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The Psychology of Death

The difficulty to conceive of our own deaths is perhaps a survival mechanism.

If the science of death remains a riddle (we’re still not exactly sure why the human body decides to die), the psychology of it has been one of our greatest conundrums. Others die, not us—or at least, that's what most of us like to think.

The difficulty to conceive of our own deaths is perhaps some kind of survival mechanism to prevent it from actually happening. Rather than just being a biological impulse, however, our denial of death seems to be a psychological condition rooted in Freudian theory. Americans repress the idea of death; our fear of it so great that it lies buried deep in our subconscious. (The word itself is a major turn-off, which I quickly discovered when I told friends some years ago that I was writing a book about death.) Fictionalizing death through violent (and wildly popular) entertainment helps us keep it at bay, an over-the-top, stylized version serving as a safe substitute for the real thing.

We have, in short, a neurosis when it comes to death, with most of us displaying the classic signs of such a disorder (e.g., anxiety, depression, hypochondria) whenever we have to confront the subject in real life. Besides the complex psychological issues, there are practical ones that further complicate things. We are woefully misinformed about what is likely to kill us, overestimating the dramatic (e.g., airplane crashes and acts of terrorism) and underestimating the routine (chronic diseases, car accidents, or falling down the stairs at home). (The “Big 3” causes of death remain heart disease, cancer, and stroke.) We are incredibly knowledgeable about the most trivial matters- which celebrity is dating which other one, when the newest, latest technological gadget is coming out, or who is leading the American League in E.R.A.—but have little or no idea about when or how we will probably die.

That death is a scientific and psychological puzzle is understandable, but it is our own failures in the area of dying that have proved most worrisome. “We don’t die well in America,” Bill Moyers observed in 2000, something readily apparent in any examination of the end of life in the United States. Our exclusive focus on life has simply made death not one of our priorities, something for which we are all to blame. Doctors’ lack of training in the area of dying and their commitment to preserve life at any cost, the institutional nature of both modern medicine and the funeral industry, religious leaders’ own discomfort with the end of life, and families’ reluctance to let their loved ones go are just a few reasons why death is so problematic in this country.

More than any single factor, however, it is that death and dying run counter to virtually all of the nation’s defining values, e.g., youth, beauty, progress, achievement, winning, optimism, and independence. Our inherent antipathy of death became much more pronounced in the early decades of the 20th century as the tentacles of modernism reached into all avenues of everyday life. A more secular age, centered around the many pleasures and freedoms to be had in place of a judging God, encouraged an aversion to death. The tools and techniques of modern medicine—antibiotics, vaccines, new kinds of surgeries, transplants, and, of course, machines—allowed us to skirt death or, more accurately delay it. Some historians went so far as to say we “conquered” death in the 20th century—a premature declaration of victory if there ever was one.