Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

Can We Die Naturally When We Choose?

Death research in the early 1980s blazed the trail of "willful dying."

Three decades ago, great strides were made in the area of “death research,” a field that continues to grow as interest in the end of life escalates. (The looming departure of tens of millions of baby boomers over the next few decades has much to do with this.) Researchers of the early 1980s were especially interested in the possibility that people could choose a particular time to die, either consciously or unconsciously. Anecdotal accounts certainly suggested there was a chance it could be so, with many stories of people deciding it was time to call it quits and then doing just that.

One apparently true one had to do with an 80-year-old retired bank executive who told his son to “take good care of your mother,” transferred ownership of his assets to his family, ate a plate of ravioli (his favorite meal), and then closed his eyes and died. Another well-documented one was about a healthy man in his seventies who gathered his family, said “I don’t need anything anymore,” and died just after completing his bequests.

Not just anecdotal evidence but scholarly research suggested there might be something to it all. The medical journal The Lancet reported the case of a 40-year-old woman with chest pains who accurately told nurses and her clergyman that she would die exactly a week later on May 28th (the second anniversary of her mother’s death), and the scholarly journal Omega published two studies indicating the significantly higher likelihood one would die right before or right after one’s birthday. (One study showed that the approach of a birthday prolonged life for a short time among women but hastened death among men, suggesting that birthdays serve as a “lifeline” for the former and a “deadline” for the latter.) The Harvest Moon Festival was another such lifeline for Chinese Americans, another study showed, as was Passover for religious Jews. Then there was the case of Sigmund Freud, who happened to have died on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Did the date have something to do with the lifelong guilt he felt about his brother’s death at six months of age when he was twenty-three months old, shrinks and some non-shrinks wondered?

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While choosing a time to die may have been possible, the latest research showed that another popular belief—that people could die of a “broken heart”—was not very likely. Premature mortality among widows and widowers experience resulting from their loss was folklore, medical studies of the eighties were indicating, with grief not the killer it was commonly believed to be. That the survivor of a couple often died soon after his or her partner was more a matter of having shared a similar lifestyle, e.g., poor diet or smoking, than not being able to live without one another.

Richard Nixon’s death in 1994, which followed his wife’s Pat’s by less than a year, revived the discussion of mates quickly following each other to the grave, however. The pair had been married over half a century, bringing to mind other couples who had been together many years and died within a short period of time. Historian Will Durant passed away just thirteen days after his wife and writing partner Ariel, for example, while Buckminster Fuller and his wife died a mere 36 hours apart. Did one spouse often go rapidly downhill after the death of his or her longtime partner? Despite the recent research (which contradicted previous studies), experts in the field now were not sure, with many potential factors—stress, depression, loss of routine, and social network—coming into play.

Larry Samuel, Ph.D., is a cultural historian and the founder of Culture Planning LLC.

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