Death May Be More Positive for the Dying Than We Expect

Death is scary for many of us. Is it scary for people who are dying?

Posted Aug 08, 2017

Jesse Krauß via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Jesse Krauß via Wikimedia Commons

It seems straightforward to say that death is scary and bad.  Many people express that they have a fear of death.  There is even a whole theory that I have written about several times in this blog called “terror management theory” that argues that people develop many different strategies to help them deal with their fear of death. 

Given this, you might expect that as people near death, they will express more fear and anxiety

However, it is worth remembering that when Elisabeth Kubler-Ross laid out what we now think of as the five stages of grief, she was actually describing the experiences of people who were dying.  The last stage the described was acceptance, which suggests that as people near death and are aware of its approach, many of them are no longer afraid and may see death in more positive terms.

Of course, the stages in the framework by Kubler-Ross are descriptive.  Would there actually be evidence that people who are dying tend to view death positively?

This question was explored by Amelia Goranson, Ryan Ritter, Adam Waytz, Michael Norton, and Kurt Gray in a paper in the July, 2017 issue of Psychological Science

In one study, they analyzed the content of blogs written by people dying of cancer or ALS (the neurodegenerative disease often called “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”).  They analyzed the proportion of positive and negative sentiments in the blog as well as the trend as people neared death.  As a comparison, they asked participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to imagine they had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and asked them to write a blog entry about it.

The healthy participants who wrote a blog about their illness expressed about the same number of positive and negative sentiments in their blog entry.  In contrast, the dying participants expressed about twice as many positive sentiments as negative ones.  In addition, there was a trend for the number of positive sentiments to increase as people got closer to dying. 

To assess this idea in a different way, the authors also looked at death-row inmates.  They collected last words of roughly 500 inmates who were executed in Texas.  They also examined poetry from five books written by inmates on death row.  As a comparison, a group of participants were asked to imagine that they were going to be executed for a crime they had committed, and were asked to write a last statement.

As before, the participants who were recruited to write statements expressed about the same proportion of positive and negative sentiments.  In contrast, the sentiments in the last words and poetry were overwhelmingly positive.

These studies are consistent with Kubler-Ross’s description of the attitudes of patients with terminal illnesses.  As people approach death, their sentiments are not filled with fear and anger.  Instead, they express positive thoughts as if they have let go of that fear of death and have accepted what is going to happen.

This pattern may also help some people who are grieving for loved ones.  When someone close to us dies, we are sad because of the loss, but we often feel some amount of fear in empathy for the person who has died.  It might be comforting to know that for many people, their own attitude toward dying may have been much more positive than our own.  I know that when my younger brother died (13 years ago this week) after a long illness, I imagined his fear of dying.  Perhaps he was much more positive about his fate than I had expected.

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Goranson, A., Ritter, R.S., Waytz, A., Norton, M.I., & Gray, K. (2017). Dying is unexpectedly positive. Psychological Science, 28(7), 988-999.