September 14, 2018

A Sociology of My Death

Unknown-2By Peter Kaufman

I’m dying. I don’t mean this figuratively—like I’m dying of thirst or dying to visit Hawaii. I mean it quite literally. I have incurable, stage IV lung cancer.

I was diagnosed in June 2017, a few months after my fiftieth birthday. My only symptom was a nagging, dry cough, but by the time the disease was detected the cancer had metastasized throughout my body. Since then I have had numerous treatments and interventions. Some of these worked quite well, allowing me to resume most of my normal activities; others were not as effective, resulting in adverse side effects, extreme discomfort, and, in one instance, a week-long stay in the hospital. My current treatment plan showed great initial promise but now, after just a few weeks, the tumors started growing again.      

For me to have lung cancer—indeed any form of cancer—is the epitome of a tragic irony. I have never smoked or tried illegal drugs, and I’ve never even been drunk. I’ve pursued clean living, good nutrition, and regular exercise in part to avoid the sort of medical misfortune that I am now experiencing. As a kid I played sports all day long. At sixteen I swore off junk food. At eighteen I became a vegetarian. In my twenties I ran marathons and did triathlons, and, in my thirties and forties when my aching knees no longer let me run, I swam or biked most days. About six months before my diagnosis I completed a one-day workout that simulated two-thirds of an Ironman triathlon, swimming 2.4 miles, then biking 120 miles (with 5,000 feet of climbing). A few weeks later I recorded my fastest one-mile swim time ever. I was incredibly healthy . . . until I wasn’t.

My cancer is driven by a specific gene mutation commonly referred to as ALK (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) rearrangement. I am an outlier in the world of cancer but no one can really tell me why. As is the case with so many diseases, researchers cannot pinpoint why someone like me gets sick. Tragic randomness is not the most reassuring explanation but unless your belief system about life and death is influenced by some sort of religious ideology, which mine isn’t, then it may just be the best answer to that vexing, painful question: Why me?

If I had a better grasp of the physiological science behind my cancer, perhaps I could comprehend the biological processes of my situation; however, the science with which I am most familiar is sociology. As a sociologist, I am more intrigued by the social processes of my illness and death. I may never know why I have been afflicted, but I can explain how a disease like mine is felt—both by the individual (me, in this case) and the group. This type of knowledge is unlikely to help find a cure; yet, I believe it can be extremely useful by providing guidance for how to act with compassion and by highlighting social practices that many fail to see. Exploring the sociological aspects of illness and dying might even foster policy changes that could ameliorate some of the unnecessary suffering that’s often part and parcel of confronting the incurable.

Most of us think of death and dying as deeply personal processes. They are. But none of us live in a bubble or experience death and dying alone. Whether it’s caring for my ailing body or disposing of my dead body once I’m gone, other people are and will continue to be directly involved in my experience. In doing so, my death becomes part of them.

A basic tenet of sociology is that all experiences from birth to death, no matter how personal they may be, are also inherently social. Our most personal thoughts and emotions are largely products of our social experiences, our social environment, and the social expectations that are thrust upon us. With this in mind, here are four sociological themes of death and dying that I have observed since my diagnosis. To be sure, these are not the only ones worthy of scrutiny, but they resonate most closely with my life, my illness, and my interests.  

1. Interdependence

We all live tangled lives of interconnections, in what Martin Luther King once called “an inescapable network of mutuality.” Although this point is not always acknowledged or fully understood, it becomes unmistakable when you are diagnosed with a terminal disease. Immediately, your daily existence becomes part of the daily existence of a multitude of others: doctors, nurses, technicians, porters, receptionists, and administrators, not to mention family and friends. The notion that you are self-sufficient evaporates as you become dependent on these people, not only to shepherd you through your daily life, but to literally keep you alive.

The number of individuals that suddenly enters your life is both overwhelming and humbling. After my first CT scan, I told myself that I was going to write down the names of everyone who helped me each day so I could express my gratitude for them before I went to bed. But within the frame of that two-hour appointment there were so many people in such rapid succession, it soon became impossible to keep track. During hospital stays, my attempt at performing this exercise in gratitude is even more futile. While I do my best to learn people’s names while they are helping me, and thank them personally afterwards, the constant revolving door of medical staff makes it difficult to convey my appreciation in the way that I had hoped.  

When faced with a serious illness, an even more obvious dimension of our interdependence becomes powerfully evident: our reliance on family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Because these individuals exist within our inner relationship circles, we have a better sense of how much we depend on them. Such dependence is significantly amplified when faced with death and dying. Tasks and activities that previously were performed alone now become social occasions because one needs the support of others to perform them.

One of the great lessons of interdependence is that our successes and failures are not only contingent upon our own choices and behaviors. Once we recognize the extent to which we rely on others to thrive (or, in my case, survive) we are less likely to fall prey to victim blaming ("I am solely responsible for my failures") and the myth of individualism ("I am solely responsible for my successes"). Thankfully, you don’t need an incurable illness to learn this lesson. While a diagnosis such as mine might heighten awareness of interdependence, anyone can become more attuned to how much our lives hinge on the actions of others.

For starters, try your own version of an exercise that helped illuminate my sense of connectedness and reliance to the people around me: Write down the names of all the people who help you or on whom you rely during a typical day. Include people you may never see or meet in person—for me, that’s the overnight janitors who clean the spaces I navigate; the workers who produce, package, ship, and deliver the medicines I take; the medical personnel who analyze blood work, read scans and MRIs, develop life-saving treatments, and train the healthcare personnel with whom I now co-exist. I even take note of the utility workers who ensure that I have running water, electricity, and heat. These inescapable networks of mutuality are not difficult to see so long as we are willing to step out of our solipsistic realities. 

2. Social Interactions

About a month after my diagnosis I composed an e-mail to colleagues apprising them of my situation. I had already told my close friends in person or with an individualized letter, but I felt the need to reach out to these acquaintances to avoid potentially awkward situations. I kept imagining a scenario where I’m in a crowded elevator or on my way to class and a colleague innocently asks how my summer went. How do you tell someone that you learned you have a fatal illness when you’re both about to meet a classroom full of new students? I figured that by sending this email I would circumvent such awkwardness.

The response to this email was mixed. Initially, I received many replies with heartfelt expressions of sorrow and sympathy. Many people generously offered their services—car rides, cooked meals, dog walking, house cleaning, class coverage, etc.—to ease the burden on me and my family. But after this early outpouring of support, the empathy well dried up. As the weeks went by, few of these individuals followed up with me, and when I would encounter them on campus or in town the conversation rarely touched on my medical situation. 

I am not particularly irritated by these reactions but, as a sociologist, I am intrigued. People in my situation know that death and dying make for uncomfortable social interactions that most of us, myself included, would rather avoid. If the tables were turned and I had to chat with an acquaintance who had been diagnosed with a fatal illness, I can’t say I would act any differently. Most of us have never been taught the language to converse comfortably with someone who is dying. Small talk can be hard enough—coming up with innocuous comments to say to someone you know may soon pass away is downright unnerving. 

Like many of my colleagues, my strategy would probably be to resort to an amended version of what Erving Goffmancalled civil inattention—the process by which we acknowledge the presence of others but avoid any sustained interaction with them. Civil inattention is a hallmark of the anonymity that pervades modern societies: We encounter countless people every day with whom we are cordial but we do not—or prefer not—to engage with them. In my case, many people who are aware of my medical situation see me on campus or receive work-related emails I send. Surely, there are opportunities for them to check in with me to inquire about my condition. But if they did, they would be forced to confront a subject and speak a language that is unfamiliar and upsetting.

Goffman also points out that people generally try to be supportive during social interactions. We don’t want others to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed when they’re communicating with us so we try to read social cues, take the attitude of others to imagine what they are experiencing, and follow the norms of acceptable behavior. We invoke these strategies to facilitate a smooth interaction.

Some of my colleagues may avoid me not only to escape their own feelings of awkwardness, but also to protect me from what they perceive as my discomfort with the conversation. And I will admit, many of my interactions these days are awkward and confusing. I am often at a loss about how much information to share and how forthright I should be in my responses to the simple question: “How are you doing?” There is no longer an easy or clichéd answer for me to offer. Since my diagnosis, I find myself in this ambivalent interpersonal space where I want people to ask me how I’m doing while simultaneously recoiling from the thought of having to respond.  

3. Inequality

Nearly every week I receive a claims summary from my health insurance agency that details the amount I have been billed for medical procedures, the amount my plan has covered for these services, and the total amount I owe my medical providers. I am incredibly fortunate that the last amount has always been $0.00. I’ve racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses and prescription drug fees since my diagnosis and I have had to pay very little of my own money to cover these costs. Even the co-payments for the majority of my treatments have been waived. I’ve probably paid more in gas and tolls going to and from medical appointments than I have for medical services. 

The reason for this nearly non-existent financial burden is that my union (United University Professionals) negotiated an excellent health insurance plan; unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky. Even with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, which drastically reduced the number of the uninsured, over 15% of U. S. citizens (nearly 30 million individuals) between the ages of 18-64 are still without health insurance. Those who are insured often do not have the type of extensive coverage that my plan provides. Out-of-pocket expenses for services insurance companies do not cover, in addition to lost income from missing work (something that my contract also safeguards me from), puts millions of people into precarious economic situations when stricken with a serious illness.

During the past year, I have given considerable thought to how fortunate I am that my claims summary always shows a zero balance. If it was tragic randomness that landed me with this illness, then I must also acknowledge the privileged randomness that allows me to fight this disease with resources others may never enjoy. Besides the excellent insurance coverage and generous medical leave policies that my employer grants me, I have access to one of the best cancer centers in the world (Memorial Sloan Kettering) with its top-notch medical staff and cutting-edge treatments. I also have a comfortable home in a peaceful and beautiful location in which to relax; an abundance of supermarkets and local farms that provide me with healthy foods I can afford to buy; and reliable transportation to get to my medical appointments. Most importantly, I have a loving network of family and friends on whom I can count for moral, logistical, and if necessary, financial support.

It bears repeating that not everyone enjoys such privileged randomness. One need not be a sociologist to recognize that social inequality is pervasive. Whether one considers social institutions such as education, housing, employment, and incarceration, or social indicators such as infant mortality, literacy, and life expectancy, widespread disparities among groups of individuals are readily apparent. Cancer can also be added to this list. Ample evidence demonstrates that people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals are at a disadvantage when it comes to the screening, diagnosis, treatment and survival rates for cancer. People like me who enjoy the privileged randomness of being a white, professionally employed, heterosexual male are largely shielded from these and other medical injustices. 

When we broaden our scope and consider the world’s entire population, the extent of social inequality is even more pronounced. A few years ago, sociologists Roberto Patricio Korzeniewicz and Timothy Patrick Moran called attention to the extreme levels of global inequality in their book, Unveiling Inequality: A World-Historical Perspective. One of the startling facts they uncover is that on average, people in the United States lay out more for the healthcare of their dogs than the average health care expenditures “in countries that account for over 80 percent of the world population.” I don’t think it is hyperbolic for me to say that if I lived in one of these countries and was stricken with stage IV lung cancer I would probably be dead by now. That realization leaves me feeling immense appreciation for what I have and chagrined dismay for what others lack. 

4. Impermanence

“The only thing that is permanent is impermanence.” I have uttered this phrase countless times in class to convey to students the idea that change is constant. Change is also what sustains the scholarly lives of sociologists. People, social norms, organizations, social structures and institutions—these are all in a constant state of flux. If change were not so pervasive, sociologists wouldn’t have much to study. And if the world were not in an endless cycle of transformation, our discipline would be unbelievably boring.

Death is the ultimate form of impermanence. We all recognize this because we often use the word death metaphorically to capture the changing landscape of social reality: the death of democracy, the death of retail stores, the death of small family farms. But thinking about death academically is quite different than coming face-to-face with one’s own impermanence. It is one thing to teach and write about change. It is quite another to accept my own transformation from a living being to a dying one, from flesh and blood to ashes and dust.

I know I am not immortal and I understand the ubiquity and inevitability of impermanence. Nevertheless, I struggle with applying these truths to my own life and death because I don’t want to die. I don’t want to leave this world and I certainly don’t want to say good-bye to the people I love.

As someone who regularly teaches and writes about change, I see the incongruity in the fact that I cannot embrace the change that is looming before me. Part of the problem is my desire to continue to be an agent of change. In effect, I may be resisting my personal impermanence because I want to continue contributing to more social impermanence, to making the world a better place. I am still very much committed to bringing about the type of positive social change that addresses the intolerance and bigotry that are increasingly pervasive in the United States and across the globe. Obviously, I cannot work toward this goal when I no longer exist.

But though I won’t be able to cultivate progressive social change when I’m dead, I know my death will be a catalyst for other forms of change among family and friends, students and colleagues, neighbors and acquaintances, and doctors and nurses. My demise will cause modifications in patterns of existing relationships as well as the creation of new relationships; it may help usher in new institutional arrangements and protocols; and it could influence how medical personnel approach therapeutic procedures, conventions, and treatments.

These potential changes will not be just the result of my death. Such manifestations of impermanence come about when anyone dies, in any context and any epoch. We live in webs of social connections, and the interpersonal interactions that comprise these connections create the social world that we inhabit. When someone dies, these connections are not destroyed but they are altered to account for that person’s absence. My family and friends may forge new relationships with people who have similarly lost a loved one; my colleagues will welcome a new member into the department to teach my classes; and my doctors and nurses will review my case to see if they can learn anything about my cancer that may help them treat future patients. In this way, it is not only true that impermanence is the only thing that is permanent; we can also say that impermanence begets impermanence.


Some people have asked if I’m angry about my situation, if I ever have the urge to scream, lash out, or break things. Anger has not been an emotion that I have experienced while on this unfortunate journey, although I see why it might be. I understand poet and philosopher David Whyte’s assertion that, “Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals.” We generally get angry about the things we care for deeply. For me, however, the specter of loss is mostly expressed through sadness—not a depressive sadness of malaise and gloominess but sadness more akin to mourning and grieving. I love life and I especially love my life: my family and friends, my job as a professor, my bike rides and swim sessions, and my adopted hometown of New Paltz. I don’t want to leave any of these things and the thought of doing so brings forth a flow of tears, not a fit of rage. 

It’s also hard for me to feel anger because, as strange as this may sound given the tragic implausibility of my diagnosis, I feel incredibly lucky. I’m not glad I got cancer, but I do recognize that I have had an incredibly rich and fulfilling life. I have forged loving and lasting relationships, lived in beautiful communities, achieved professional success, and, up until now, avoided major tragedies or heartbreaks. Even as I navigate this terminal illness and face my untimely death, the unwavering support of my wonderful family and friends and the first-rate care of the doctors and nurses I’ve encountered heartens me.

Lastly, being a sociologist has greatly influenced my thinking and contributed to my positive mindset. The sociologist Charles Lemert said that, “social theory is a basic survival skill.” The four themes discussed in this essay support this assertion:

By embracing my inherent interdependence with others, I’ve come to realize I am part of them just as they are part of me. We do not merely rely on each other, we comprise each other. This reciprocity of existence begs the question: how can I truly love myself if I don’t also love and open my heart to others? 

By noticing that my social interactions are mutually sustaining, I am constantly reminded of the need to be kind toward others. Whether it is during the face-saving interactions with acquaintances or the nurturing ones with family and friends, the simple act of treating others with dignity and respect is always appreciated but often overlooked. As psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor point out in their book, On Kindness: “We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.”

By acknowledging that my privileged randomness insulates me from social inequalities that adversely affect so many others, I feel tremendous gratitude for the good fortune I enjoy. Instead of abusing my privilege and living a self-centered life of excess, greed, and ignorance, I strive to use my actions and words to relieve the inequality and discrimination that others endure.  

And finally, by recognizing that my life, like that of every other living being, is characterized by inescapable impermanence, I strive to have compassion for all individuals. Knowing that everyone experiences loss, change, and upheaval—whether it be from illness or challenges such as divorce, unemployment, migration, imprisonment, and even retirement—I endeavor to have empathy for all as we navigate the rocky and often unpredictable journey of the human experience.    

The Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön once remarked: “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.” I am scared of what the future holds for me, particularly what will happen to my body as the cancer progresses and how my loved ones will bear the pain and suffering of my death. But I’m trusting that love, kindness, gratitude and compassion will be strong enough countervailing forces to help us all weather the storm ahead.


Thank you! I am going to keep this essay forever.

I'm so sorry you you're going through this, Peter. But thank you for your essay.

My wife was diagnosed with fairly late stage breast cancer within the past 2 years and it feels like death has occupied a chair at our dinner table ever since. Your essay beautifully elaborated on many of the themes that we've discussed over and over as we've wondered which way this cancer was going to turn for us.

Thank you again.

Best wishes for peace and comfort. I understand brother. I endure treatment, get positive nnews at times. Other times, a lung met or a brain met or a condition that came about from treatment that needs more treatment. I stay positive. Write poems, perform when my stamina allows. I know the cancer is chipping away at me. Each time I recover to a lesser “new normal.” Next imaging is in ten days. Will I walk away with the gift of more time or will the other slipper dro?. I rely on Love Hope Faith but remain realistic. The course of my cancer is unusual and diagnoses are challenging.The direction, however, is clear.Thank you for your elegance and insight, Stay Strong! Blessings. Richard

"I’ve come to realize I am part of them just as they are part of me. We do not merely rely on each other, we comprise each other."
Therefore when one of us dies we all die in some way.

This is a really wonderful essay, thank you for sharing your experience.

Thank you for sharing your journey and all of the depth and thoughtfulness it entails. I am saddened to know what is happening and also honored to know your process. I am wishing you and Leigh as much ease as possible as you navigate this ending time. I am also grateful that you have all of the support and resources to navigate more gently.

Peter, thanks for what you shared! I’ll be thinking about you as endure this!

Hello Peter,
Complete stranger to you but interconnected through Phillip Cohen who retweeted your tweet. I read the whole essay and was really touched. You might say that in your dying you have taught me. This was my favorite part of your essay,"Instead of abusing my privilege and living a self-centered life of excess, greed, and ignorance, I strive to use my actions and words to relieve the inequality and discrimination that others endure." I have often thought that the sum of a man (or woman) is if when they are gone that we look back and see that the world was better for them being in it. It's obvious by your story and your sharing that you have made the world better, that the changes you made in people will live on long after you have departed. I wish you only the best of randomness, (see I read your essay and think you will like the end to my comment). I wish you the best of randomness.


I have no idea if you remember me. I certainly remember you, especially after reading this.It is so beautifully written. Such a lovely interaction between the personal and the "academic." Social science has always felt deeply important to me for the very reasons you articulate here. I wish you and those you love and who love you tremendous peace and compassion as you go on this journey. It sounds like you have lots of souls to hold your hand and your heart. That is good.
Jenny Tieman

Peter, thank you for sharing your experience in this beautiful essay. Best wishes for peace and comfort for you, and your loved ones.

Thank you for sharing, Peter. I'm currently reading your new book Teaching with Compassion and am being challenged to 'up my game' with my teaching due to your thoughtful words. Many blessings on you as you walk toward your final journey.


You are one of the most caring, compassionate, and mindful people that I have ever known. And despite the fact that it has been over a decade since I was your student at New Paltz, you continue to be the most influential Professor in my life. I so strongly admire your ability to not only understand and acknowledge your priviledge but to so effortlessly put it into words and enlighten others. You are truly an inspiration. My heart goes out to you and all whom you hold dear. You continue to make this world a better place every single day.

Warm Regards,
Jenna Mirza (Margrill)

When I chose New Paltz for college, it was because I wanted to be a photographer and its Fine Arts department is excellent. When that did not work out, I stumbled upon Sociology, an equally excellent program that I am very grateful exists.
Peter, I am so lucky to have been a part of your classes during my time at New Paltz. So many positive memories from then are of our class discussions, readings, or the sociology hikes.
I am incredibly sad to hear what you are going through. I wish I could offer more comfort or support than this brief comment on this truly wonderful essay. Thank you; for teaching me; for showing me what it means to be a sociologist and a thoughtful, kind human being; and for sharing all of this with us. I am incredibly grateful and honored to have met you when I did.
As you pointed out, everyone relies on other people, and you are definitely not alone as you go through this (though, it sounds like you know that). Sending you and your loved ones as much positive energy as I can muster!

Peter- as always you are kind, eloquent, thoughtful and in this case, generous. I’m grateful that you have reached out, sharing your perspective on dying even as you bravely deal with and grieve your impermanence. Writing now as you look back and forward allows a way to be and to affirm y/our humanity. Sending you love. Tom

Every year, I have my students read your blog post about asking sociological questions. Now I will have them also read this essay--a thoughtful, generous consideration of a life and a death and an eloquent example of what sociology can mean to a person's sense of the world. Early in my career, you invited me to think about teaching with you, and I've carried that honor with me for over fifteen years. Thank you for that, for this, and for all you've meant to others. Sending you peace and strength.

it is a day before Yom Kipur and I reflect upon
my life past and present. reading your essay for me
was like looking at a beautiful painting. it filled me with beauty, awe and hope. people like yourself
strive to make this world a better place for all of mankind. you have made this a better world by being here. may your days be filled with love, peace and hope.

Dear Peter,
I read your most beautiful essay, not once but three times. Your outlook and reflections are truly an example of your sense of the world and those who surround you. May your days be filled with love from those who surround you.

Absolutely heartbroken to find out about your diagnosis. You are, without question, one of the best teachers I've ever had. I don't know if I would have figured out what I wanted my life path to be without your classes. And it seems fitting and wholly characteristic of you that, even now, you're still thinking of your circumstances in sociological terms. You've taught me a lot about how to do so, and it's been hard to turn that off, not that I've ever wanted to.

Thank you for writing this and thank you for your teachings over the years.

Why am I not surprised to hear you are an outstanding Sociology professor up in New Paltz. Commendation on your outstanding career and the impact you have had up there. I have many fond memories of Woods Ave - hoops on your backyard, flag football on the street, or hanging in your room talking Larry Bird vs Magic Johnson. Thank you for the wonderful article. Doesn’t seam like a need to tell you to stay strong or have peace - but am anyway.

Salamat sa po sa pag share kaya dapat nating pahalagahan ang ating buhay at magpasalamat tayo at matutong makontento sa buhat isang itong inspirasyon para sa lahat.

Ang blog na ito ay nakatulong at nakapagbigay ng inspirasyon sa mga mambabasa at naghatid rin ng aral sa mga nagbabasa nito.

Your heartfelt and beautifully written essay was shared with us by our daughter, a recent student of yours. Anna said you were “one of the teachers that inspired me to go into human services and who taught me so many valuable things about how to view the world in a sociological lens.” She is incredibly sad to learn of your condition but now,as in her past experience with you as her teacher , is influenced by your words to share with others for the sheer goodness of those thoughts. That is your mark of permanence for the greater good, permanence in spirit despite the impermanence of your physical existence. You live on through others (Anna and those she will impact through her work as a sociologist; us as well) who are positively influenced by your life. We couldn’t ask for a better education for our daughter. Thank you and God speed as you make your way.

Thanks for this amazing essay and gift to the rest of us. Your essay contributes to making the world a better place. Thanks for using sociology to help understand life as lived. Thinking of you and your family and friends as you live this part of your life.

dear peter,
I hope that we can share some time together amix with stories, humor, and the impermanence of time together. I hope we meet sometime in the pool, over coffee, in the daytime walking on campus or anywhere. i wish you good thoughts and days of substance and love ahead.

Peter, this is beautiful. It is clearly my great loss that I have not had the privilege of getting to know you in my short time at SUNY New Paltz. You write from such compassion and gratitude. Wishing you peace as you continue on this journey.

I wish you blessings Peter take every moment as special.

Hi Peter,

Thank you for living and writing with grace and dignity.

Dear Peter,

I've been aware of your good work (from the Questionable Authorities to your support of students), and now I am lifted to new heights by your thoughtful and (for me) perfect reflections. Having sustained several losses this past year,I find that your words elegantly express the very conversations our family has had many times over. Your reflections on your own end of life are profoundly beautiful and true.

Thank you so much for making the personal, universal.

Thank you Peter. I am a sociologist and this is an insightful and beautiful account of the social interconnectedness of our lives. Having lost a dear sister in law to cancer, can I say that she remains well and truely part of us and our lives, our beings - as good people do - they leave their mark in our souls, on our skin in our musings. I hope this gives you some comfort for the road ahead. I like to see death as Marcus Zusak does in The Book Thief - a character, who will at some time play a role in all our lives. Love to you for the journey ahead.

Peter, I will miss seeing you on campus and at the pool. You have helped so many students and colleagues and will continue to do so through your eloquent words. Thinking of you and wishing you comfort, Colleen Lougen

Hi Peter,

I'm from the Philippines and I came to this blog a few years ago. I'd have to say I love reading your posts. It's deep, meaningful and resonates with most people. I am saddened by your condition and encouraged with your attitude towards it. You are an inspiration. In one of the many moments of life, you have been an agent of change.

Thanks so much for sharing your writing. Having access to this is so valuable. I loved reading your blog posts while I was a student and now even more after I graduated. I feel grateful that our paths crossed when they did. You have made a giant impact on so many people in NP and elsewhere.

Thank you for writing this. I am a recent sociology grad, currently lost at sea trying to find my little place to change the world. I lost my mother to lung cancer 18 months ago; even beginning to read this brought me to tears, but in a way I very much needed.

The bravery of this essay--intellectual, emotional--is outstanding. Thank you so much for writing it.

Peter, I am a complete stranger to you. I'm a software professional that visits this blog every few weeks. This is a very touching essay. Your friends and those who know you will miss you when you have left this world. I salute you and wish you God's strength as you battle this disease.

Best wishes sir.

I am grateful for your generosity in sharing your thoughts and feelings about living with terminal illness. I am quite moved by your essay. The way you integrated academic and scholarly expertise with reflections about your own experiences, and with such eloquence, insight, and compassion, provides much wisdom on a very difficult topic. I am sad for the community and the world to lose you.

I am grateful for your generosity in sharing your thoughts and feelings about living with terminal illness. I am quite moved by your essay. The way you integrated academic and scholarly expertise with reflections about your own experiences, and with such eloquence, insight, and compassion, provides much wisdom on a very difficult topic. I am sad for the community and the world to lose you.

thank you so much for sharing such a revelation to the world. I was questioning some of the behavior you beautifully described in your blog, and now I understand them.
My heart aches for your body going through this condition. I wish I could take it away from you. But I will be praying for you.
I lost my 17 yo son and oh how still hurts.
Take care Mr. Kaufman

Dear Peter,
Thank you so much for this beautiful and insightful essay! I found it to be very moving and thought-provoking.
You have touched numerous people's lives in so many different ways. One of the things that neither you nor anyone else mentioned is what a fine musician and great drummer you are. I really loved listening to you perform!
You have lived a life of great significance and touched the lives of many who came into contact with you, not the least of which have been the thousands of young people at SUNY New Paltz who were your students.
Thank you for all you have given us, including this amazing sociology of your death,

Greetings Peter or Family of Peter,

I was saddened to hear that Peter couldn't make it to the presentation today. I was looking forward to hearing his story and sharing mines. It was a pleasure listening to the music of death in his place. However, I wanted to ask if Peter tried a non-western medicine approach to helping to cure his "incurable" cancer. In my faith, God said, everything you need I have provided to you on this earth for healing, etc." With that said, I searched for a treatment/cure to preserve the life of my deceased grandmother who circumcised to her illness back in 2016. In search for a cure and with the help of my lord and savior, he pointed me in the direction of Cinnamon and CBD. This revelation came too late for my grandmother but came just in time for me to help others. If you are still able to swallow, I recommend a tablespoon of cinnamon (Ceylon) 3 times a day. This could be consumed in warm water, oatmeal, farina, tea, etc. Cinnamon is known to target cancer cells and induce apoptosis. Ceylon Cinnamon literally exploses cancer cells into obliteration. Coupling Cinnamon with chemo enhances the effects of the chemo. Another benefit is that cinnamon only targets cancer cells, it has no effect on healthy cells (no side effects). Whereas, chemo destroys both cancer and healthy cells. In addition, CBD is most effective in preventing the growth of cancer cells. CBD is found in marijuana. NY has approved medicinal marijuana use for cancer patients. I recommend a high dose of CBD with a low dose of THC. This could be taken as a liquid or a vapor.

If this information reaches you in time, I pray you are able to take advantage of it and it improves your health and lifespan. In the last 2 years, I was able to share this information with 3 people whose cancer has now disappeared. One person was told she was in stage 4 and after 30 days of drinking cinnamon and ginger water, no chemo, she went to a stage 1. I pray this reaches you in time.



Reposting from a post of his dear friend and colleague:

Dear friends:

Our beloved Peter passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by his loved ones. Since his diagnosis in June 2017, Peter faced his illness like the athlete he was, with determination, grace and focus. He often commented that he was an outlier to have gotten this diagnosis and that he would be an outlier in living with the diagnosis. Over the past 17 months, despite his illness, Peter co-authored and published his first book, “Teaching with Compassion: An Educator’s Oath to Teach From the Heart”, he completed a triathlon, he went on numerous bicycle rides with friends, he published an essay, “The Sociology of My Death” and he wrote at least 7 of what he called “microburst essays” on Twitter. Most importantly, he got another 17 months to spend time with his partner and best friend of 33 years, Leigh, and their greyhound, Billy. Peter’s family and friends feel an unspeakable loss with his passing, but we take comfort knowing the impact he has had through his teaching, writing, presence in the world and living the life he wanted. We go forward following his example in showing compassion and seeing life through a lens of gratitude.

A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.

If you wish to make a donation in honor of Peter, please consider the following organizations that he supported:

League of American Bicyclists
Sociology Scholarship for Progressive Social Change, SUNY New Paltz

Peter was the memorable professor in my Sociology of Education course when I returned to college to graduate as a sociology major in 2004 after beginning as an English Ed major in 1964 but completing a career as a Police Sergeant in 1990. Peter's insistence on Paolo Freire's concept that there is no meaningful education unless both teacher and student are learning shapes my present career as a social worker and mental health therapist in private practice. His compassion for self and others molds the lives of my clients who are children, parents, couples, substance abusers, bereaved, or seriously and persistently ill. Peter is indeed the viaduct who lives on through people who may never know his name but are learning to use his compassion for themselves and for others.

Beautifully written! Thank you for sharing.

Let God continue to bless you, because is not easy to be going through what you experiencing after a clean life

I am quite moved by your essay. The way you integrated your own experiences. I felt it as it happened to me.
Recently i have been reading sad books about love, but your blog gives me new feeling to myself.

You shared it in a way, it looks like as it happened to me.

Thanks for sharing nice article.

thx mate really impressive information

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Being a Temporary Foreigner | Main | Meaning Making and Health »