The Psychology of Death and Dying

What are people’s feelings about their own demise?

Posted Dec 03, 2017

A while back, I posted a piece discussing research on people’s thoughts and feelings about death and dying, and I was interviewed for a magazine. Here is the transcript of the interview.

First of all, give me a short summary of your career and how you became interested in this topic.

I was trained as a social/personality psychologist, which means that I’m interested in the external (social) forces that affect human behavior, as well as the internal forces (personality). I transitioned into studying organizations — and particularly organizational leadership. My interest in the topic of death came about, because I read colleagues’ research on it.

1. For some people, fear of death is a motivating force; for others, it can demotivate them, correct?

According to some psychological theories, imminent death motivates us to try to leave a legacy behind. That could be great deeds, great wealth, but more commonly, well-adjusted and productive children and grandchildren, etc. On the other hand, some people fear death to such an extent that they might simply ignore the inevitable and hope that it never happens. Death can be motivating or not. That is the role of personality. People approach death differently, depending on their experiences, their belief systems, and their personalities.

2. I personally know some people who, even though they are quite old, are still afraid to pass away. So, what does this fear depend on, other than age?

Again, there are huge individual differences. I think that fear of death is related to two things: a) The idea that our current existence will end; and, more importantly, b) A fear of the unknown. Faith (whether that is religious or not) can help people deal with fear of death. Our society pretty much tries to ignore death, so many people never come to grips with it. It is probably a very healthy exercise to contemplate your death and come to terms with it.

3. You said that research shows how death is viewed, both from individuals facing it (some being more positive about impending death), and people who might be further away from death, but still have a negative attitude. Could it be because the first ones are now at peace with themselves, knowing that their moment is near?

Yes, I think that what has happened to people who are terminally ill, for example, is that they have been forced to consider death and deal with it. We could all do this, regardless of our age and whether or not death is approaching or distant.

4. Elderly people — most of them, at least — are not afraid to pass away. Is it because they just don’t mind anymore?

Again, I think that they have had more time to think about death and come to grips with it (i.e., thought about it in a meaningful way).

5. Fear of dying has always been a part of humankind. Will we ever learn to embrace it?

I think that there are big individual differences here. Some people are less afraid than others, because they have contemplated it, or they have given over to some sort of “faith” that death is not something to fear, but to accept.

6. Last, but not least: What’s your opinion about death in general? Do you think it is something to be scared of? Is dying just a new beginning?

Personally, I’m less afraid of death, because, as a social scientist, I assume that this life will simply stop. I’m unsure of what happens after that, but it brings me a sense of peace knowing that my current, conscious self will be unaffected by death. That part of me will simply stop existing.

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