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The Psychology of Death

Becoming aware of our own mortality can be a liberating experience.

We all have to face it at some point; an event of such enormity that it can make everything else in our lives seem insignificant: death, the end of our existence, our departure from this world.

We live in a culture that denies death. We’re taught that death is something we should shy away from, and try to forget about. If we start contemplating our own mortality – so this traditional wisdom goes – we’ll become anxious and depressed. And there’s no doubt that this is often the case.

In psychology, Terror Management Theory suggests that a large part of all human behaviour is generated by unconscious fear of death. This fear generates a fundamental anxiety and unease, which we try to offset with behaviour such as status-seeking or strongly defending the values of our culture. We feel threatened by death and so seek security and significance to defend ourselves against it. Studies have shown, for example, that when people are made more aware of their own mortality, they tend to become more nationalistic and tribal and more materialistic.

However, this is by no means always the case. In fact, there is also a great deal of evidence showing that becoming aware of death can have a powerful positive effect, and bring about a radical shift in attitude and perspective. I interviewed many people who had undergone this shift for my book Out of the Darkness. People who had been diagnosed with cancer, or had recovered from a close brush with death such as those who had a heart attack or almost drowned.

Tranformational Effects

The people I interviewed described a new ability to live in the present. Facing death had taught them that the future and the past are unimportant, and that life only ever takes place in the present moment. They had developed a much more appreciative attitude, a sense of gratitude for aspects of their life they had taken for granted before. They were grateful for their friends and family, grateful just to be alive, grateful to be able to perceive and experience the world around them. The world had also become a more real place to them — things that they had never paid attention to before became strikingly vivid and beautiful.

Worries and anxieties which had oppressed them before — for example, worries about being liked by other people, about not being successful in their career, or about past events which had made them feel embarrassed — no longer seemed important. There was a shift away from an ego-centered, materialistic attitude to a less selfish altruistic one. There was a sense of letting go — of releasing themselves from fear, from ambitions, from attachment to material goods or concepts of status.

There was a powerful example in the news in the UK recently. A rock guitarist called Wilko Johnson from the band Dr. Feelgood was diagnosed with stomach cancer last year and told he only had eight or nine months to live. Speaking a few weeks after his diagnosis, Johnson said that he had been feeling "vividly alive" and experiencing a sense of euphoria, with "this marvellous feeling of freedom."

As Johnson told the BBC, the sense of euphoria began as soon as he was told the news: "We walked out of [the consulting room] and I felt an elation of spirit. You're walking along and suddenly you're vividly alive. You're looking at the trees and the sky and everything and it's just 'whoah!'. I am actually a miserable person. I've spent most of my life moping in depressions and things, but this has all lifted … the things that used to bring me down, or worry me, or annoy me, they don't matter anymore — and that's when you sit thinking 'Wow, why didn't I work this out before? Why didn't I work out before that it's just the moment you're in that matters?'

"Worrying about the future or regretting the past is just a foolish waste of time. Of course we can't all be threatened with imminent death, but it probably takes that to knock a bit of sense into our heads. Right now it's just fantastic; it makes you feel alive. Just walking down the street you really feel alive. Every little thing you see, every cold breeze against your face, every brick in the road, you think 'I'm alive, I'm alive.'"

Facing Up and Acceptance

So why does awareness of death have a positive effect on some people, but not others?

To a large extent, it depends on the intensity of the encounter with our mortality. Anxiety usually occurs when we’re passively aware of death, thinking about it in a vague way rather than actually facing up to it. There’s certainly an important difference between being aware of death as a concept (as people were in the research for Terror Management Theory), and being confronted with the reality of it, and being forced to deal with it as an imminent prospect. When we face up to death actively and directly, there’s a chance that we’ll transcend anxiety and insecurity, and experience its transformational potential.

An attitude of acceptance is important too. If we resist death, fight against its inevitability, refuse to let go of our lives, and feel bitterness about all the things that we’re going to lose and leave behind then we’re much less likely to experience the potentially positive effects.

Most importantly, however, it should be possible for us to harness the transformational effect of death without actually undergoing the process of dying. It’s important for us to make a conscious effort to remind ourselves of our own mortality. I believe we should spend a few minutes of every day thinking about our own death, contemplating the fact that we’re only on this planet for a certain amount of time, that death could strike us down at any moment.

This may seem morbid to some, but it’s only really a question of facing up to reality. Ultimately, we’re all in the same position as a cancer patient who’s been told they only have a certain amount of time left to live – it’s just that we don’t know how much time we have left, and it’s likely that most of us will have more time than the cancer patient.

Death is always present, and its transformational power is always accessible to us, so long as we’re courageous enough to face it. Becoming aware of our own mortality can be a liberating and awakening experience, which can – paradoxically, it might seem – encourage us to live authentically and fully for the first time.

Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University and the author of Out of the Darkness.

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