Changing how we see aging

Death Experience

How evolution has engineered our dying experience.

Older Adults do not fear death they fear dying. Specifically, we fear a prolonged process of dying—the agonal image of death. This is not a new observation.

Lora-Jean Collett and David Lester made this distinction in 1969 and devised a scale to distinguish between the fear of death from the fear of the process of dying. Some older adults are better at confronting death than others. In an interesting study, James Griffith from Shippensburg University, Pennsylvania and his colleagues examined attitudes toward dying and death among older men who had different experiences with danger. The group of men included skydivers (high death risk), nursing home residents (high death exposure), volunteer firefighters (high death risk and high death exposure), and a control group. Their analyses identified that accepting death by risking death, reduces the fear of death. High death riskers are better at accepting death. It seems that the fear of death can be minimized, perhaps not only by risking death.

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Studies with nurses have reported that working with dying patients diminished their fear of death. This acceptance of death occurred while in nurse training as well. As always, the fear is brought on more by the unknown. And this fear determines how we behave. Balfour Mount, a palliative care specialist suggested that deep-rooted existential fear of death prevents healthcare professionals from providing good and compassionate care for the dying.

Maturity involves an appreciation that dying is itself a process. A process which, at the very end, we seem to share with other people across many cultures.

Raymond Moody coined the term “Near Death Experience”—NDE. As early 1975 Moody described survivors who ‘let go’ and accepted their death, but when they survived, reported experiences of great joy. Although there are exceptions—especially with the use of medications at the end-of-life—Moody describes how after travelling through darkness they came against a bright light, accompanying “beings of light” that helped them to review their life. Such experiences have been shown to be experienced across many cultures. And the interesting outcome after these NDEs is that these individuals report having a diminished fear of death.

It was up to a chemistry professor with West Texas A&M to find some of the physiology reasons for NDEs. James E. Whinnery studied fighter pilots subjected to extreme gravitational forces in a giant centrifuge. What he found is that under extreme g-forces, fighter pilots experience gravitationally-induced loss of consciousness—G-LOC—similar to NDEs in many of its characteristics, including the tunnel experience and the bright lights. Only when Whinnery went beyond the pilots losing consciousness, to the brink of near death, did the fighter pilots have a near death experience.

We are conscious of our death and we have developed an evolutionary positive method of dealing with it. Death, as defined by our evolution, is a positive experience. Death might be detrimental to the individual, but it is imperative for the specie to survive. It is appropriate that evolution honors this. The way to reduce our fear of death is to confront it, dying itself is a positive experience.

© USA Copyrighted 2013 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.


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