“Don’t you notice that there are particular moments when you are naturally inspired to introspection? Work with them gently, for these are the moments when you can go through a powerful experience, and your whole worldview can change quickly.”
― Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
One of the most beloved classes I ever taught was an undergraduate course on grief, loss, and dying. I began teaching this class as an adjunct faculty at a local college while I was a full time grief counselor. I found that teaching afforded me the opportunity to immerse myself in cross-cultural and philosophical dimensions of death and dying that somehow gave me a bigger perspective to sustain my daily work with my individual, grieving clients. I loved every moment of prepping, teaching, and yes…even grading the assignments for that course. I built up a library of resource books that I still treasure (including the book from which my opening quote is drawn). I have kept these books even though I no longer teach the class, and we don’t even offer a similar course at my current academic workplace. Looking back, I realize that teaching that course gave me a great gift, an opportunity for introspection. I used my reading and prepping and contemplating to channel the challenging emotional content of my daily work into meaningful, teachable moments for my students. Teaching this class transformed me, and eventually opened the door to what has become my academic career.
The students who took my class in those early days of teaching were a diverse group. I had some students who aspired to careers in related fields like gerontology, health care, or hospice; I had several second-career students for whom grief was a part of their personal life experiences and for whom the class offered some solace or even therapeutic potential. Then there were the merely curious who thought the class would be an interesting elective, along with a few fascinated Goths who wanted to take any course that required composing a “deathography” as a formal assignment and involved taking a class field trip to a mausoleum. All were welcome.
If you take a class with me, the assignment structure reads like an a la carte menu. A few assignments are required of all, but most offer selections among possible assignment alternatives. This may involve selecting an option from column A, another from column B and having an optional bonus assignment in there for the adventurous to consider. In “Grief, Loss, and Dying” the bonus assignment was to write your own Eulogy and, at some undisclosed point in the semester, to hear it delivered by me as though your death had actually just occurred. Then, the student had a week to reflect on that experience both introspectively, and in writing.
I delivered several Eulogies over the years I taught, for the career-oriented, the personally grieving, the curious and of course, the Goths. I was still moved every time. The brave students who engaged in the bonus assignment told me repeatedly that it was both unsettling and transformative to them as well. I often read their post-Eulogy reflections which stressed a powerful desire to realign their priorities, reconcile a relationship, or focus more clearly on their life goals. Although it was often more difficult than they anticipated, no one expressed regret for having completed the bonus assignment.
I find myself drawn into introspection these days, feeling poised on the precipice of a new chapter of becoming. Ironically, I have had to write my professional biography multiple times in the past year. Just a few weeks ago, I updated my biosketch for a grant application, highlighting what seemed of ultimate importance to the funding agency. In a moment of crystal clarity, I realized I barely recognized myself (my full, authentic self) from the biosketch description. “Really?” I thought. “Is this how I want to be known and remembered?” I thought back to the Eulogy assignment and its unsettling, transformative effect on my students. The biosketch “bonus assignment” presented to me by the Universe offered similar potential for introspective reflection. My life contribution is much more than just what appears my Google Scholar profile.
I am grateful for this time to reflect, to be introspective at an important juncture for potential growth along my journey. Integrating my personal and professional experiences and detailing my ordinary, daily encounters with spirituality hold particular value for me right now. So does being still, and waiting with patient expectation for doors to open into the next chapter. These experiences transform me, and beckon me into evolving and becoming something more that emerges from who I already have learned that I am: the scholar, the teacher, the grief counselor, the writer, the mother, the friend, the healer, the one who ministers and advocates to promote and restore the dignity of every human being.
This contemplative state is really the essence of both living and dying: the gentle but powerful soul work of transformation.