoped that it was helpful for the people in that classroom to see someone close to their own age dealing with these issues, that perhaps it made the concept of cancer a little bit more real to them.

However, as I talk about it more and listen to other people’s reactions, I’m finding that many people around me have struggled with similar issues. Here I have been feeling isolated for so long, as if I’m the only person who could ever understand this experience, when all around me are people who have lost someone or are struggling with a loved one’s illness. A couple times now, people have come up to me after class or on the break and talked to me totally candidly about their own losses, baring their souls in a truly heartfelt effort to ease mine. Sometimes we cry, sometimes we laugh, but always there is a connection over the grief that we have in common. Quite simply, it is amazing.

So my question is this — if death and grief are more of a unifying factor than I had previously thought, why does no one talk about it? Death is the lowest common denominator for all of us, no matter what our background, our color, our profession, our culture. We all die, and we all know people who die — some more than others. So why are we still so afraid to mention death, as if in doing so, perhaps it will come true? I am fascinated by this question. I’m not sure if I will ever succeed in answering it, but I think it is definitely one worth asking again and again, even long after I have left this class behind.

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