FREDERICK -- Three years ago, Andrea Warnick was accidentally stuck with an HIV-positive needle while volunteering in Botswana.

That moment prompted the 29-year-old registered nurse to consider her own mortality and start looking for ways to help others deal with death and dying.

After testing negative for the virus four months after the accident, the Toronto native decided she would head back to school.

"I was actually in Tanzania; I just plugged in the words 'master's in death and dying' (into a search engine)," she said.

When Hood College kept appearing in her search results, Ms. Warnick decided that Maryland would be an OK place to study and enrolled in the school's graduate program.

Her field of study -- death, dying and bereavement, otherwise known as thanatology, isn't exactly easy to find.

Hood offers the only master's degree program in thanatology in the United States. Between 30 and 35 students are registered in the thanatology program at any given time. Graduates have come from as far away as Japan and Taiwan.

Ms. Warnick, who graduated from Hood in December 2004, said her personal goal is to make thanatology a household word.

If more people were aware of thanatology, they would have a better understanding of how to handle death and loss, she said.

With her are the roughly 1,700 members of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, as well as Hood professors Terry Martin and Dana Cable.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Cable, both professors of psychology and thanatology, have been teaching at Hood for years, but only in the last five has thanatology been offered as a degree program.

"(Thanatology), just as gerontology was a few years ago, (is) a field of the future," Mr. Cable said.

Thanatology classes at Hood teach students to consider cultural issues surrounding death, views of life after death and counseling and support methods. Students in the program are often doctors, nurses, counselors and spiritual leaders.

While thanatology isn't the most well-known discipline, Mr. Martin expects that it's growing popularity will cause Hood to turn away students within the next five years.

'You don't talk about it'

The program broaches a topic that has been ignored in the past.

"Historically, death's never been an easy thing to talk about," Mr. Martin said.

Mr. Cable said a stigma surrounds learning and talking about death.

"I have undergraduates who say when they go home and tell their parents that they are taking this course, (parents) say 'What are we paying for?'" Mr. Cable said.

Modern medicine has kept people healthier and alive longer, Mr. Cable said, often making families unfamiliar with the experience of losing a loved one.

Those who study thanatology hope to provide a support system for people dealing with death because such services are not taught in other disciplines, Mr. Martin said.

"It's the age of specialization," he said. "If you have cancer, you not only see your family doctor, (but) you're referred generally to an oncologist, often to a surgeon, and then a radiologist."

Mr. Martin said those doctors are trained to treat life-threatening illnesses, but not prepared to handle the psycho-social consequences.

When dealing with the death of a loved one, people often experience intense grief and have difficulty understanding the new, powerful emotions, he said.

Ms. Warnick, now a palliative-care nurse treating the terminally ill in Toronto, is able to help people with those emotions.

When Ms. Warnick was 11, her aunt's passing helped her realize the significance death can have in survivor's lives.

"You're dealing with a type of pain that you can't fix," she said. "When somebody's dying a lot of times you can't fix it and the most you can do is be there with them."

Roberta Halporn, director for the Center for Thanatology Research and Education Inc. in Brooklyn, N.Y. also got involved with the study of death and dying because of experiences she had as a child.

Losing her father at age 5 and uncle at 12, Ms. Halporn said she suffered because death was never addressed in her family.

"We did everything wrong in the old-fashion(ed) way," she said. "You don't talk about it, you don't go to the grave site to remember. You don't let anybody see you crying, you don't ever let yourself cry in public."

Ms. Halporn founded the center in 1980, two years after the Association for Death Education and Counseling's inception.

Bret S. Beall, administrative manager for ADEC, said a major change occurred in the way death is handled during a cultural shift in the 1960s.

"My perspective is that starting the '60s people started to open up and embrace other cultures and other traditions," he said. "With that came an exposure to societies and cultures, and traditions that didn't fear death."

Collectively grieving

Both Hood professors credit longer lifespans and better health to modern medicine, and said death is becoming a more-overwhelming part of American culture.

"I think the stigma is lessened," Mr. Cable said. "I think it's happening because more people around us in general are being touched by death situations they never encountered before."

He cited murder rates, terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and a potential flu pandemic among ways people can be touched by death, creating a need for more people with a background in thanatology.

Two students in the program lost families members in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Following last December's tsunami, Ms. Warnick traveled to Sri Lanka as part of a medical team.

There she found herself spending 80 percent of her time providing emotional support rather than immediate medical attention.

"The biggest thing was just listening to people and letting people tell their story," she said.

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