Love & Death
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
What came to mind as you glanced at the title of this piece? As a professor at Highline College I’ve had the amazing opportunity to teach classes on both of these topics to thousands of students: Death & Life (Psych130) and Love 101 (Psych121). My hope is that my students walk out of these classes seeing the world differently—and they do. In the Death class, through journaling, lecture, field trips, guest speakers, assignments, and readings, students look deeply not only into their own death, but into the death of their loved ones as they increasingly realize “We don’t have forever, so we better do it now.”
I do the same thing in the Love class by conducting a classroom exercise in which each student pulls out a clean sheet of paper, tears it into four equal pieces, writes the names of four people they love, one on each sheet, and then—holding the papers like cards—turns to a fellow student who pulls one of the names from the four papers. Next, they follow my instruction to crush it and give it back to the person as I say, “That person just died.” I then have students pull out their journals and write their immediate feelings about what just happened. As you might imagine, this is a powerful exercise that demands each person get into touch with something we all know, but usually keep buried in another part of our brain. As they write, I ask my students, “Is this a cruel exercise?” [Of course]. “Do I wish it on you?” [Of course not]. “Could it happen?” [Yes.] I then say the obvious, “You are not guaranteed to have this person in your life for one more minute. Your brain tricks you because it goes something like this: “I’ve had this person in my life day after day for years—so of course I will have them another day.” It is a trick so that we will not have to experience the painful reality that our loved one will die today. We think we have another day with that person and then another day and then—one day—they die.
Our job until that day arrives is to live without regret. I say to my students, “There is someone you need to say, ‘I love you.’ There is someone you need to tell how important they are to you. There is someone you need to say, ‘You are wonderful. Thank you for being in my life.’ When that person dies—and they will—or you will die before him or her—you do not want to regret not saying and doing things with and for this person. So, do it. Do it now. Don’t wait!”
In my work in the field of Death Education I have met thousands (yes, thousands) of parents whose children have died. As parents, they all have regrets. However, there are some who have fewer regrets. They are the ones who “got it” at some level: that they may not have this child forever. So, they said and did things NOW—before the tragic death of their beloved son or daughter. The first thing my Love 101 students see at the top of their syllabus is this quote from Richard Bach: When we come to the last moment of this life and look back across it, the only thing that is going to matter is: What was the quality of our love?
As you finish reading this article, I say to you: Are you going to do something today to show the love you have for these amazing people in your life? Or will you finish reading and gradually forget the words you have read? It’s your life, your death, and most importantly, your love.