Sunday, April 11, 2010

Death education is a happy place

I recently had the great pleasure to attend the 32nd annual conference for the Association for Death Education and Counseling ( in Kansas City, MO. Having never attended this conference, I was not sure what to expect. I thought some people might be a bit 'goth' and perhaps morose with a lot of black. (I didn't think too hard on the matter). What I actually found was an amazing gathering of people willing to open their hearts and talk about the big stuff. To be clear, it wasn't all "serious" conversations - there was a lot of laughter too. Not surprisingly, there were quite a few synchronicities and serendipitous moments. But before I get into those, I wanted to talk about the general feeling of openness and try to share the experience.

Robert Neimeyer, for those of you who are not into Thanatology (the study of dying, death and bereavement) is one of the significant researchers in the field. As a graduate student, I recognized his name as one that I saw a lot in my studies. When I saw him at the opening reception, I asked him if he would take a picture with me for me to send to my advisor to goad my advisor about who I was "hanging out with" at the conference.

Because I did not know Professor Neimeyer personally, it was a big risk to walk right up to a top scholar and ask for a moment of his time. Well, he was so gracious and so polite and when we took the picture, he had a genuine smile - not a forced pose like most people do when asked to take a picture with someone they don't know. The person who was trying to use my phone to take the picture struggled a bit with the design of the camera phone (Google, please fix this!) and the moment extended into several as we had to keep trying...and then the lighting was bad, so we tried a different angle. Still, every picture had that genuine smile. (I would love to share, but when I took the picture I did not mention the internet, so in respect to him I shall leave it out...). Later on that evening and early the next day, we kept passing each other. Each time he smiled, genuinely. I felt special to be acknowledged by someone as important as him.

For the keynote address the following day, the main room filled up quickly and I was told there were open seats up in front. (Most like to sit in the back so they can get out of the room quickly). I ended up sitting in the very front row. There was one empty seat next to me in a very full conference room, and who should walk up and inquire, but Professor Neimeyer. Now, I had already randomly run into him 3 or 4 times in the past day in a conference of 600 people, so it was quite amusing to me. I told him, "I swear, I'm not stalking you!"

The keynote was amazing - one of the best I have ever seen. He made us laugh, he made us cry. His name is Thomas Lynch and he is a former funeral director, essayist and poet. I should be embarrassed to admit this, but I had not heard of him prior to this event, so it was even more surprising and delightful to have been so thoroughly entertained. But here's what also struck me. Sitting next to me, Professor Neimeyer laughed heartily. Several times when he laughed, he looked around to watch other people laughing too. It was like he took great pleasure in other people's laughter as well. Now you may have seen studies about how we laugh more in a group, yada, yada, yada, but this was different. He actively looked around and took in the laughter of others. He turned to me while he was laughing to see if I was laughing too. It was very unique to me and I pondered it for several days. What does it mean? Why does he do that? What does it say about him?

Over the course of several days in having additional connections with a wide variety of attendees, I talked about my experience and observations and I found out that others had similar stories -the feeling of connectedness. Granted, Professor Neimeyer has been going to this conference for years and is a former president, but so many people had the same type of experience - a meaningful (if brief) interaction with this man who is one of the TOP of his field. I even heard a story about him in a Conga line at a conference in the early '90s. Let me remind you, he is a top scholar on DEATH and DYING and he is this super friendly, open, warm person who laughs heartily.

And in thinking about this man, I realized that he personified for me the experience from the whole event. Those who study death and dying are, in the words of Thomas Lynch, "in the deep end of the pool." We were all connected. No one there has had an easy life. One doesn't just "happen" into the field of death and dying and grief and loss... we're there because we know loss. Intimately. But once one knows loss, you process it, you think about it, you accept it, you are free. You are light. It's there. You understand that you could lose your husband or your wife or your mother or your father, your child or your best friend tomorrow. You could even die yourself. So today is an opportunity, a gift. What do we do with this gift? Do we treasure it? Do we open it, share it, devour it, dance with it? Absolutely.

Thank you God for giving me today.