Full time or part time - September through August
ONLINE - In-class + practicum
Admission requirements: There are no specific prerequisites that need to be taken prior to applying.
$550 per course + ancillary fees
Application deadline: March 1
Article featuring Grief and Bereavement instructor Darcy Harris.
Working with the Dying for a Living;
Thanatologists Counsel the Dying A Life-Affirming Career Choice.
by Elvira Cordileone
"He had a lot of anger," Harris says. "He needed someone he could express that to." Day by day, Harris says, he learned to stop trying to control what he couldn't change. Day by day, he let go of things that didn't matter, all the things that had once seemed so important. By the time he died, she says, he had realized there was more to come for him, but not in this world. Harris, a former palliative care nurse, is a thanatologist, a specialist in the psychology of death and dying. She takes satisfaction in having made a difference in this man's life, and in the lives and deaths of all those she's counselled. Working with the dying and their families may sound like a sure way to depression, but those who do it will tell you it's a life-affirming career. Thanatologists don't provide palliative care, a medical specialty that manages pain and other symptoms. In academic terms, thanatology deals with the psychology and sociology of death and dying. Students learn about cultural attitudes toward death, psychological dynamics, economic and legal considerations surrounding it, and issues related to grief and bereavement. "Dying and grieving is a normal process, but we sanitize it, make it clinical," says Cathy Walsh, who helped establish the London branch of the Bereaved Families of Ontario 20 years ago. Walsh received her formal education in thanatology from the University of Western Ontario in 1999, the only school in Canada that offers a Certificate in Grief and Bereavement Studies. Harris, now the school's program director, was one of its first graduates. She signed up in 1994, soon after it was set up. About 60 people are enrolled in Western's innovative course, most of them adults furthering their education, says Harris. They include funeral directors, hospital chaplains, palliative care nurses, parish ministers and even people seeking personal growth. Harris says the subject "is not morbid. If you realize you have a limited time, you make it worthwhile and every moment is precious. Grief is painful. But it's also healthy and I learn from them." No previous post-secondary education is needed to enrol; however, applicants must qualify for regular university admission. (The deadline for applications is March 1.)
Most of the program's 11 courses can be taken online, although a few weekend workshops in London are part of the curriculum. Full-term students could complete the program in a year and a half; part-timers have five years. Courses are $555 each, excluding student fees.. Western students in other disciplines, such as medicine, also take the courses as electives, Harris says. Thanatology will be offered as a minor next year. The need for expertise in the field is great and growing. About a quarter of a million people die in Canada every year, says Peter Singer, a physician, University of Toronto professor and Director of the Bioethics Centre. He suggests that tending to the psychological and social needs of the dying is as important as managing pain and giving them high-tech medical support.
The number of people who die each year is increasing, says John Hsieh, a biostatistician and professor emeritus in the U of T's Public Health Sciences Department. Canada's aging population, and advances in treating chronic diseases will further increase the proportion of older people. Hsieh, a visiting professor at Rochester University, notes that while about 15 per cent of Canada's almost 32 million people are older than 65, the figure will jump to 18 per cent by 2014. In 50 years, it could be up to 30 per cent, he estimates. "Medicine alone doesn't take care of everything," Walsh says. Walsh, 49, is a counsellor with the Bereaved Families of Ontario, which she helped create. The self-funded support group helped her deal with the death of an infant son from a rare intestinal disorder. "Grieving is a normal process, but we live in a fast-food society looking for a quick fix. Closure doesn't exist within a true grief experience." "Anyone we love will continue to live in our heads. They haven't passed away; they're not lost - I use the word 'died,'" Walsh says. Healthy grieving means helping people accept that a death has occurred and that a part of them has also died, she says. The next step is to encourage them to engage in rituals that help them remember the dead person "well," she adds. Priests and rabbis once handled the type of work Walsh does, says Fred Wilson, a U of T professor emeritus of philosophy. Society is becoming more secularized, and the need for non-religious people to help with death and bereavement issues will continue to grow, he says. The counselling "has to be done in the psychological and medical context of each individual," Wilson says. Helping people whose belief systems are different from the helper's can be challenging, he adds. But students of thanatology study this.
18 November, 2004
The Toronto Star