I’m sorry to say this, but you have only a few more weeks to live.” Most of the time, when people get sick, their biggest fear would be to hear these exact words coming out of the doctor’s mouth, directed towards them. People often feel great fear stirring within them once they are reminded of their mortality. “So, what now?” they might ask, not knowing what follows this reminder of the finiteness of their very life. Because avoiding thoughts of death can only take them this far, and because death itself is an inevitable phenomenon, it will come back to haunt them. But in this case, it will come sooner, rather than later. However, the issue that needs to be addressed here is, where does this fear of death come from? Do people even understand what death has in stored for them well enough to be afraid of it? For the reason that the understanding of the meaning of death will influence how people live their lives and also cope with death and dying. Despite all the different terms that people try to come up with, in order to make sense of what death is all about, it is ultimately known to everyone around the world, as the end of life. Scientists have attempted to define death biologically by stating death as the lack of heartbeat, whereas philosophers agree upon the same inference that death occurs only when the subtle mind finally leaves the body. No matter how much effort experts put in, to soften the blow of the news of one’s mortality, it never seemed to be able to calm their nerves once they are aware of their own deaths.
When faced with this issue, people intuitively refuse death despite knowing that there is nothing that can be done to avoid it. Therefore, in order to shun the thoughts of death and dying, they are willing to do whatever it takes, including semantic-games playing. In fact, people are so terrified of death that they habitually seek ways to eliminate death thoughts, together with the fear that comes along with it. In the culture of the ancient Hebrews, the body of a deceased is considered as something impure and hence, physical contact was disallowed while the early American Indians practiced rituals like shooting arrows into the air because they believed it to be able to force the bad spirits of the dead away. Multiple other cultures too, have rituals to deal with the body of a deceased and they have all originated from this same feeling of fear. Also, the tradition of burying the dead under the tombstone might have started because of the wish of people to keep the bad spirits of those dead people, deep down in the ground, so that the departed will not come back for them. Even the pebbles that mourners put on the grave might be symbols to indicate that same wish. Though people often justify the firing of guns at military funerals to be a final salutation to the deceased, it is perhaps the same emblematic ritual as the Indians, where arrows and spears are shot into the skies. These examples were given by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969), the psychiatrist who broke new grounds to the studies of death, as an emphasis to the idea that men have not changed even after the evolution, because death is still an appalling and terrifying occurrence, and this fear of death is a universal reaction even if men may perhaps think that they have mastered it on many levels (pp. 4-5). Nevertheless, contrary to popular beliefs that the mere thought of death evokes all kinds of unsettling emotions that could only lead to adverse effects, thoughts of death can actually bring about the appreciation of life, as one can learn to live with it and accept this unalterable fact of one’s mortality.
Having said all that, the idea of death evoking fear in people might have been properly established, but the cause of this emotion has yet to be explained. As the majority of people may know, death can occur at anytime and anywhere, on anyone. But this fear of dying, have the largest impact on elderly as well as on terminally ill patients, especially when they are expecting death. Besides that, the occurrence of sudden deaths can also serve as a reminder to the people around, that life is fragile and can be lost at any moment. Hence, whenever people are reminded of their mortality, the first question that will usually pop up in their mind is, “have I lived my life to the best that I can?” Then, that is when they begin to question themselves, on whether they have achieved what their ultimate goal in life is. And when they feel that they could have done much more with their lives, fear begins to dawn on them, as they worry about the limited time they now have, to achieve what they aimed for.
Furthermore, according to Kubler-Ross (1969), a psychiatrist who has dedicated her life to the studies of death, the greatest lesson that can be learnt from her patients, is to live life to the fullest, so that they do not have to look back and regret the way that they have wasted their lives away. Because the imagination refuses to go there, death remains something one can never grasp until it has happened. Then, when they have witnessed death around them, people might fear it so much that would resort to anything just for the sake of staying alive, although in line with Immanuel Kant’s philosophy (as cited in Cote, 1999), “a person who is always worried about losing his life will never be able to enjoy it”.
In the journal of Humanistic Psychology, On Facing Death: Views of Some Prominent Psychologists, Giampaolo Moraglia wrote about the views of Rollo May, an existential psychologist on life and death. According to May (1967), a true devotion to life requires a confrontation with death and merely loving life for its own sake will actually lead to a dehumanization, because when someone loves life too much they will go to every length to protect and preserve their lives due to the fear of losing life to death. Moreover, this need to “hang on at all cost,” will have a withering effect upon a person’s existence, and eventually lead to a sort of death-in-life (as cited in Moraglia, 2004). Therefore, learning to stop avoiding thoughts of death due to fear, and start accepting it, people can make ample use of their lives, making sure that they do not waste it away. Which is why, instead of resulting in dire side-effects, the finiteness of life actually helps motivate life, giving people a second chance at living their lives, unlike terminally unwell patients who would not have the opportunity to compensate for the time that dissipated from their lives.
The understanding as well as the acceptance of one’s death does not only allow the motivation of life to take place. Because at some point in life, when people are aware of either their own deaths, or the idea of the finiteness of lives in general, and hence theirs, it would induce a whole new level of courage that people never expected in themselves. Sometimes, being conscious about the fact that everyone will die one day makes people courageous in doing things that they might not have the courage to do before. Whilst death is staring people right in front of their faces, people will be willing to do anything in order to make their lives worthwhile.
For example in the book, On Death and Dying (1969), Kubler-Ross reported the outcome of her interview with critically ill patients. As a form of research, Kubler-Ross and a few of her students decided to conduct interviews with patients with fatal illnesses, and let them be the teachers on the knowledge of death and dying. Not only were those interviews useful in helping the students understand more thoroughly on the death issues, but they have also proven to be able to serve many purposes, as they were able to make the participating students comprehend the need to consider death as a real possibility not only to others but also to themselves in addition to helping the patients face their own deaths peacefully. On more than one occasions during the interviews, students who participated showed emotions such as anger towards other participants, expressing their frustrations in regards to patients who showed apparent calmness in facing their deaths (pp. 21-22). Perhaps to the students, such encounter with the final stage in life is something that should generate fear in everyone, but the actuality that the patients seemed at peace with their own deaths appeared as if they were faked. The contributing students also showed such reactions for the rationale that they, themselves were afraid when they became fully aware of the possibility of death happening to them as well.
These interviews performed by Kubler-Ross illustrate that the acknowledgement of death crafts courage in the gravely unwell patients to face their death and live what is left with the rest of their lives to the fullest, by doing things that they could have never had the nerve to do before, so that they do not regret it, when the end seek their lives out. In addition to that, these discussions too, have played a part in instigating courage in the students, giving them the opportunity to grasp the meaning of death more thoroughly, and also learn to live with death, by presenting them a choice of whether they wanted to take part in the interviews. Even though they were frightened of the thought of death and dying, these students who were part of the interviews were still able to demonstrate courage in confronting the irreversible reality, by choosing to continue with their participation. Additionally, Leo Tolstoy (1828), a religious philosopher, also reasons that when uncertainty is present, people who imagine that they are dying soon would make their hesitancy vanish and as a result, distinguish between what is important and what are of insignificance, simplifying the process of making a decision (as cited in Cote, 1999). Hence, these proved once again, that the notion of death does not bring forth the feelings of distress, but rather, it leads to fear that which would then, bring about the positive reception of life, since these thoughts concerning the proximity of death permits the prioritization of one’s actions.
Another promising speculation from psychologists, which is the terror-management theory, implies that people frequently engage in many different behaviors in order to aid in the reduction of anxieties initiated by death thoughts (Kalat, 2008, p. 189). This concept, when applied to thoughts of death, classifies human behaviors into two parts, one of which reveals that when consciously aware of their own lives approaching an end, people have the tendency to employ beneficial activities to help reduce the thoughts. For instance, people might hear about a friend who has been diagnosed with lung cancer due to their habit of cigarette smoking for a number of years. As a consequence of this awareness, they might choose to either quit smoking, if they themselves are smokers, or perhaps for non-smokers, they may opt for a more radical way to help reduce smoking in people. All of these deeds are aimed to lessen the anxieties caused by the thoughts of death, and hopefully, by adopting these activities, they can avoid thinking actively about the death issues. The second principle justifies that when the same happens, people will avoid thinking about health explicitly, for the sake of staying away from the potential prompt of death thoughts.
In spite of this, during recent years, further studies have been conducted on the same theory; researchers were able to maintain that the human brain is preset in a way that there is a presence of a kind of psychological immune response that will prevent people from being paralyzed by fear, or even despair. This assumption made by the researchers was bold in contrasting the popular beliefs that the alertness of one’s finiteness of life results only in distress. That is, psychologists Nathan DeWall of University of Kentucky and Roy Baumeister of Florida State University contend that when confronted with thoughts of death, the brain will seek out and trigger happy feelings reflexively, helping people cope with conscious feelings of distress. This hypothesis also suggests the evolvement of human brain into a type of double-engine processor which permits people to come up with ways to alter how they live their lives to the extent of death, instead of cowering in the corner, caved in by fear (2007).
In this investigation involving 432 undergraduate volunteers, about half of the students were asked to write short essays while they contemplated about themselves dying, illustrating their imagined physical deaths. The other half of the group was required to think and write about dental pain which was decidedly unpleasant, but not quite as intimidating. The researchers then settled on evaluating the volunteers’ emotions by initially, giving the students standard psychological questionnaires designed to measure moods that are explicit, followed by assessments of unconscious mood using word tests. Dewall and Baumeister (2007) also speculate that the volunteers of the study, even after having to ensure that their minds are preoccupied with thoughts of death, did not even show signs of morose even during the tapping into their emotional brains occur. In fact, the opposite came about, where positive emotional associations rather than neutral or negative ones were more likely to be summoned. From this research as well, DeWall and Baumeister were able to suggest that the brain is involuntary in searching and setting off pleasant, positive information from the memory banks in order to help the workaday brain cope with an incomprehensible threat and consequently, protecting the conscious mind. Hence, people will not be overwhelmed by the traumatic experience due to the realization of death and dying.
It has been mentioned before, that experiencing death of a loved one can be stressful, especially for children who have these experiences at a young age. Tennant et al., (1980) and Kendler et al., (1992) mention the relationship between the experience of parental death and also depressive disorders or anxiety disorders, though it was Bilfulco et al., (1987) who found evidences to support the relationships between both anxiety and depressive disorders (as cited in Jacobs & Bovasso, 2009). Nonetheless, John R. Jacobs, and Gregory B. Bovasso (2009), proved through case studies, that in opposition to the previously mentioned assumptions, adult psychopathology is not a direct long-term effect of going through parental death during childhood. As a matter of fact, after the re-examination was conducted on more than 3481 participants, consisting of men and women who have suffered some form of parental death in their childhood, indicated that there are no significant association between the presence of traumatic parental death and the risk for adult psychopathology. The results of the research attributed adult depression to be a long-standing outcome of financial stresses which may have rose from the initial complication of having to deal with the loss of a parent, continuing for years, or possibly into adulthood. So, it has been verified once again, that the awareness of death does not bring about negative consequences.
Death is inevitable because at some point in everyone’s lives, one is bound to face death, be it one’s own, or the death of the surrounding people. Surely, living in the light of death can be stressful. However, being able to accept and live harmoniously with death does not necessarily mean that people must think about it all the time. It is sufficient to live life blissfully even in the awareness that death is drawing closer day by day. Typically, when people are reminded of their own deaths, they will undergo five stages of grief, in accordance with the Kubler-Ross model, pioneered by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969). Most often, when people are told that they will be dying soon, they tend to embark on the first stage in the five stage process of accepting their deaths. Firstly, they will be in denial whereby, they will try to refuse the idea that they are dying, even if they are told that the odds of them surviving, are little. They then move on to stage two, where they often feel angry at the people around them. They might even start to question God’s plan for them in life. The bargaining stage follows anger, and this is when the dying tries to strike a deal with God with the intention of postponing their death. If the bargaining is found to be useless, the dying moves on to the next stage, depression. The depression stage is also a “preparatory grief”, as Kubler-Ross calls it (1969). Finally, people reach the acceptance stage in which they become at peace with themselves and no longer expect death in bitterness (as cited in Feldman, 2005). Referring to the Kubler-Ross model, it does not matter what behaviors people engage in, for at the end of the day, death cannot be prevented, nor slowed, because if death is coming, it will arrive at a certain point throughout life. For these reasons, death is best tackled with preparations, so that when it comes, people will be ready to have their lives end with no regret.
To sum up, although death is inevitable, it has never failed to provoke fear in people. In actual fact, thoughts of death are not the main reasons behind the detrimental outcomes that people generally claim, because the emotion of fear itself, is a feeling caused by the unprepared state that people are in, when they receive news about their own deaths. Hence, it is wise to choose to acknowledge the existence of death in life, before it is too late, for the reason that living a good life in the acceptance of death is the only preparation for death. So, why is it so hard for people to stop worrying about death and start enjoying life?
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