By Roz Sunley, End of Life Studies MSc Student
Why did postgraduate students from the University of Glasgow travel thousands of miles in early June 2022 to spend a few days at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies in Dumfries? It all began when one student from the End-of-Life Studies Programme announced her intention to visit from Mexico. Several of us realised this could be a wonderful reason for more of us to translate months of virtual contact into real physical meetings. We could then deepen relationships that had already been formed online with both lecturers and students alike.
With the invaluable help of a ‘local’ Scottish student on the programme, plans were put in place to ensure this visit was a combination of both informal and formal learning. The historic itinerary over the weekend included visits to both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Monday brought a short walking tour of Dumfries, followed by Caerlaverock Castle and Sweetheart Abbey the next day. We hardly needed the sights and sounds of Scotland to stimulate conversation once we found ourselves in the same physical reality after months of online learning and bonding.
Amongst ice-creams, selfies and souvenir shopping, we found real delight in being able to spend time comfortably talking with each other about everything to do with death, dying and bereavement, without the need to justify our interest and enthusiasm. Epitaphs on gravestones at Sweetheart Abbey on Tuesday morning prompted an interesting discussion about the future of memorialisation in a digital age, before we all headed back to campus in readiness for the more formal aspects of our trip.
We enjoyed a late afternoon lecture given by Dr Seamus O’Mahoney entitled ‘Bringing the Value of Death Back into Life. Why is dying so difficult in the 21st century?‘ This was followed by a reception where we had opportunity to meet other attendees from both inside and outside the university. With its focus on the recent Lancet Commission Report into the Value of Death, the lecture surprised us by reinforcing how much we’d already learned on the programme. Although as students we come from many different walks of life, the course content has enabled us to quickly get to grips with key concepts and wide-ranging material around end-of-life issues. As a recently retired academic, I came to this programme with an open mind to understand more about the challenges of ageing and dying. I hope to use what I’m learning to contribute to community-led initiatives that help older people make meaning at the end of life.
During our visit, the students were able to build on theories and ideas that we have learned through the programme, and we could see how far we’d already travelled on our online learning journey. If we needed any further proof of our achievement, several of our research posters submitted as an assessment for Public Health Approaches to the End of Life festooned the walls of the lecture room like a national gallery of art; a world away from the miniature versions we’d laboured over on our computers in our respective corners of the globe. Lively conversation continued over supper with Dr O’Mahoney and his wife.
Although grey skies greeted us on Wednesday morning, this didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for a full day in a real classroom discussing the joys and challenges of writing our final dissertations. It was good to be joined online by other fellow students from the programme who’d not been able to travel to Scotland. This proved to be a truly valuable opportunity to think about, and support, each other’s individual future dissertation ideas. We celebrated a very successful day in the hotel bar!
It’s always difficult to say goodbye to interesting people who share one’s passions, and this proved to be no exception. We’d enjoyed a few days of amazing action-packed learning, laughter, and occasional emotional moments. We learned more about each other personally and professionally, and the experience was certainly worth all the effort and long journeys we had to undertake to find ourselves in Dumfries.
Conversation has already turned to plans for next year’s visit – and maybe even a writing retreat!