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dying and death- let's start the conversation

Dying and death are two words that are scary and not spoken by many of us. Why is this?

We all know that one day we came into this world and one day we will leave it. Yet we are afraid to talk about it. I had the opportunity to teach a course called IDST 485 – Death and Dying at Medicine Hat College. Most of my students represent the paramedicine, nursing, and social work programs. Being new to the course, I decided to present the course material from a communications and cultural awareness perspective, two things I am very passionate about as a post-secondary instructor. These are things I have learned:

- We as humans are afraid of talking to our loved ones about the concept of dying and death. This has led to people dying and their loved ones scrambling to decide what they would want to have done with their remains. Would they want a funeral service? Would they want cremation or burial?

- Many of us do not have the necessary paperwork in place to ensure that our wishes are met upon our death. Who will be the executor of your estate? Who will be listed as your agent on your Personal Directive? Who will make financial decisions for you if you are unable to do so? Do I want to be resuscitated?

- Young people today believe they do not have to worry about these things at this point in their lives. What about their parents? Have they had these difficult discussions with them?

I tasked them with putting together a Personal Directive, Enduring Power of Attorney, and a Will. I remember the looks on their faces that led me to believe they had no idea what these documents were or what the purposes were in completing them. Upon completion they began to understand why it is so important to question “what could happen to my children upon my death”, “what do I want to have done with my personal effects (car, house), “do I want to be on a ventilator should I become incapacitated”.

During this semester I also tried to instill experiential learning into the course outcomes. We toured a local funeral home where they got firsthand experience into the value of pre-planning your funeral. We began our tour in the chapel, then we toured the crematorium, the preparation room where embalming takes place, and the casket and urn room. The students were then asked to share their experiences in a discussion forum. Overall, the experiences the 90 students had was very positive and enlightening. One paramedicine student shared the following “I keep coming back to the similarities between a primary care paramedic and a mortician. Both of us pick up our clients, either from a hospital or their homes, transport them and then prepare them for what’s next”.

I then brought in two volunteers with Victims Assistance in Medicine Hat. These ladies volunteer hundreds of hours every month to help those facing trauma and loss within the community. Their descriptions of events left students with a firsthand account of what life is like in the community and within the helping professions. Overall, the feedback from this event was positive. Some students felt that it might have been a bit graphic for those students taking the class as an elective. I spoke with those students and assured them that this is reality and the experiences shared are what we are facing today as a community. After all, it is a class on Dying and Death!

I feel so fortunate to be able to have taught this class. Not only did my students learn but so did I.

Linda Tooth


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