December 11, 2023

Podcast: The Sociology of Death and Dying

Author: Dr. Bjorn Mercer
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Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University, and Dr. Kasia Polanska, Faculty Member, Sociology

Thinking about death and dying can actually help people live a more meaningful life. In this podcast, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks with Dr. Kasia Polanska about her experience working with dying patients as a hospice volunteer.

Start a sociology degree at American Public University.

This work inspired Dr. Polanksa to investigate the sociology of death and dying, which eventually led to her to develop a class on the topic. Learn how her research and examination of death and dying can inspire clarity and meaning in life.

Read the Transcript

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to the School of Arts and Humanities at the American Public University System. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today at The Everyday Scholar, we’re talking to Dr. Kasia Polanska, Assistant Professor of Sociology at American Public University System. And today we’re talking about the sociology of death and dying. Welcome, Kasia.

Dr. Kasia Polanska: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Of course. No, honestly, it’s a fascinating topic. Death and dying is something, as humans, we encounter and we’ll have to encounter in our own lives. And so I’m just going to jump into the first question, how did you get interested in this topic?

Dr. Kasia Polanska: Well, that happened about maybe four years ago and I have never studied the topic of death and dying in sociology. In fact, my own field is very far from it. My concentration has been political sociology and race and ethnicity and so on. So this is not really something that I gave much thought when I was going through grad school and just my teaching career and my research.

So about four years ago, I saw a phone number and our local hospice was looking for volunteers and they were offering training for hospice volunteers. So I signed up and took this kind of very intense and interesting training and became a hospice volunteer.

And soon after that, I was assigned to my first patient, so it wasn’t just the training and kind of the theoretical knowledge, but I got to experience working with a patient who was dying of cancer. And I got to know him over a month as he was dying.

And it was just kind of a very transformative experience, so to speak. It just made me realize that I felt really passionate about a topic, that it was something that we didn’t really talk enough about in society. And so a couple of years later after that first patient, whose name was Ron, I worked with more patients. And eventually I approached our program director to develop a class on death and dying.

Or maybe she mentioned that there was a class that needed to be updated or something like that and I said, “Could I please have that class and work on that?” And that’s how it happened, that’s how I developed the class on death and dying.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. So why do you think, as contemporary humans, we don’t talk about death and dying as much as maybe in the past where like mortality rates were higher, infant mortality rates were higher and it would have been a more common-ish occurrence for humans in the past.

Dr. Kasia Polanska: I think there are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is that we no longer live in households that we have our grandma or grandpa living with us in a spare room. So these multi-generational families are no longer the norm, as it used to be in the past.

So we don’t actually experience somebody who lives in our household dying at some point, which was my case when I was growing up in Poland. My great-grandmother lived with us for a while and then she died and I remember that as a child. So I think it no longer happens, not just the United States, but it doesn’t happen in my native Poland anymore as much.

And so also there’s a lot of focus in our culture on beauty and fitness and living. Cemeteries are often on the outskirts of town, we don’t really visit. So this is something I can see someone who grew up in a different culture, we actually visited our dead relatives at the cemetery every week. And so this was a constant presence, being around cemeteries.

I think most Americans don’t really experience that. And I just visited the cemetery on Memorial Day and there were a lot of people, but when I go there, I go there almost daily because I still volunteer for the local animal shelter, there’s no one there.

So just once or twice a year, you see a lot of people there, but cemeteries are not just something that we think about. But on the other hand, we do hear about death a lot and, unfortunately, in the context of drug overdoses of celebrities or tragedies such as the recent case in Minnesota of police brutality and so on.

And so that is kind of present, but at the same time, it’s far because we focus so much on beauty, and fitness, and youth, and living. So I think that these are some of the reasons for why it’s not a kind of a common thing we think about.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And I like how you brought up, obviously, people focus on living, I’m sure people in the past did the same thing.

But yeah, with fewer multi-generational households, you don’t then experience grandparents growing older and potentially dying in your house. And then even people I know, there’s very few that have multi-generational households.

In this country, it is more the norm that there’s the nuclear family, but then grandma, grandma lives somewhere else and then, say, when they’re nearing end of life, it’s a different experience versus the family taking care of it. Not always, of course. And so with your experience with this and volunteering with hospice, what are your students’ reaction to this topic?

Dr. Kasia Polanska: So students who have taken the class often are really surprised once it’s over or maybe as they go along and are taking the class because they expect something depressing, morbid to come out of the experience. And they often take the class because it may be useful, many of our students are first responders, are in the military, so they’re in touch with death, or they witness death in their line of work in different ways. So they just take it because it may be useful in their career, but they don’t really look forward to it.

But when they come out of the class, they find it to be really kind of an amazing experience. And also they think it’s very meaningful and often changes their outlook on life itself because it does remind them that there’s an end to life and that it’s important to live in the best way possible.

So it’s kind of a wake-up call in some ways, but also a way to talk about a taboo topic, something that they may kind of know about, but try not to think about and fear. And there are also those who have said that this was kind of therapeutic because they’ve lost someone they loved in the past, or sometimes in recent past, and they haven’t really worked through that experience and taking the class actually allows them to do that.

So it’s sort of a therapy for them as well. So the reactions are very positive, based on the students I’ve talked with.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s good. Obviously, students will have many different perspectives on death and dying and, especially, if their job does put them in front of people who might be at the end of life.

Now, have you experienced people who come from cultures where, say, the Day of the Dead is common, do they process death and dying, say, different, I don’t want to say better than, say, American culture or maybe even Polish culture that you’ve experienced?

Dr. Kasia Polanska: Well, I think the Mexican culture with the Mexican rituals around death, to me at least, are somewhat similar to America, even though it’s called something different, it’s Halloween versus Dia de los Muertos. It’s really kind of similar, but it’s very different from the Polish culture where death is something more solemn, something very spiritual and kind of makes us reflect back on the times we spend with our relatives, our family history and so on. We go to the cemetery and meet at the grave and so on.

In the U.S. and Mexican cultures, it’s something that’s kind of… well, and I’m sure there are differences between the two, but my impression is that it’s more lighthearted in a way, it’s a spiritual experience, but in the U.S. we put costumes and it’s not a very solemn occasion.

Yeah. I have to say that I haven’t fully wrapped my head around it, because it’s still I’ve never gotten used to the Halloween coming from this kind of a different approach to that time, because in Poland it’s very much a religious holiday that has to do with November the first and All Saints Day and so on. And so Halloween has a different feel to it.

So I don’t know if I’m kind of explaining it very clearly, but there is different way that Halloween is, you can laugh and you can have fun. In Poland, it’s not about fun, it’s kind of more solemn and more sad, but it’s not really sad, it’s just a reflection on the family and where we come from and where we are going. It’s about expressing it, if that makes any sense. It’s more internal.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It does. Since you’re Polish, I could only imagine that it would be somber because of the history of Poland during World War II. The U.S. typical culture has no context that could relate to what happened to Poland in World War II, besides the Jewish Holocaust, but the millions of Polish people who died. And just the fact that Poland is littered with former concentration camps, I mean, I’m assuming growing up in Poland, you could literally be 20 miles from a concentration camp.

Dr. Kasia Polanska: I grew up half an hour from Auschwitz, and we went to Auschwitz on field trips with school as early as primary school. So, of course, my mother was born after the Second World War, but my grandparents lived through the war.

And yeah, so it’s much more visible that history is very much kind of in the public sphere. We talk about it, we think about it and, of course, the concentration camps are reminders of that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And, again, I have not visited Poland, so I’ve not seen those firsthand. So, again, it makes sense that’d be such a solemn occasion because of the tragic history that occurred in Poland. The only thing I can compare to it in the U.S. is something that, again, most typical Americans wouldn’t relate to would be the death of indigenous populations.

Here over a few hundred years where literally millions and millions indigenous peoples died of disease and of conflict. And although that history is taught, it’s not really comprehended here in the U.S. And honestly, sometimes I think a lot of Americans don’t want to comprehend it because it is so hard, it’s just a hard reality.

Dr. Kasia Polanska: Sure, sure.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Why is this topic interesting for you?

Dr. Kasia Polanska: Huh. I think it’s interesting because, for me specifically, it puts life in a kind of broader perspective. It makes me focus towards something that’s really meaningful, as opposed to some petty daily concerns that we have and not to minimize it our daily lives, of course, they are important, but it’s just kind of, I think, important to think about where we are all going, where I’m going, and how I want to live my life to make it meaningful while it lasts.

Also, I think that the loss of our loved ones affects us much more than we realize; that’s definitely true for me. And I realized that, and I realized the importance of kind of thinking about death, dying and also bereavement.

But when I participated in a grief group, that was basically a series of meetings to help community members deal with losses of their loved ones. And I participated in that group, I think that was about two years ago, as a trainer, but I had to kind of pick a loss to work through.

Most of the participants had some sort of loss. One woman lost her brother to suicide, and other person lost a very close friend to cancer and so on.

So each person had a loss. And I had to pick a loss and kind of be one of the participants, but also help train and learn to be a trainer. So it was very interesting because when I started talking about my loss, as everybody took turns and talked about their loss, I was very much surprised by my emotional reaction.

And I didn’t think I would cry, but I did. And when it was all over, it was as if some kind of weight was lifted off my shoulders. And that’s truly surprised me because I didn’t think it was…I just had to kind of think about the loss, but it wasn’t something that maybe even affected me the most in my life, I thought, but it was just something that was very good to get rid of.

And so I think it’s important just to help people live. And as a sociologist, I’m interested in the community support to people who are suffering for all kinds of reasons.

And I think losing our loved ones and people who we rely on to death, even though it’s inevitable, it’s just traumatic. And so it’s good to work through and provide supports for people who are going through that process and all of us would go through that at some point.

And I haven’t so far, both of my parents are living, and my closest family members are living. So perhaps in recent years, the most traumatic death for me was the death of my dog.

And that surprised me as well because that was very powerful, grieving experience. And that’s what I hear from other pet owners, that their losses of pets are just sometimes more traumatic than their losses of people.

And that’s kind of an interesting aspect of death as well, I think, in how we deal with that, given that pet ownership is very common and, in fact, people refer to the pets as their babies, fur babies and so on. So there are many reasons for me to be interested in this topic, but these are just a few of them.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And you brought up a ton of good stuff. First of all, pet ownership is common. People love their pets, cats, dogs, horses, whatever you have, they become part of your family. And so when they do pass, it is sad and people they do and should grieve.

I’m also glad that you brought up when sometimes people do die, tragically, of, say, suicide or cancer, that’s something that, for those who survive, they do need to deal with that grief because you shouldn’t swallow it, you shouldn’t just stiff upper lip and just keep on going. And it makes me think of kind of work-ism of America, where we just work, work, work, work, work.

If you have a death in the family, like when my father passed, I had five days of bereavement and then, if I wanted to take more, I had to take the time off. Like, well, I’m pretty sure you can’t really properly grieve somebody for just one week, but those are the laws and depending on the company you work for, or organization, they will have better, or the bare minimum.

Now, do you think, in this country, would it be better for the general populace if there was more opportunity to grieve? To have more time off allowing you to grieve versus, “Well, here’s five days and then get back to work”?

Dr. Kasia Polanska: Yeah. As you explained in your experience that wasn’t enough. And definitely that will vary from individual, but definitely people should have the opportunity to take maybe more time off if they feel they need to.

So, yeah, I think that’s just kind of a part of the entire attitude towards that that we have, maybe as a society, we don’t take it seriously. But hopefully it’s changing and become kind of more aware of that. But I don’t really know, but it’s a great point that you brought up. I think it makes sense to me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And, for me, I think there’s a variety of issues with the American obsession with working. Working is good, we should all work, but there is also needed time to be human.

And when you have a baby, have time to bond with a baby, when a loved one dies have time to grieve, fully grieve. And for some people they’re fine, I guess, for other people, it takes longer. And that’s okay because you’re going to have a much more productive person if they’re able to fully grieve and go through the process.

Dr. Kasia Polanska: Yeah. And I think it’s really interesting; your point is really interesting. We are so much focused on work and productivity and so on.

And I think something interesting happened during the recent issues with COVID-19 and quarantines. If there’s anything positive to come out of a very tragic situation is that people have been forced to reflect and forced to stay home and be with their families. And I’m hoping that our attitudes will change and that it will be lasting in a way, that positive aspect. Yeah. So I’m hoping that this will be the good that will come out of a bad situation.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Agreed. And COVID has literally changed the world. And, to me, it connects us to the long lineage of humans who have had to deal with pandemics in the past.

And so if you just talk about the bigger pandemics in human history, so the Black Plague or outbreaks of smallpox, I mean, literally 50 to two-thirds of the population would die. And, luckily, COVID has not been as serious as that, as serious in the mortality rate.

But again, it connects us as humans to what our ancestors had to go through and really deal with the fact that we could just die one day. And, like you said, I hope that people really reflect on what’s important and that living should be for helping each other out.

And you’ve got to make money, of course, but you don’t take money to the grave. Whatever your concept of whatever happens after you die, you don’t take dollar bills there.

Dr. Kasia Polanska: So hopefully it just refocused us on our family and community and so on. So yeah, it definitely did that to me and it just made me appreciate my family and my friends and so on. So, yeah, it’s… yeah.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And then how do you see this in your teaching? And you also created a course here at APUS about death and dying. Do you want to say a few words about that?

Dr. Kasia Polanska: Yes, so the book that I found is a book that actually, when doing research for the class, it was of course, a free open access book through the APUS Library by Stillion and Attig. And the title is “Death, Dying, and Bereavement: Contemporary Perspectives, Institutions, and Practices.”

And what I really like about that book is that even though it’s a sociology class, the book draws on a variety of disciplines to kind of take a holistic view of death, dying and bereavement and take advantage of collective wisdom of scholars in different disciplines, as well as practitioners in the death and dying movement. So there’s a chapter on philosophical perspectives on death and dying, and there’s, of course, a sociology of dead and dying chapter and psychology and so on.

Because what I really like, and I’ve always liked as a student for many years and also then as a teacher and researcher, is kind of multidisciplinary perspectives on different phenomena. Because I think it just really connects a lot of different pieces and provides a fuller perspective of a field.

So what I really like about and what I try to make this class to be is not only look at kind of theories and explanations and theoretical aspects of dead, dying, and bereavement, but also about developments in the field. And there are a lot of exciting developments in recent decades, the hospice movement.

There’s one thing about death and dying that most people asked say that they would like to die at home, but the reality is most people die at hospitals because of the severity of their condition or so on. And so there are developments — practical developments —in the field [that] have to do with making kind of a more social model of death and dying.

So even if somebody dies eventually in a nursing home or some kind of an assisted living facility, that their environment would be more homelike than kind of the sterile hospital setting, white walls and no pictures on the walls and so on. So there’s just kind of a lot of interesting material that is found in this textbook. And yeah, I’m just really excited about the class.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, that’s excellent. Just from my own experience from when my father passed and he passed at a hospital, it was a bad experience. Not in the sense that they weren’t great because they were, but the hospital is, like you said, it’s sterile.

And if he could have passed at home in his bed, that would have been a much better experience or, like you said, in [an] assisted living facility or anything. And it would have been a better experience for the family, a little bit of everything. But the way the healthcare system is set up, well, it’s difficult to facilitate that kind of end of life care.

But no, I’m glad you talked about that. And your volunteering with hospice, I think extremely important, it’s one of the things that I fully intend to volunteer once my kids are older. So any last words on this topic?

Dr. Kasia Polanska: No, just maybe one quote from the book by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard that, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” So as much as I really think it’s important to think about death and dying, we still have to live our lives. But it’s just useful to look back and to try to understand. And, hopefully, it will make our path forward more meaningful and more focused on what’s really important in life, which is our loved ones, family and friends, communities.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And absolutely wonderful. And I would like to thank today, Dr. Kasia Polanska for talking about the sociology of death and dying. Thank you so much, Kasia.

Dr. Kasia Polanska: Thank you for having me, Bjorn.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh yeah, for sure. And today this was The Everyday Scholar here at American Public University System, and my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer.

About the Speakers

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

Dr. Kasia Polanska is a faculty member in the Sociology program at American Public University and has worked in different capacities in education since 1997. She has a bachelor’s in journalism from San Francisco State University, a master’s in Latin American studies from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Minnesota. Dr. Polanska’s past professional experience includes work within the United Nations human rights treaty system as a research director of a non-governmental human rights organization. 

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