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Death Awareness in Clinical Practice

Can death awareness resensitize clients to the preciousness of their human life?

Key points

  • The 21st century yearns for new pathways to increase connection to self, others, and existence.
  • Death awareness increases individual, social and spiritual well-being by facilitating this reconnection.
  • The death awareness re-enchantment method works with death awareness in therapy.
  • The method is at the frontier of the future of reawakening to awe and existential therapy in action.

By Olivia L. Peers, MA

Global intimacy theory is a meta-theory rooted in the proposition that the cause of the contemporary meaning and mental health crisis lies in a dwindling felt sense of connection in daily life (Stein and Gafni, 2015). This includes connection to one’s being, to others, and the experience of life itself.

This desensitization to the experience of living and relating, and lack of connection to one’s deeper self, expresses itself through individuals as spiritual ailments. The term “spiritual ailment” was coined by Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist who stressed the need for deeper modes of being for ultimate human health (1970).

The term spiritual ailment encapsulates the mental illnesses that arise in response to a lack of fulfillment of deeper, “meta needs” (Maslow, 1970). Beyond basic needs for nutrient-dense foods and quality sleep, meta needs can be understood as the need for meaning, transcendence, authenticity, or genuine connection for ultimate human flourishing.

These meaning-seeking murmurs from the inner voice within represent the inescapable and innate human longing for a deeper experience of life, just like the stomach growls to signal hunger.

The “myth of normal” that defines Western society today contrasts starkly with existential and humanistic ways of thinking, being, and relating that have been clinically proven to enlarge the individual and promote higher human health. Further, this widespread disconnectedness exacts a toll on well-being, child development, and the future of societal health (Carr and colleagues, 2014).

According to Maslow (1970): People with access to transcendent states of being pay more attention to the world and make the effort to improve it altruistically.

Is it possible to re-sensitize Western culture to the basic and ordinary miraculousness of the gift of human life?

Most research in the human sciences in response to this question has been on the topic of gratitude. This research demonstrates the success of adopting a gratitude mindset for increasing well-being and resensitizing individuals to the wonder inherent in the human experience—and the people in it (Emmons and Shelton, 2002).

Interestingly, there appears to be another, less well-known conceptual vehicle for accessing this renewed wakefulness of being and deeper connection to life-death awareness.

Death Awareness for Life Enhancement
Though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death may save us. (Yalom, 2008)

Source: By Design Pics on Canva
Source: By Design Pics on Canva

Death awareness offers new opportunities for reawakening Western culture to the gift of life. Living everyday life with an integrated connection to death and impermanence awareness reconnects individuals to the more intangible “meta needs”. Death awareness can increase individual, social, and spiritual well-being by reconnecting individuals to their transcendent selves, deepening their presence with others, and increasing awe in daily life. Moment-to-moment instances of deeper meaning, self-transcendence, authenticity, and deep presence in relationships become increasingly accessible.

While seemingly paradoxical, phenomenological analyses of living with an awareness of death reveal transformative outcomes for life enhancement (Cozzolino, 2006; Frias and colleagues, 2011; King and colleagues, 2009; Koo and colleagues, 2008). This post introduces one of the newest prospective expressions of existential therapy in action: The Darm method.

The Death Awareness Re-enchantment Method
The method is an existential-integrative (EI) approach to psychotherapy, and one of the first therapeutic methods to define a coherent methodological process for working with death and impermanence awareness for life-enhancement in long-term clinical practice (Schneider, 2011).

The method responds to the mental health epidemic, global intimacy theory, and meaning crisis by equipping psychotherapists with a methodology to encounter the 21st century's cultural acquiescence towards forgetfulness of being through the reinstatement of everyday awe, deep intimacy in relationships, and the renewed appreciation for life which death awareness begets (Grant, 2018; Jonas and colleagues, 2002).

With a newfound awareness of the temporal horizon that contains any human experience, the Darm method recontextualizes life’s challenges and treasures through resacralization processes and metacognitive perspectives.

Clients begin to inquire: Is this the life I want to live? Am I becoming the person I want to be? Is this person beside me the life partner whom I seek to truly love?

New possibilities open to individuals for re-engaging the process of becoming—and sharing—one’s true self through self-realization, self-actualization, and ultimately self-transcendence. Clients are guided towards a greater depth of connection to this experience of being and becoming throughout their whole existence: with themselves, their experience of life, and the people in it.

While still in its early stages of development from theory to practice, the Darm method stands out as a new catalyst to the evolution of intimacy with life through the proliferation of existential-integrative, meaning-centered, and growth-oriented therapies that focus on the cultivation of higher human health, rather than solely the alleviation of illness.

Ultimately, the Darm method points towards the future of existential therapy in action through reawakening clients and professionals to the therapeutic utility—and necessity— of awe in contemporary, practice-based clinical work.


Note: Invitations for future research collaborations on the continued developments of the DARM Method are extended.

Carr, D., Freedman, V. A., Cornman, J. C., & Schwarz, N. (2014). Happy marriage, happy life? Marital quality and subjective well-being in later life. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 930–948.

Cozzolino, P. J. (2006). Death contemplation, growth, and defense: Converging evidence of dual-existential systems?. Psychological Inquiry, 17(4), 278-287.

Emmons, R. A., & Shelton, C. M. (2002). Gratitude and the science of positive psychology. Handbook of positive psychology, 18, 459-471.

Carr, D., Freedman, V. A., Cornman, J. C., & Schwarz, N. (2014). Happy marriage, happy life? Marital quality and subjective well-being in later life. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 930–948.

Frias, A., Philip, C. W., Webber, A. & Froh, J. (2011) Death and gratitude: Death reflection enhances gratitude. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6:2, 154-162, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2011.558848

Grant, A. S. (2018). Beyond Buffering: An Empirical Investigation of the Interconnective Self- Construal as a Mediator in Existential Death Anxiety. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Jonas, E., Schimel, J., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2002). The Scrooge Effect: Evidence that mortality salience increases prosocial attitudes and behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1342-1353.

Koo,et al., (2008). It’s a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1217–1224.

Maslow, A. (1970). Religions, values and peak experiences. New York, NY: Viking Press.

Schneider, K. J. (2011). Existential-integrative psychotherapy: Guideposts to the core of practice. Routledge.

Stein, Z., & Gafni, M. (2015). Reimagining humanity’s identity: responding to the second shock of existence. World Future Review, 7(2-3), 269-278.

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