We humans have an overwhelming fear of death. That’s the core assumption of “terror management theory.” It presumes that, when confronted with reminders of our mortality, we display self-protective emotional and cognitive responses. Made to think about dying, we self-defensively cling tightly to our worldviews and prejudices.
On the assumption that dying is terrifying—that death is the great enemy to be avoided at all costs—medicine devotes enormous resources to avoiding death, even to extending life by inches. And should we be surprised? I love being alive and hope to have miles of purposeful life to go before I sleep.
So, do we have the worst of life yet to come? Are we right to view life’s end with despair?
Two psychological science literatures reassure us:
The first: The stability of well-being. Across the life span, people mostly report being satisfied and happy with their lives. Subjective well-being does not plummet in the post-65 years. In later life, stresses also become fewer and life becomes less of an emotional roller coaster.
The second: Human resilience. More than most people suppose, we humans adapt to change. Good events—even a lottery win—elate us for a time, but then we adapt and our normal mix of emotions returns. Bad events—even becoming paralyzed in an accident—devastate us, but only for a while. Both pleasures and tragedies have a surprisingly short half-life. Facing my increasing deafness, the reality of resilience is reassuring.
And now comes a third striking finding: Dying is less traumatic than people suppose. Amelia Goranson and her colleagues examined
- blog posts of terminally ill cancer and ALS patients, and
- last words of death row inmates before their execution.
Others, asked to simulate those posts and words, overly expressed messages filled with despair, anger, and anxiety. More than expected—and increasingly as death approached—the actual words of the dying expressed social connection, love, meaning, and faith.
Goranson and her colleagues presume (though it remains to be shown) that the same acceptance and positivity will be exhibited by those dying at the more expected time on the social clock—very late in life, when people (despite stereotypes of grumpy old men) tend to focus on the positive.
Thus, conclude the researchers, “death is more positive than people expect: Meeting the grim reaper may not be as grim as it seems.”