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The Morbid Cost of Denying Death

Avoiding the inevitability of death leads to an avoidance of living.

Key points

  • People handle the dilemma of death by devising an "immortality project" that makes them feel heroic and symbolically immortal.
  • Conscious and unconscious worries about death, if unaddressed, threaten one's well-being and ability to show up fully for life.
  • Being willing to fully participate in life tends to quell anxieties and fears about death.
Taylor/Unsplash
Source: Taylor/Unsplash

Our anxiety of death “is most basic, universal, and inescapable,” according to existentialist thinker Paul Tillich (1952). Every individual grapples with an instinctive yet repressed fear of the end, which likely exists at our deepest, primary levels (Yalom, 2008). This fear and subsequent denial of death have the ironic potential to rob us of vitality, which makes the topic worth exploring in an effort to live ultimately fulfilling lives.

Death isn’t always at the forefront of our minds, but it does exist in the background. In an effort to assuage our inherent yet often unconscious anxiety, we build impressive defense mechanisms to conceive of what death means to us and how it could possibly fit into our lives. Our ego works hard to defend itself against the onslaught of anxieties brought about by the stressful subject (Tomer, 1994).

No discussion about our inherent tendency to remain blissfully ignorant about death would be complete without the voice of Ernest Becker; in The Denial of Death (1973) he addresses the existential matters that contribute to our animalistic fear of death. Becker was inspired by Austrian psychologist Otto Rank, a fellow believer that the motivation for our art of living stems from our fears of death (Wadlington, 2012). Proulx and Heine (2006) credit Becker’s “bible”—for which he posthumously received a Pulitzer Prize—as one of the five most important works published on meaning within 20th century social science history.

Devising an “immortality project”

Rather than denying our denial, Becker (1973) advocated that we stoically accept the limitations of being human (such as the ways we think—or choose not to think), the limitations of our bodies (which are destined to perish), and that we should resist the effort to stifle our natural responses to death. Becker advocated that we handle the dilemma of death by devising an immortality project or set of beliefs that make us feel heroic and therefore, in some small sliver, immortal. An immortality project could be ardently adhering to a religious doctrine, donating money to have our name chiseled into a brick on a museum wall, or having children who will perpetuate our family name. Fear—or denial—of death, to Becker, was a fundamental motivator behind why we do what we do.

Many of us fear the unpredictability of death—that we don’t precisely know when we will die—and some believe it is this fact that makes us fear death, not the mere inevitability of death in itself (Kagan, 2012).

Denying the idea of death comes at a cost

Despite our valiant attempts to suppress thoughts of the inevitable, many experience anxiety, depression, worry, and negative emotions in doing so (Yalom, 2008); trying to quell death anxiety through avoidance ironically sets the stage for even more anxiety. Yalom further asserts that both conscious and unconscious worries about death, if unaddressed, threaten our well-being and our ability to show up fully for life; denial exacts the price of a compromised inner life.

The most disconcerting trouble with denying death is that death isn’t afraid to make itself known—through our own health scares, in the lyrics of a popular song, through the news of a terrorist attack, or through the passing of someone we know. Kagan (2012) believes it is inappropriate and irrational to ignore the facts about death, given their power to cause us to behave differently and to make more powerful choices while we are still alive. Schumacher (2010) believes that we deprive ourselves of death through fear and denial. We might allow ourselves to contemplate the death of others but conveniently never contemplate our own, undermining our opportunity to reap the beneficial perspectives to be gained. Wong & Tomer (2011) eloquently state that death denial robs us of the chance to live most vitally.

We’re in such denial of our blatant endings that we consistently purchase insufficient life insurance (Bernheim, Forni, Gokhale, & Kotlikoff, 2003), we postpone transfers of wealth between generations—even when significant tax savings are to be gained (Kopczuk & Slemrod, 2005)—and just 25 percent of us have living wills in place (Novotney, 2010).

Softening the blow of death

When many of us are faced with the idea of death, we intentionally don’t think of death. Yet what happens when participants in research studies are encouraged to think of their inevitable demise? Where does denial shapeshift in those moments? When asked to describe their deathbed scenes, study participants typically envision the idealized scenario of dying at a mature age at home, surrounded by doting loved ones, remarkably void of pain or emotional anguish, cognitively sharp, and passing mercifully fast (Kastenbaum & Normand, 1990).

Only 6 percent of people anticipate pain at death, and a vast majority expect old age to be their cause of death (Kastenbaum, 2000). The discrepancy between our imagined “appropriate death” (Weisman, 1972)—the death we’d choose if lucky enough to have a choice at all—and the most realistic scenarios is woefully apparent: We will likely die in accordance to what life expectancy tables predict, or sooner after suffering from chronic illnesses, and likely alone or in an institution (Kastenbaum, 1995). We glorify our conceptualized deaths to protect ourselves from the inconvenient truths of how death might really unfold (Evans, Walters, & Hatch-Woodruff, 1999).

It is challenging to integrate threatening yet realistic death scenarios into the scaffolding we’ve built around our identities; this softening-the-blow-of-death version of denial eases the burden of having to construct new realities around how we’ll live a life that might end alone, in pain, and without our marbles firmly intact. Apparently, our desire, our need, to manage the discomfort associated with our ephemerality encourages comforting distortions of the future.

Letting denial take a detour

Shifting from a denial of death to an acceptance of our albeit-disconcerting mortality opens up possibilities to not just reduce anxiety but to redefine death as a tool to live life more vitally. The encouraging news is that our willingness to fully participate in our lives tends to quell our anxieties and fears about death (Wong & Tomer, 2011). We don’t need to mentally loiter in the grim land of death for long, but a willingness to reflect on our final moments can help us live lives we’ll be proud of when it finally is our time to die. Under the tenets of positive psychology, death acts as a powerful and healthy reminder to live. Reflecting on death is an intrinsically positive endeavor, after all, precisely because of how life-affirming it really is (Wong, 2010).

References

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Macmillan.

Bernheim, B., Forni, L., Gokhale, J., & Kotlikoff, L. (2003). The mismatch between life insurance holdings and financial vulnerabilities: evidence from the health and retirement study. The American Economic Review, 93(1), 354–365. doi:10.1257/000282803321455340

Evans, J. W., Walters, A. S., & Hatch-Woodruff, M. L. (1999). Deathbed scene narratives: A construct and linguistic analysis. Death Studies, 23(8), 715–733. doi:10.1080/074811899200740

Kagan, Shelly. (2012). Death. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kastenbaum, R. (1995). Death, society and human experience (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Kastenbaum, R. (2000). The psychology of death (3rd ed.). New York: Springer.

Kastenbaum, R., & Normand, C. (1990). Deathbed scenes as imagined by the young and experienced by the old. Death Studies, 14(3), 201-217.

Kopczuk, W., & Slemrod, J. (2005). Denial of death and economic behavior. Advances in Theoretical Economics, 5(1). doi: 10.2202/1534-5963.1207

Novotney, A. (2010, October). The living will needs resuscitation. Monitor on Psychology, 41(9), 66.

Proulx, T., & Heine, S. (2006). Death and black diamonds: Meaning, mortality, and the meaning maintenance model. Psychological Inquiry, 17(4), 309–318. doi:10.1080/10478400701366985

Schumacher, B. N. (2010). Death and Mortality in Contemporary Philosophy. Cambridge University Press: Kindle Edition.

Tillich, P. (1952). The courage to be. London: Nisbet.

Tomer, A. (1994). Death anxiety in the adult life. In R. A. Neimeyer (Ed.), Death anxiety handbook (pp. 3-23). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.

Wadlington, W. (2012). The art of living in Otto Rank’s will therapy. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 72(4), 382-396. doi: 10.1057/ajp.2012.25

Weisman, A. D. (1972). On dying and denying: A psychiatric study of terminality. New York: Behavioral Publications.

Wong, P.T.P. (2010, July). What is existential positive psychology? International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 3(1).

Wong, P. T. P., & Tomer, A. (2011). Beyond terror and denial: The positive psychology of death acceptance. Death Studies, 35(2), 99–106. doi:10.1080/07481187.2011.535377

Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Yalom, I. D. (2008). Staring at the sun: Overcoming the terror of death. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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