Death Is Inevitable but Not Inevitably Dreadful

In some circumstances, dying may be less awful than people think.

Posted Jun 22, 2017

Death is the ultimate negative event. It is dreaded. Death conjures feelings of fear, distress, helplessness, hopelessness, and sadness. We expect the worst.

But fascinating new research suggests that for those who are condemned to die, the experience of facing the end is less negative—and perhaps more positive—than we imagine.

As reported in the June 2017 issue of the journal Psychological Science, Kurt Gray, Ph.D., at the University of North Carolina and his colleagues studied the emotional lives of people about to die from terminal cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or execution. Language offers rich insight to emotions, and the investigators capitalized on this fact. They studied blog posts, poetry, and last words from those who faced imminent death. That language was compared to the language of healthy people who merely imagined their imminent death. Coders were trained to judge emotions conveyed in the narratives, but they did not know if the narratives they judged came from a person who was soon going to die or from a person imagining what it would be like.

In every comparison, death was more positive or less negative than people thought it would be.

That is, for example, non-patients used more negative words in their imaginary blog posts than the terminally ill patients. Patient blog posts also were more positive than the posts from non-patients. Further, positive words in patient blog posts—which could be coded over time—increased as death approached.

These findings are more trustworthy because they were replicated in a vastly different population. That is, the last words of death row inmates also were more positive and less negative than the imagined last words of non-inmates. In addition, the last words of death row inmates facing execution were less negative than poetry produced by inmates who were not facing imminent death. 

These results are intriguing. It would be fascinating to learn what processes preceded the enhanced positivity and reduced negativity in persons about to die. That is, what were emotions like in the months and years after patients and prisoners learned of their fate?

Thus far, we have learned that death may be not be as dreadful as we fear.  

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “in this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes.”  Perhaps we need dread the former a little less fiercely.

References

Goranson, A., Ritter, R.S., Waytz, A., Norton, M.I., & Gray, K.  (2017).  Dying is unexpectedly positive. Psychological Science.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617701186.

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