20th International Summer School in Social Work, 25th May 2017
We had an honor to have Professor Johanna Hefel from University of Applied Sciences Vorarlberg, Austria, to tell us about Death and Dying in the Context of Social Work Studies. Johanna Hefel´s notion is that death and dying is often seen through mass media glasses that also creates our language. Thereby it also constructs our reality. Linguistic terms that media uses often provokes fear and denial by threatening scenarios, subtext, stereotypes and oversimplifying by using direct causality. Death and dying are often a taboo or shrouded issue when Johanna Hefel rather sees them as natural as life. Social workers should engage in discourse and uncover the power of discourse about death and dying and provide alternative.
Johanna Hefel likes a participatory approach that means social workers and clients work and learn together and speak with rather than speak about. Social workers should be willing to reflect their personal fears and learn about complexity of life, death and dying. This should be done by sharing instead of keeping in secret. Social workers should be aware of cultural and religious diversity but also aware of their personal vulnerability. This among sharing is empowering. That also means ability and willingness to perceive and accept the transience of life in all fields of social work.
In social work education knowledge of death and dying is mainly focused on suicidality, suicide, crisis and trauma and so professional competences mainly focused on crisis intervention and crisis management. Language at university is often oriented, established and uncritically adopted by the vocabulary of economics. I would say that this is more and more universal and concerns most universities that are today dependent on business life funding. Language that comes from economics, means also that students are recruited as customers and studies are referred to as products.
Inspired by Johanna Hefel´s presentation, later Friday in our work shop group, we had an interesting discussion about the language we use when talking about death and dying. We discussed for example about impression it gives if somebody “committed a suicide” or it was “unsuccessful suicide”. It comes from a history when suicide was illegal. What should be a punishment for a suicide? And if you happen to fail in killing yourself, you are a total looser. There are a lot of cultural issues what comes to death and dying and most of all suicide. There are also cultural differences what comes to treating elder and disabled people. How do we treat people that are not like most of us or not as good strength as expected? Doesn´t that also show us how much we respect life? Do all the people have same value despite their race, age and gender? Certainly not like we perceive during the Summer School presentations. Language, how it is used and how it constructs our reality, was a major issue in many speaker´s presentations and a topic that included various work shop groups.
We should respect life and understand its value but death has a value as well. The fact is that we are all going to die one day. And that is natural and will be natural by talking about it. Johanna Hefel´s presentation was a good reminder of that. Death is natural but can also be described by many other words like painful, touching, and comforting and its peaceful presence can be found in graveyard or an old woman’s hands like Johanna Hefel showed us in a very beautiful way in her presentation.
Heli Keränen, Social Work student, University of Lapland, Finland