Where were you on Feb. 4, 1975? Were you not yet born? I was preparing to leave my home to teach a course in general psychology at Fort Lewis Army base when my phone rang. It was my mother screaming, “Your father’s in the hospital! He’s dying!” Shocked, I jumped in my car. I arrived at Harborview hospital to see my four younger brothers and sisters and my mother, wide-eyed, sitting in the emergency room. I discovered that my 52-year-old father suffered a stroke and would likely not survive. By 2 a.m. he had stabilized enough for us to go home. With tears in her eyes, my mother asked me to see about setting up a funeral for my father.
There I was the next day driving to a funeral home in west Seattle saying to myself, “I have a master’s degree in psychology. I’m supposed to know something about human behavior, but I haven’t a clue about death, grief or loss, let alone funeral plans.” Looking back on that day, I had no idea it would set me on a path that defined my career. My father surprised everyone by coming out of a month-long coma, learning to walk again and living another 28 years.
The following year I was given a grant at Seattle Central Community College to create a new course and I chose the title Death &Dying. Later, with the urging of students who said, “This course is really about life,” I changed it to Death &Life. As a part-time psychology instructor back then, I continued to teach the course at six different colleges. I was hired full-time at Highline in 1988 and have been teaching it ever since. In addition to teaching, I have given lectures, workshops and training on death-related topics to many community and national organizations. I have also been the professional adviser to a local widowed support group — Widows Information and Consultation Service, www.kcwics.org, and to a national support group for parents whose children have died — The Compassionate Friends, www.compassionatefriends.org.
During 2003, in response to numerous questions over the years from students about how people from various parts of the world cope with death, I created a new course titled Death Across Cultures. By then, Highline was on its way to becoming the most diverse college in Washington. The course was met with enthusiasm by students who wanted to study culturally diverse death-related topics such as coping with the dying process, treatment of the dead body, fear of death, funeral practices, mourning rituals, grief reactions, afterlife beliefs and attitudes toward organ donation, suicide, homicide and euthanasia.
Since that first class in 2003, the diversity of my class of students has grown significantly. My students bring attitudes and beliefs about death from countries such as Argentina, India, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Russia and Somalia, to name a few. As a college instructor, it is such a pleasure to stand in front of my class, gaze at faces from all over the world, bring up a death-related topic and witness the amazing discussion about something that touches us all.
For example, when we discuss funerals, students from Japan share cremation stories of watching their relatives pick up the cremated bones of a grandparent with chopsticks and deposit them into an urn.
During the discussion of cemeteries, students from Mexico share stories of Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — in which family members visit the graves of their loved ones, light candles, clean the grave and share a meal.
On the last day of class I require my students to fill out a survey with a number of questions intended to tap into what they got from the course. Each time I read their heartwarming responses, it again reminds me how fortunate I have been to have followed a path that has so enriched my life and the thousands of students who decided to sign up for a course called Death.
I’ll finish with three quotes that sum up the experiences of many of my students: “This class has helped to know how I grieve and to know how other people and cultures grieve. Before I never really thought about how my culture, or for that matter how my family really grieved.”
“Now, I have learned to spend time with my family more than drowning myself in work. I am more willing to face the facts about my past as well as the future, and I feel that, ultimately, it has made me a better person.”
“This course has taught me a lot about the differences of death in cultures other than my own and it has taught me to be more open-minded about the ways of other cultures.”
Dr. Bob Baugher has been teaching psychology and death-related courses for more than 40 years. The author of several self-published books on grief, he has given more than 800 workshops on coping with loss. Everyone who has met him knows that, although his favorite classes are about death, he loves life.