Photo: Annie Arnone

Let’s talk about death

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By Ebony-Renee Baker

When Mariam Nouser, 20, lost her grandmother three days before starting high school, it became the worst year of her life. Her grandmother suffered from muscular dystrophy, and after growing weaker and weaker, Nouser was by her side at her final breath. School inevitably began, rocking her grieving process and catapulting her within a circle of friends who didn’t know how to react to her grief.

Now a third-year engineering student at Ryerson, Nouser experienced another tragedy when her uncle passed away from colon cancer in their Toronto home this January. Their four once-full bedrooms are now only occupied by Nouser and her mother. Ryerson granted her a two and a half week leave in January, and she continues to grieve and support her mother today.

Though she’s had much better support from her friends this time around, she admits that she now shies away from expressing her grief.

“Death is a part of life, death is a natural thing, but people are very, very critical and judgmental of how people react to death. And I think that’s a conversation that needs to be had,” Nouser says.

For university students, loss isn’t often a regular occurrence. Although death is terrifying, unexplained and often a conversation downer, young people have copious reasons to avoid shying away from the topic, whether they have experienced loss or not. As Nouser and other young people who have experienced loss have realized, being conscious of human mortality can often motivate one to live a better life.

For university students, loss isn’t often a regular occurrence

In Western culture, this perception isn’t exactly popular considering the fact that death is more often shrouded in stigma, fear and silence. Canada has notably low mortality rates, those of which are even lower among people age 30 and under. On top of that, advanced medical care makes it more common today for people to die in hospital than in the home, further distancing people away from death. This figurative and literal separation from death has thus created a taboo.

Before starting this article, I tried to better understand this taboo by casually bringing up the topic of death to a couple handfuls of peers mid-conversation. Aside from two people who were genuinely intrigued by death, I mostly got stunned faces, awkward silences, and plenty of redirecting phrases. One peer suggested that we lighten the conversation and talk about birth instead.

Are people actively disregarding the fact that death is just as natural, and just as much a reality, as birth?

For some students like Nouser, the reality of our inherent mortality was thrust upon them the hard way.

Nouser has always been comfortable talking about death. Her family is of Islamic faith, and death is a natural, necessary part of life, despite the sadness it brings.

“Death, in my religion, is kind of a good thing because you’re entering the eternal life, rather than the temporary life here on earth. Mourning is permitted, but we must pray and be happy for those who have passed on,” she says.

With that being said, it still was not easy after her uncle died in January. Her mental wellbeing and her studies have suffered. She fell behind in her studies due to the weeks she had off and is still trying to catch up. “Emotionally, just having the energy to go to class anymore is non-existent. Luckily I don’t have any early morning classes, but at the same time, I really don’t have the energy to go to every class because I’m still grieving,” Nouser says.

“Emotionally, just having the energy to go to class anymore is non-existent”

She also admits that a lot of her peers don’t know or understand what she is feeling, even months later. She hides it partly because her friends in high school were quick to judge her, saying she was faking her pain. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety in Grade 9, and while working on her mental health and dealing the loss of her grandmother, she learned who her true friends were and how easily others judged her.

At her uncle’s visitation this year, however, Nouser couldn’t even count how many of her friends came. Scores of close friends and fellow members of Ryerson’s Muslim Students’ Association showed their support for her during this difficult time. Still, Nouser says was disappointed in the way some friends treated her after her uncle died.

“With death, we haven’t experienced enough of it as young people, or so I hope,” she says. Like Nouser has experienced, death can happen to anyone, at any time.

It is this sudden, splitting disappearance that often makes death difficult to deal with. Being young and seemingly having several decades ahead of you, it is difficult to fathom the thought that the future is not guaranteed.

Cristian Conte, a second-year computer-engineering student, believes that this illusion of invincibility plagues a lot of young people.

“I’ve noticed many people my age have trouble talking about death either due to a major loss, or their inability to come to terms with their own mortality,” Conte says. “We are at the age where we believe nothing bad could ever happen to us, that we are immortal.”

Conte has always been comfortable talking about death because he knows that it is an unavoidable part of life. While he hasn’t experienced any major loss, a few people close to him have recently been diagnosed with illnesses, consequently bringing mortality to a more real forefront for him.

“It takes a while to start understanding that we are not immortal, and any one of these days could be our last,” says Conte. “When we are young, there is so much that we haven’t experienced or accomplished in our lives and we won’t humor the idea of our passing before being able to experience or accomplish all that we want.”

Conte says that it is important for young people to have these conversations.

Death, Dying and Bereavement, a course that delves deep into the realities of mortality. The course explores “everything” related to death, including how people die, end-of-life care, stigma of dying, physician-assisted death, and cultural attitudes towards death.

“One thing is true about all of us,” Dr. Hart says. “We’re born, and we die.” She says that young people are separated from death, and should not pretend that it’s never going to happen. Understanding this reality is the type of forward-thinking that Dr. Hart promotes in this class.

“A lot of us spend time being upset and mad about things that might matter in the moment, but in the long term don’t really matter,” she says. “In fact, freaking out about stuff is wrecking the quality of our life. If you knew that you only had one more year to live, is this how you want to do it?”

A few weeks ago, I reached out to Ryerson students online, asking them to share their experiences and thoughts about death for this article. The response was unexpectedly overwhelming. I spoke to many students, some of who I am good friends with, who have been through traumatic deaths and whose lives have been greatly affected by these losses but don’t necessarily broadcast it. I realized that more young people have been hugely affected by death, and more young people regularly reflect on death than I thought. It is the fear, judgment, and plain uncertainty that keeps them from talking more openly about it.

Personally, I’m pretty okay with talking about death. But thinking about it — I mean really thinking about it — is something that I’ve very actively avoided since I was a child. When I was around 10 years old, I remember waking up in the middle of the night and crying to my parents because I was afraid of dying. I am the type of person who enjoys researching and discovering facts and I when I don’t know the answer to something, I try to find it. The fact that no one will ever be able to account for what happens after death puts me at the bottom of this giant, intimidating wall. Because I am blockaded from the unknown, I in turn try not to think about the end of my existence. But inevitably, there are moments when my entire thought process envelopes the simple yet gargantuan fact that I will die, my family will die, and we will literally disappear from Earth.

This is absolutely terrifying. I love my life and I don’t want to imagine it ending anytime soon, or at all, to be honest. But if I ask myself why I love my life so fervidly, it is because I am equally as aware of its fragility. Whenever I am nervous to act on my emotions, whenever I get heated about a situation, or whenever I am hyper-stressed from school work, the pilot light that flickers in the back of my mind and bears the truth of my mortality returns, reigniting my passion for life. That light reminds me that another day is never guaranteed, and because of that, I live a life I am proud of. I saw the same light in all of the students I spoke to, who have experienced loss.

Mariam Nouser proves that her passion for life is ignited everyday after losing her loved ones. “It taught me how, not everything in this life is permanent and that good times will leave and bad times will leave as well,” she says. “We must take every day as a blessing and every day in stride.”

This summer, Nouser is going to finally act on a goal that she has had for years. She will be launching a business that she first began in 2014. Inspired by her grandmother, who was the most fashionable person she knew, Nouser has created a company that uses fashion to benefit local charitable initiatives.  It’s also the reason she chose a minor in entrepreneurship at Ryerson.

Today, she makes it through the grief and healing process every day on her faith and a support system that includes her friends and her mother.

“I think that there’s a legacy that my uncle’s left behind because no matter what happened to him he’d always be smiling, and he’d always be really helpful and very forgiving,” Nouser says. “He lives in me.”

Correction: Death, Dying and Bereavement is not a Chang School course, as previously reported by the story.”

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