The man in black

Tom Bruce


Tom Bruce is the Johnny Cash of psychologists; he is a thanatologist, a scholar of death and its psychological impacts. Bruce has worked in the field for more than 35 years and has enlightened more than 17,000 students on the inevitable process of life’s end through his wildly popular Psychology of Death and Dying course at Sacramento City College. The professor of death and dying took a moment to talk about ghosts, materialistic fools and why we should be totally cool with the idea of someday expiring.

What sort of reactions do you get when you tell people that you’re a professor of death?

Inevitably it’s “What are you dying of?” I’ll frequently say, “Boredom from talking to people like you.” People think something is wrong with you if you show an interest in the study of death.

What is thanatology?

Thanatology is the study of death, grief, suicide and all of the things that go along with it.

How can we know what happens after someone actually dies?

A lot of info comes from near-death experiences. We study people who have clinically died for a short period of time. Many of them come back with stories about what it was like. However, there are also physical explanations for those stories that have to do with the lack of oxygen to the brain or chemical changes happening in the central nervous system that cause hallucinations. Maybe this was the case, maybe it wasn’t.

Do you believe in the paranormal?

Oh, I believe there is a paranormal, but do I believe it is proven? No. I think there are all kinds of things beyond what our mind has converted into normal.

Like ghosts?


Awaiting ghost stories …

Often, there’s a dying patient lying there who thinks they’re having a conversation with Aunt Mabel, who died 15 years ago. Maybe they are having a conversation with Aunt Mabel.

Have you seen that a lot? Dying people reuniting with dead loved ones?

Richard Boss once said, “Not being known does not stop the truth from being true.” It’s the ultimate in human hubris that if we don’t know about it, it can’t be. Not knowing about it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

What are some common misconceptions about death?

Every culture has its mythology. Death is a mystery. Being a myth doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue, but often they are untrue.

A big one: our comparison between sleep and death—which is fairly uniform across cultures—people confusing death as if it were an extreme form of sleep. The processes going on both mentally and physically are entirely different between sleeping and when we’re dying. This is often why terminal patients have trouble sleeping at night. Because they probably grew up hearing the saying, “And now I lay me down to sleep … ”

Or “Grandma’s sleeping now.”

I sometimes feel like I’ve been working all my life in the field of metaphor, because, in fact, death is a big metaphor. The metaphors kind of wind around each other into a huge ball in order to make sense of the mystery.

I think sometimes our efforts to make sense of death just drive us very neurotic; the myths take on a life of their own. I remember growing up with the myth, “Death always happens in threes.” I was absolutely convinced that people died in threes because that was the myth, and of course it was so fulfilling that sure enough, there would always be three. Mostly because I would make three.

How does our society handle death compared to others?

We are so materialistic. We measure life using longevity. When someone dies, the first things we ask is “How old were they?” or “How did they die?” You may remember this bumper sticker: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”

I have that on my bike.

I think that’s sad that there are so many people out there who think just like that, as if junk is a way to measure how good your life was. It’s funny, the barometers we use for life in this culture. Materialistic cultures, not surprisingly, have a higher rate of death denial. We have to deny death because death wants to take all our toys away.

Why should death not be feared?

It’s a part of life! It came with the package. The flower of death is within us all, from the point of conception on. It is an absolute part of the human growth trajectory to eventually die. In the beginning, someone gave birth to me, and ultimately I will give birth to me, and it will be called my dying.