Students work past death denial in class

MIDDLEBURY — For Middlebury College senior Jenny Djupedal, the dying process has always been a bit of a mystery.
“My grandma passed away when  I was still in high school and she was on hospice when she died,” Djupedal said. “That was a really scary experience for me because I had never seen anybody die before.”
Djupedal is one of few young 20-somethings who has experienced death, and hospice, first-hand.  
Most hospice volunteers in Addison County are in their 50s, 60s and 70s, according to hospice volunteer coordinator Priscilla Baker, but this month, 20 Middlebury College students opted to participate in a January Term (J-Term) class, “Hospice and End-of-Life Care,” that will prepare them to confront death and become full-fledged hospice volunteers.
“I saw this class was available and I was interested in learning about hospice experience and how people come to terms with that,” Djupedal said. “I shared with the class that I was a companion to someone at a retirement home and she was very comfortable with death and organizing her closets and that sort of thing, whereas my grandmother, before she passed away, denied it until her dying breath. So I was wondering kind of how you can come to terms with death when a loved one is not accepting that it is coming and how you can assist that person in becoming more comfortable with death.”
Since the first week of January, Djupedal and her classmates have been attending a series of classes both on campus and at the Hospice Volunteers Services office in Middlebury led by Baker and a number of guest speakers, including Bereavement Specialist David White and palliative care doctors Diana Barnard and Will Porter.
“When we do the community training and also doing this training, a significant portion of it is guest presenters, so that by the end of a volunteer training, the students have met everybody on the hospice team in Addison County, and other people who are providing care for people who are at the end of their life,” Baker said.
Baker first proposed a hospice-themed course to the college in 2008, but was turned down on basis that “college students wouldn’t be interested in the topic.
“We sort of felt differently here,” Baker said. “And we come up against it a lot — there’s a lot of death denial in our culture. Who knows, there may have been people who, themselves, weren’t comfortable with it.”
But this time around, Baker gained support from the Psychology, Sociology/Anthropology and Biology departments on campus, all of which sponsored Baker’s course proposal.
“They felt it fit into their overall curriculum,” Baker said.
 The course was approved and added to the Winter Term catalog and by the second day of registration, Baker said, the class had filled up.
At the beginning of the first class, Baker got a sense of why students had chosen her J-Term course.
“The very first day I went around and asked them why they had signed up,” Baker said. “I would say most of them — over half of them — had just some personal reason why they were interested —they had lost a family member, or they were curious about it, knew about it, wanted to know more about it. Some just wanted to know more about end of life. I would say half of the students in the class are Premed and that they see the importance from a medical perspective. The more they know about hospice and end of life, the more informed they’ll be.”
No matter what their reasons or their backgrounds, each of the students in Baker’s class started from scratch in terms of hospice training.
At the start of their second week of classes, students received a lesson in listening from David White, a Middlebury alum and Addison County bereavement specialist. 
“My own wife died from cancer,” White told the class. “Those people who came into our house modeled a kind of love for Sandy that then I got to feel, to witness, and to embody, as well. I’m a quick study. I’m an A student, too. So when I saw that hospice worker come in and approach her bed at eye level, it was powerful.”
White took a seat on the floor, in the middle of the circle of chairs, and looked a slightly uncomfortable Yuan Lim in the eye.
“When people go down, it’s not without a fight,” White said. “But eventually, your body surrenders. We surrender. And that process, whether it lasts a year or a month or a week or an hour, that process is freakin’ amazing. By hook or by crook, by choice or not, you will see it. How you respond will be very telling.”
By the end of their training, each of the 20 students in Baker’s class will have the opportunity to become a hospice volunteer in Addison County, and will have garnered enough training to apply in other states and counties, as well. Until then, students are learning the basic theory behind hospice and end-of-life care through reading assignments, films, lectures and group presentations.
“There’s no right or wrong way to die,” Baker said, following the Jan. 13 class. “There’s no right or wrong way to think about it. We’re not here to find the right way. We’re here to learn about ourselves, and about helping people on their path, on their journey, whatever that is. And it’s going to be different for every person.”
Even after just one week of classes, students were surprised to find that their personal views on the subject were beginning to shift.
“The answers on my PDA being changed already,” said Tiffany Park.
Baker gave the PDA, or Personal Death Awareness survey, to each student during their first week, and through daily journaling, they reflect on how their answers have fluctuated since that time.
“With the college students, it’s been so rich observing their openness to exploring their own thoughts and feelings about their own mortality,” Baker said. “I think that for many of them, they haven’t given it a lot of thought, so the idea of a good death or a bad death isn’t something they’ve thought about and something that their eyes are getting opened up to is that some people die very badly. Hopefully, more and more people are dying well.”
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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