Monday, May 2, 2011

What about Death?

by Ruth
Last month we learned that one of our former students died.  His English name was "Today," and he was a junior student this year.  I taught his class last spring, and though I didn't know him well, he was a very friendly boy, actually involved in class, and a good student.  I could tell he was well liked by all his classmates.

He couldn't have been more than twenty or twenty-two and he died of liver cancer, the same cancer that had killed his mother and grandmother in the past few years.  Apparently Today knew he was dying and chose to stay at school because he wanted to be around his friends and classmates.  We didn't know of his disease until after his death, and I can't help but wonder: last year as he sat in my class, smiling and talking, did he already know of his illness?

His classmates and friends struggle to make sense of the loss of this young life.  No one wants to think about death; no one wants to believe it could happen to someone their own age.  One of his friends told us their teachers didn't know how to handle his death.  They told the students that what they should learn from this is to be good students and work hard.  Somehow I doubt that did much to answer the questions or fill the void left by his loss.

This is not the first encounter we have seen of death among our students.   Earlier this year, one of our freshmen students died suddenly from a heart condition after collapsing during PE class.  Two years ago, a student jumped from the teaching building.  Several years before when I was in Yangzhou, we also had a student suicide.  It seems that so many students have already lost a parent or a friend.  Just last week, a student apologized for missing Kevin's class; her father had died.  Despite their best effort to forget it, they know that death is real.

In Yangzhou, I was surprised by students' response to the suicide.    While there was never any official acknowledgment of the suicide, I knew the students were all affected by it. With typical western directness, I talked about it with them in class.  Many of them said, "It was irresponsible," which would not have been my first thought after a suicide.  When asked why a person might do that, most said they it was probably because of pressure.  Several students came over to visit saying they just wanted to be with me because they were troubled by being alone.

Following the suicide here, many students were afraid.  They told us they couldn't sleep; they kept picturing the body they had seen, covered by a bloody sheet.  They stayed up rehashing the details with their roommates but with no resolution.

Suicide is certainly even more troubling in its own way, but any kind of death causes us to slow down and think about life and death and what happens afterward, whether we want to or not.  And yet, how do we deal with death?  Particularly the death of someone so young, taken by disease, accident, or their own desperation.  Mostly it seems that people try to ignore and move on.  Leaders don't want to lose face or incur blame.  Teachers are at a loss for words.  Students continue to smile and talk and go about their daily lives, except at night when they are too troubled to sleep.

Death is a particularly relevant topic this time of year.  Earlier this month the Chinese celebrated (maybe celebrated isn't the right word...) Qing Ming or "Tomb Sweeping" festival, a holiday to honor the ancestors and care for their graves.  It goes a lot deeper than just sweeping off a grave, however; people burn paper money, houses, cars, clothes...all kinds of things their ancestors might need in the afterlife.  By taking care of their ancestors, they are hoping their ancestors will in turn "take care of them," or at least not come back to make their lives miserable.

This was also the month of Easter, the Christian holiday celebrating the triumph of life over death.  I know what Easter means to me.  New Life. Hope. Love. Victory over death.  To most students, it means nothing.  A few might think of bunnies, candy, or dancing (I know dancing has nothing to do with Easter but for some reason students are convinced that every western holiday involves dancing).  How do I show them hope?  How do I help them find meaning in life and death?

I am not the only one thinking about the problem of death.  Along a rather different vein, China Daily (the English version of China's official newspaper) has dedicated a portion of their website to "Education on Death."  The editor's note at the beginning reads:

To be or not to be, that is the question.

More than a question, death is a taboo subject in Chinese culture and education.

The curriculum provides rare discourse about death, which everyone definitely will face, the moment to say the final goodbye to their beloved and the world. It was in 2008, after the deadly Wenchuan earthquake killed tens of thousands of Chinese, that some universities piloted programs to help students develop a rational understanding of death.

Previous media reports found that Chinese parents strongly objected to any attempt to talk about death in the classroom. But, can we really avoid it? Isn't it a core part of life?

This special coverage "Education on Death" aims to present arguments for China to promote death education and ways in an environment traditionally hostile to the topic.

And now, today, talk of death is suddenly all around us because of Bin Laden [whose death I became aware of through a dozen Facebook statuses (stati?).  That's where I see most of my news nowadays, which is admittedly pathetic on my part.]  Should we rejoice because an evil man is gone?  Should we be saddened because after all he was a person?  Perhaps both?  I know it should be significant to me, but to be honest, it feels so far away.  I just keep thinking about all those who die so news, no fanfare, hardly even a ripple...just family and friends left behind wondering what to do now.

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