Professor known for popular course on death to retire

For Pamela Woodruff, death is no tough topic.

Woodruff, a psychology professor and alumna who began teaching at GW in the 1970s, is retiring this year. She is best known for her “Attitudes Toward Death and Dying” course, which addresses the different aspects, attitudes and experiences associated with death.

The class, which has become a staple of Woodruff’s time as a professor, is popular among students and often has a long waitlist, even with a cap of 70 students. Woodruff said she thinks the high level of interest in her class is partially because she requires her students to complete miniature projects in which they explore their own mortality – like designing their own tombstones or imagining death as a person.

“I like grossing out students, truly, and I like the humor,” Woodruff said. “I just enjoy being around young adults quite a lot. My students are great.”

The course includes a number of topics related to mortality – like grieving, children’s concept of death, death of the elderly, burial options and euthanasia, Woodruff said.

Woodruff said she was finishing up her clinical psychology work when the chair of the psychology department asked her to teach at GW. She said she has taught for so many years because she loves being around students, and that the hardest part about retiring is going to be leaving them.

Woodruff said she has a blunt and to-the-point personality, which she has taken into the classroom.

Her ability to deal with death started before she came to GW. She said her husband died when her daughter was young, and it was something the family worked through together.

“My daughter was always very comfortable with death,” Woodruff said. “I never lied to her about it. If we had a pet who died we used the correct word, that they were euthanized, not put to sleep.”

Woodruff also worked at the National Cancer Institute for 12 years as a researcher, where she said she often saw people suffer before they died. That experience turned her into an advocate for euthanasia or “death with dignity,” she said.

“Over 12 years I saw dozens and dozens of people die, but they had no control over their death in the sixties and seventies, so I feel strongly that people should,” Woodruff said.

Her experience at the National Cancer Institute also led Woodruff to help train hospice caretakers and pushed her to advocate for a “death with dignity” bill in Maryland. She said euthanasia is her favorite topic to teach in the death and dying course because of her particular interest in the subject.

In her retirement, Woodruff said she is planning to volunteer at the Montgomery Hospice in Rockville, Maryland. She said that visiting a person in their care once a week for a few hours will be a rewarding experience.

Calling no question “too morbid,” Woodruff said she would like her body donated to science when she dies but that it is unlikely to happen because she is a “terrible specimen.”

“Ultimately it’s up to my daughter, because she is surviving me, but she always tells me that I am going to be such a terrible teaching specimen,” Woodruff said. “And funerals are for the living anyway.”

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