The meaning of life -- in a class on death


The day before a 16-year-old friend of mine was murdered, she kissed the window of her white sedan, a birthday gift, leaving cranberry-colored stains on the glass. Then she gave me a hug goodbye. Her name was Sangeeta Lal, and the next morning, her ex-boyfriend shot her.

It was April 19, 1995, the same day as the Oklahoma City bombings, and while the world media tuned in to the images of bloody babies and building carcasses left behind by the attack in Oklahoma, I found myself, 16 and a high school newspaper reporter, reporting on my community’s own domestic terror.

I interviewed Sangeeta’s neighbors, who told me how she escaped from a bedroom window as her assailant chased her with a gun. How she pounded on a neighbor’s sliding-glass door, begging for someone to let her in, but no one did. How he shot her in the chest, on a dew-covered patch of grass, before the sun rose. It was the first murder I covered as a journalist. And for the next 16 years, I carried her short life with me like a responsibility.


I went on to pay for college by working nights at a local newspaper as an obituary writer, and spent the decade after that in newspapers, standing on the sidelines of other people’s grief many times. Nearly every reporter has had to figure out how to grasp the horrors and miseries that we cover. But for me, the tragedies I covered took a toll. In 2008, after writing an article on a death education class, I decided to enroll in it myself.

“Death in Perspective,” at Kean University in Union, N.J., is led by Norma Bowe, a nurse with a background in health and psychology. In her class, students watch autopsies, listen to lectures in cemeteries and talk to murderers, funeral directors and hospice patients.

Students also write goodbye letters. Mine was addressed to Sangeeta, but it touched on a lot of the grief I had seen.

Here’s part of that letter:

“How can a drive-by bullet intended for a gang member end up lodged in a 3-year-old’s chest?

“Why did that mother, who waved farewell to her 25-year-old daughter, who was headed to work on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, never get to see her again?

“I have written about all of these people. I have sat with victims, survivors, family members and friends of the dead also trying to grapple with why. I have cried with them. My thoughts often come back to you. I don’t know if I will ever understand.”

Enrolling in the death class was an expression of my need to exercise control over death’s indiscriminate grip. What I was trying to do — what I think we were all trying to do in that class — was to become a little bit less vulnerable.

Bowe embraces the theories of the psychologist Erik Erikson, like this one: Birth and death are inextricably bound. Virtues like hope are either nurtured or neglected through the stages of an individual’s life, and offer hints of how an adult might eventually die — whether hanging on with regret and despair (bad death), or feeling fulfillment in the end, and simply letting go (good death).

Bowe’s death class is the most popular course on campus, with a three-year waiting list. Some students enroll out of curiosity, but the class also attracts students who are hurting, searching or trying to heal. The students in my class brought with them stories of suicides, murders, mental illnesses, cancer diagnoses, car crashes and drug overdoses. The deaths of people’s pets received the same respect as the deaths of grandmothers. Beneath each grim tale, there was resilience.

A mutual understanding exists in Bowe’s classes that death is something we all have in common.

Bowe’s lessons went beyond the morbid and into the meaning of life. She had been abused as a child, yet she learned to march through life with a cloak of invincibility. She was determined to teach us too how to turn hardship into human connectivity. On a hospice field trip, I watched an elderly, paraplegic, dying man regale twentysomethings with stories of his life working on a tugboat. World weary as I had become over the years, I couldn’t help but see the value in these experiential life lessons.

Bowe believed that having a good death also came in part from building “generativity,” a term that Erickson coined for what we give back to the world, create and leave behind.

After I finished the class, I wasn’t quite done with the experience. I spent the next three years shadowing Bowe and her students for a book on a remarkable woman and her students. In July, I finished the book. Four days later, I went into labor.

My daughter was 10 days past due and my amniotic fluid was dangerously low. Doctors were concerned when I started inexplicably bleeding and developed a fever. Then the baby’s heartbeat became erratic. I wept as they wheeled me away for an emergency C-section. It was the closest I had ever come to dying, and now this little person inside of me was in danger too.

So it was a wave of relief when my husband held up our healthy, curly haired daughter for me to see. She looked at him calmly, almost wisely, and then at me. I marveled in disbelief at our puffy-faced creation before doctors whisked her away for tests.

Over the years, I had wondered whether I even wanted to have kids. The world I reported on was too unpredictable, too cruel. I am still terrified of bringing up my daughter in a place with such dark corners. But I realize now how much I would have missed out on in life had I chosen to forfeit love out of fear.

Erikson once wrote: “Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough to not fear death.”

I think I understand now.

My daughter was my leap of faith. Now, I am utterly vulnerable. And that is something I am learning to live with as I stare for too long at the threads of her eyelashes and the rising and falling of her fragile chest.

Erika Hayasaki is an assistant professor in the literary journalism program at UC Irvine and the author of “The Death Class: A True Story About Life.”