Barbara Wheeler's father died seven years ago in an airplane crash, and Wheeler, a University of Maryland senior, is still grieving.
The emotional residue of her father's death and the deaths of three others before him -- her brother and and sister in an auto accident and a cousin in Vietnam -- returns to trouble Wheeler in unexpected ways.
"Maybe I'm still working on accepting it," she said quietly, her blue eyes misting. "Right now, I'm falling in love and I find it difficult. It hurts. Somehow the hurts of my father's dying are coming out in this new man in my life."
Wheeler's quest for emotional peace has led her to enroll in a "death education" course at the University of Maryland's College Park campus.
"Most people don't know how to deal with death," Wheeler said. "If the subject comes up, they say, "Oh . . . and drop it. They're afraid of what you might say, that they might hurt your feelings or that you might cry."
What Barbara Wheeler and others who have been through it know, usually through painful hindsight, is that death and the feelings surrounding the experience cannot be ignored. The death course, like more than 1,100 similar ones in colleges and adult education programs around the country, attempts to broach the often taboo subject before the rapidity and trauma of death-related events blur one's ability to cope and make necessary decisions.
"We live in a death-denying cultur. Death education forces us to face the fact that death is always a possibility," said Daniel Leviton, a pioneer in the field and teacher of the University of Maryland course.
Until recently, even in medical schools, death and dying themes were neglected subjects. "Like sex and old age, death and dying is a fearsome prospect from a psychological point of view," said Nona Boren, director of gerontology at the George Washington University School of Medcine and Health Sciences. "In dealing with the subject, you're acknowledging your own fatality."
Leviton's "In dealing with the subject, you're acknowledging your own fatality."
Leviton's introductory death education course, one of the most popular electives on the College Park campus, attracts300 students and turns away another 200 each semester.
Through lectures, textbooks and films, students learn about death customs in various societies, the social impact of death on spouses and families, religious views of dying and after-life, the healthy process of mourning,problems of widowhood and old age, funeral practices, suicide, care of the terminally ill, and ethical issues of war and euthanasia.
Leviton, an energetic and personable teacher, is bombarded with questions during classes. He is most commonly asked about life after death, the medical and legal definitions of death,communication with the dead and personal fears about dying. "A man said to me, am I crazy if I dream of death" he said.
"There is no solid evidence that death education reduces anxiety about death. Death always comes as a surprise," said Leviton, a "thanatologist" who began studying death as part of his health education field in the early 1960s.
The death education courses are popular for much the same reason that sex education courses are so well attended at College Park, said Leviton. Both deal with intensely personal subjects, but in a detached manner.
Chris Hargrove, 21, a senior, is studying death education. As a teen-ager, he was a pallbearer in the funeral of several relatives.During those occasions, he recalled, his family "just clammed up." He, too, was upset and unsure of how to behave.
"It's a very touchy situation, just like sex," said Hargrove. "If you learn the language (of death) it helps."
Another student, Lorraine O'Hara, had always tried to "avoid" the subject. "Death is so removed in our society," she said. "We just put old people away (in institutions). Children often never see death. I don't think this is healthy."
Known as "Dan" to his students, Leviton, a mustachioed man with the bald "Kojak" look, addresses his subject matter-of-factly. There is nothing maudlin about his class.
His surveys show that students who sign up range from those with a dispassionate curiosity to death-fanciers. "Some think it's going to teach them how to die, which it is not," said Rosanne Shepler, Leviton's graduate assistant.
Others, like Aviva Erdheim, a junior, enrolled to learn more about death itself. "I'm looking forward to it with an open ming," she said.
Frequently, Leviton serves as a counselor to his students. Each semester, for example, someone is contemplating suicide, and his role, as he sees it, is to reduce the crisis and refer the student to more expert help. Others are in mourning and don't know where to turn.
"Death is a significant source of stress which can lead to premature death or sickness in others. Sometimes grief can last a lifetime," he explained. "These are health issues."
One of his aims as a health educator and leader in the national Forum for Death Education and Counseling, which is attempting to set professional standards for the field, is to debunk misinformation that crops up as a result of the faddishness of death studies.
"One myth is that science has demonstrated there is an after-life from which people (who have "died" and then been revived) return to describe," he said. "That's erroneous. If you define death as irreversible, then dead men tell no tales."
As a specialist in thanatology, the 46-year-old Leviton has become more vocal and activist "whether it's politics or raising cain about pollution" because of what death studies have taught him about life's priorities.
"It also has made me realize that time is refleing, and I spend a lot more time at home with my family," he said.