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What People Learn From Brushes with Death

Embracing life after getting a second chance to live it.

Key points

  • Grasping the impermanence of our existence can act as a wake-up call, urging us to favorably sharpen and prioritize our values.
  • Brushes with death shatter the assumptions we hold to be true about ourselves, so we can rebuild the beliefs we have about our life and death.
  • Psychologists encourage us to discover alternative paths to live "second chance" lives, like by reflecting on our mortality.
 Michal Dziekonski/Unsplash
Source: Source: Michal Dziekonski/Unsplash

“Cancer gave me a second chance at life,” Shay Moraga explained when I met her in Palm Springs, California last week, “and I’m actually grateful for the gift it gave me for that reason.” As the founder of Shay’s Warriors, a non-profit that supports cancer survivors, she knows a thing or two about facing mortality head-on. She also highlights how close encounters with death can act as the ultimate wake-up call.

People who have survived close brushes with death reportedly experience greater immersion in their lives—dismissing the trivial, unimportant aspects that once troubled them (Yalom, 1980), mindfully living in the present moment, and appreciating even the most banal of those day-to-day occurrences (Martin, Campbell & Henry, 2004).

The “Roar of Awakening”

Survivors of trauma report more favorable appraisals of the value of their lives after being jolted out of complacency (Janoff-Bulman, 2004). Shedding the expectations we believe society places on us, after flirting with death, we appear to grant ourselves the permission to live in ways that are more authentically us. “The ‘prescription’ of how to live given by family, culture, profession, religion, or friends loses its grasp. Perhaps, in this way, knowing that you have a terminal illness is of value” (Kuhl, 2002, p. 227). In working with terminally ill people, Kuhl (2002) noted that having moments of truth with death “serves as a roar of awakening... It ends the routine and indifference... Because they know they cannot escape death, they embrace life—their own life” (p. 227).

Grasping the impermanence of our existence can act as a wake-up call, urging us to favorably sharpen and prioritize our values (Groth-Marnat & Summers, 1998), which typically shift from culturally conditioned matters of importance (like what kind of car we drive) to more personal and intrinsic values (like who we’re driving to spend precious time with, in whatever make and model of car gets us there). While brushes with death can trigger the defensive safe haven of an established worldview (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986), death awareness can also allow us a second chance to remedy anxieties that result from living inauthentic lives (Martin, Campbell & Henry, 2004).

Shay reports that her experience with cancer provided her with a giant stop sign that she didn’t know she needed at the time. As a self-described, “go-go-go” people-pleaser, she was stopped in her tracks and forced to reevaluate what she wanted her life to look like beyond her treatment. She recalled that during one of her 20 chemo treatments she drew a circle on a page, and consciously wrote what she wanted in her life inside the circle, and what she wanted out of her life outside the borders of the circle. She then set out to live with that newfound clarity in mind.

Shattered Assumptions of Who We Really Are

Experiencing a close encounter with death—like through a car-totaling accident or by receiving undesirable news from a doctor—shatters the assumptions we hold to be true about ourselves (reiterating Kelly’s [1955] Personal Construct Theory). This proverbial shattering affords us the opportunity to rebuild the beliefs we have about our life and death.

Experiencing a close encounter with death has been described as a culture shock; individuals often undergo revised ways of seeing themselves, others, and their concept of time (Furn, 1987). Many open themselves up to new educational, career, and relationship experiences as they grow and shape their new beliefs—often in ways that can spur post-traumatic growth. Tedeschi and Calhoun (2004) refer to this counterintuitive growth as the positive psychological change that occurs as a result of adversity.

The post-traumatic growth that can arise from near-death experiences or major life crises likely occurs from the psychological responses of seeking emotional relief, comprehension, and creating an architecture of understanding that enables the acknowledgment of paradox—that meaning and richness can be found in the midst of complex despair (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).

How We Process Near-Death Experiences

Survivors of life-threatening situations cognitively adapt to their brushes with mortality in three ways: by searching for meaning, attaining a sense of mastery over their lives, and reestablishing their self-esteem (Taylor, 1983). Forging meaning isn’t simply about understanding why they were struck with the illness, for example, in the first place—although 95% of cancer patients in a study by Taylor (1983) made causal attributions (explanations) about why their cancer developed. Meaning was sought and found by these studied cancer patients by reappraising their lives and finding their time more valuable, developing refreshed attitudes towards their lives, becoming more self-aware, and reorganizing their priorities to diminish what they saw as trivial issues—like worrying about being late for a meeting, or concerning themselves with other people’s problems. These patients lasered in on what they deemed to be the important things in life (people that mattered, revitalizing interests, etc.)

While 50 percent of cancer chemotherapy outpatients participating in a post-traumatic growth study reported a negative life change, 87 percent reported at least one positive life change as a result of experiencing cancer (Arpawong et al, 1983). Given her personal experience of supporting hundreds of cancer survivors, Shay echoed this sentiment by saying that “Many of the women I work with have been given second and third and sometimes even fourth chances. It’s an incredible gift to see how precious life is.”

From Near Death to Fully Alive

Getting close to death or experiencing traumatic events doesn’t necessarily make us happier, but survivors do consistently report more of a sense of purpose, more self-actualization, and more wisdom in life (Noyes, 1983). Respondents in a survey of people who had close encounters with death (near drownings, falls, car accidents, and serious illnesses) appear to undergo “rebirths” into newly enhanced lives, notably described as full of aliveness (Noyes, 1983).

Interestingly, current research shows that the profound attitudinal changes associated with near-death experiences do not diminish over time; study participants revealed that their transformed values and views on life were maintained over two decades since their brush with death (Greyson, 2022).

Applying the “Brushes with Death” Lessons, Risk-Free

The question remains: how do we glean the benefits of near-death experiences without having to actually experience near-death­? Noting the unfortunate effectiveness that traumatic events have on illuminating the value of life, Janoff-Bulman and Yopyk (2004) challenge psychologists to discover alternative paths to awaken us and teach us to live lives through fresh eyes—in the absence of adversity, trauma, or loss.

Try asking yourself these reflective questions, in line with the key experiences of those who have seen death up close:

  • Reorganizing priorities to diminish trivial issues: What trivial things do you need to dismiss? What priorities need to bubble up to the top? What do you want inside and outside of your circle, per Shay’s exercise?
  • Greater immersion in life: Where do you need to show up ready to play in your life?
  • Mindfully living in the present moment: Are you present, even now, as you read this?
  • Appreciating even the most mundane day-to-day occurrences: What perfectly average thing are you overlooking right now?
  • Shedding society’s perceived expectations: Imagine what your life might look like if you were the real you, in every setting?
  • Creating depth + meaning: Where do you need to develop a refreshed attitude toward your life, to find it even a little more meaningful?

Reflecting on our finite nature can provide the sense of urgency and priority we often need to stop taking life for granted. Existential reevaluation can be powerful (Janoff-Bulman, 2004). Imagining a brush with death can spur a profound reorientation to life, heightening our appreciation for being alive with both zest and purpose.

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