Lessons in Life and Death

Jan 30, 2014 10:40 AM ET
Dr. Norma Bowe

Spotlight on Walden

In Dr. Norma Bowe’s class, the stories students share are often painful. One recalled a father who drove her home from work and then sent her to her room. She heard a shot, arriving downstairs to see her mother falling to the floor and her father holding a gun to his head. In the span of five minutes, an only child became an orphan.

Many of Dr. Bowe’s students are acquainted with suicide and murder. But she designed the Death in Perspective class she teaches at Kean University in New Jersey to help them overcome tragedy and grief.

“This course is about life. When we face death and know about our mortality, we can live our lives with passion and excitement,” says Dr. Bowe, a 2003 Walden University Ph.D. in Health Services graduate whose advisor was Dr. Morton Wagenfeld.

Death in Perspective is also one of the most popular courses at Kean University, with a three-year waiting list to enroll. It led Dr. Bowe to create a community service and activism group called Be the Change. Now, it has inspired a book: The Death Class: A True Story About Life by Erika Hayasaki, just published by Simon & Schuster.

For students, the hands-on nature of the course is part of its appeal. Dr. Bowe regularly takes them outside the classroom for a variety of experiential exercises. But she always starts by asking students to write a goodbye letter to someone or something they’ve lost.

“I want to know who’s grieving which relationship. Grief stops us from leading a full life. This is a way to work through it,” she explains. “The goodbye letters are so intense and beautiful. When we read them aloud in class, it’s like bringing the person back.”

Students also go to a cemetery, where they conduct a scavenger hunt and learn about the biology of death. They visit a funeral home and lie in a casket. They meet dying people in hospice care and talk to inmates in a maximum-security prison to understand the death of freedom and family contact. They create a personal “bucket list” and write their own eulogy and funeral plan.

“I believe the best way to get a new perspective is to be courageous, to go where it’s scary and immerse yourself,” Dr. Bowe says.

The class culminates in the most challenging experience of all: viewing an autopsy, often of a young person. Dr. Bowe says, “Everyone bonds and supports each other. At the very end, we’re living our lives to full capacity. The students go home and hug their mom, call their grandparents, and actuallyfeel the sunshine.”

Publication of the book about her class will bring Dr. Bowe’s lessons about life and death to a wider audience. She reminds everyone, “We take life for granted and grumble about the silliest little things. This takes away from our life’s energy, from being our best selves. We don’t know how long our lives will be, so we need to live it to the fullest every day.”

Watch an interview with Dr. Bowe on MSNBC: http://on.msnbc.com/1apJgbF