“The Death Class”: Erika Hayasaki Describes “Death in Perspective” Class

Erika Hayasaki, who’d experienced the murder of her close friend in high school and as a journalist had reported on many others, not only enrolled in a “death class” but also then shadowed the teacher extensively for several years as research for her new book The Death Class: A True Story About Life.

Death in Perspective,” taught by psychiatric nurse and Professor Dr. Norma Bowe, is offered at Kean University in New Jersey, where students wait three years to be able to get in, a testament to the immense popularity of both the professor and the course.

Hayasaki points out that Bowe is a fan of psychologist Erik Erikson‘s theories, including his eight psychosocial stages. Erikson’s stage of “generativity,” involving learning to give back to the world in meaningful and positive ways, is key. “Death anxiety,” Bowe would say, is relieved by living a good life.

Besides pertinent field trips, Bowe assigns ongoing writing exercises, such as bucket lists, self-eulogies, and letters to themselves at a younger age. And always in the first class she gives instructions to write a “goodbye letter” to a lost loved one.

Below some of Bowe’s students speak about this and other class experiences:

Barbara Mahany, a former nurse, writes in The Chicago Tribune that Hayasaki’s book “practically serves as a take-home version of the class, filled as it is with writing assignments and discussion questions sure to stir deep thinking.”

Another chunk of the book, she notes, relates narratives about certain young folks Bowe has helped—“chilling accounts of the four students’ triumphant ascension from heartbreak.”

Mahany wonders, though, about some of the boundaries represented. For one, is Bowe too prone to overinvolvement in her students’ lives? While Hawasaki, says Mahany, reveals Bowe’s “indefatigable efforts to respond — at all hours, any day, anywhere — to students’ suicide threats and assorted dire straits, to drive miles out of her way to intercede in dicey family crises, to wrap herself in the cloak of the SuperRescuer…” she doesn’t examine this deeply enough.

Furthermore, and related to the above, did the author ultimately get too close to her subject? “The lines between journalism and friendship — a fine line often, one that must be navigated with excruciating balance — seem blurred.”

Nick Romeo, Boston Globe, is another critic who finds fault with the relatively unprobed “saintlike” portrait: “Bowe’s engagement far exceeds the standard duties of a teacher. She alternately acts as grief counselor, parent figure, and volunteer outreach coordinator.”

Moreover, Romeo adds another criticism: he says that in some spots there’s “a lurid lingering on the minutiae of disturbing scenes” and elsewhere there’s a lack of “a reasonable limit to witnessing the grief of others.”

Publishers Weekly would seem to agree: “Hayasaki’s studies of the suicidal and mentally ill seem clinical and unrelenting, and there is an unsettling prurience in these stories of emotional cataclysm.”

It’s likely that not all readers will share this distaste, however. And in the end, PW believes “the book helps make possible necessary conversations about death.”

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