Growing Up with a Thanatologist

Having an expert on death around has been interesting, to say the least.


Photo by Gabriele Diwald

In my house, grief is a dinner table conversation. I can easily find a book on death in my mom’s office, and I’ve even been gifted books that deal with loss and grief (a notable one being Samsara Dog by Helen Manos).


I can’t tell you how many times my family has sat down together, talked about our day, and then...switched the conversation to something most people would rather avoid.


Death. Loss. Grief.


These words usually have a negative connotation, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. Society has shaped us to think that these are bad things, things we can’t talk about.


My life, however, has taught me differently.


No, you don’t have to visit a graveyard and hang with ghosts to become a thanatologist.


Don’t worry, no one’s ever actually asked me that, but I have been asked how my mom got into thanatology in the first place—and what the word “thanatology” even means.


Essentially, thanatology is the scientific and/or psychological study of death, dying, loss, and grief. Sounds pleasant, right?


Photo by Cemetery Gravestones

Before middle school, I only knew my mom as a theology teacher. I had no idea she was also a thanatologist until she opened her own business, which focused on educating people about death and teaching them how to cope with different types of losses and grief.


So I was like, “Hey, Mom, I didn’t know you knew about that stuff.”


And she was like, “Umm...did you think that most families talk about death and grief at dinner?”


Hmm, I guess I just assumed that since it was a normal conversation for us, it was normal for everyone else, too.


But that clearly was not the case, and usually isn’t. My friends and I didn't talk about death over lunch. Instead, we talked about the mundane: teachers who gave too much homework, weekend plans, how we were doing, etc.


Life. That’s what we talked about. Not death.

TBH, my mom wouldn’t be a thanatologist if not for a specific death: the death of her mother when my mom was only 27 years old.


No matter the age, losing a parent is unbelievably hard. When my grandmother died, it changed the way my mom looked at life and death, and it inspired her to go to grad school to learn more. Later, she worked at a mortuary college (basically a school to teach people how to become funeral directors, embalmers, etc.) and taught a class on the psychology of grief. But she didn’t get fully immersed in thanatology until she was introduced to the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC).


Even with a thanatologist for a mom, my life has been pretty normal.


Once I was in high school and actually knew what a thanatologist was, I had no problem telling people that my mom was one. It felt really cool because people would always ask me for more information, and I felt super smart and proud to tell them exactly what she did. (And I still think it’s pretty cool to this day!)


A lot of people have asked me if I know any interesting facts about thanatology or grief. While most people shy away from the subject, sometimes in class if we’re talking about death rituals or a moment of grief in a book, I’ll bring up some random facts that I know thanks to my mom.


For example: Did you know that Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief were put together through interviews conducted with people who were dying? Today, we understand that grief doesn’t come in set stages and that everyone’s grief journey is different, but back in 1969, this was a major breakthrough, and many people felt they had to follow the five stages whenever someone close to them died.


Thanatologists chill with dead people. FR.


Okay, maybe not for real, but close enough.


It’s actually been extremely helpful to have a thanatologist in the house. When I was a kid, I was never afraid of people dying. Funerals and wakes were like big family gatherings for me. I never felt crushingly sad or scared to hear that someone had died.


Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve been distraught if my mom had died when I was a kid, and I’d definitely be beside myself today. But my point is that I wasn’t scared of death because I had been taught about it.


I’ve been fortunate enough not to attend many funerals or wakes, but at the ones that I have attended, I’ve always felt pretty comfortable because I knew what to expect.


My mom explained the whole process of death to me when I went to my first funeral at five or six years old, and she always made sure to call death what it is instead of using euphemisms like “passed away” or “has gone on.” She did such a good job normalizing it, I told my mom I couldn’t wait for her to die!


LOL, I can totally wait now.


To end: death is a part of life.


Photo by Stainless Images

To this day, going to a funeral or wake doesn’t bother me. I allow myself to feel sad, grieve, and spend time with my family and friends as we mourn. I try to comfort those who feel lost or may not know how to cope with their grief. Even though losing someone is always hard, I know what works for me and what helps me feel better, and I hope that I can help others through their journey of healing, too.


Death doesn’t have to be scary or sad. Obviously, there are emotions involved and everyone goes through their own grief journey, but death happens. It’s normal. It is a part of life.