Dying may not be as awful an experience as you think

July 7, 2017 by Amy Norton, Healthday Reporter

(HealthDay)—Does the very idea of death worry and frighten you? There may be reassurance from a new study that finds those fears might be exaggerated.

In fact, the research shows, death is often described as a peaceful, "unexpectedly positive" experience by those who approach it.

Death is one of 's guarantees, yet it's something people often avoid talking about, according to study author Kurt Gray. He's an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"There's almost an unspoken assumption that death is something to be avoided at all costs," Gray said.

But his team found that the abstract concept of death may be scarier than the reality.

To look at the question, the researchers first searched for blogs by people who were terminally ill with cancer or (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease)—diseases where patients generally maintain their mental functioning into the advanced stages.

The researchers turned up blogs from 25 patients, with over 2,600 posts.

Next, the study authors recruited 50 healthy people and asked them to imagine they had terminal cancer and were keeping a blog to document their experience. Those people then wrote a "post" for the blog.

Finally, the researchers had independent raters code each post—real and pretend—for its emotional tone.

Overall, the study found, posts from the dying patients were more positive than those from people who imagined death was looming. And over time, the real posts became more positive, as the authors came closer to the end of life.

"I think that when people imagine what dying is like, they see it as being very different from the life they know," Gray said. "But really, death is part of life. And maybe you don't need to fear it as much as you might."

The findings, published recently in Psychological Science, are not entirely surprising, according to one researcher.

"In general, people are very bad at predicting how they'll feel about something in the future," said James Maddux, a senior scholar at George Mason University's Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, in Fairfax, Va.

"Most things that we fear aren't nearly as bad as we thought they'd be once they arrive," said Maddux, who was not involved in the study. "There's no reason to think death would be any different."

Some other study findings, though, were more surprising, both Maddux and Gray said.

In a separate experiment, Gray's team had 150 people imagine they were death-row inmates facing execution. They then composed their "final words."

The researchers compared those statements against the last words from inmates executed in Texas since 1982. Again, the people actually facing death voiced a brighter outlook, the findings showed.

"It was striking how positive the inmates were," Gray said. "They made statements about feeling love, and even optimism about the future."

It's not clear how well those blog posts and final words reflect what most people experience as death nears.

"Of course, people who choose to blog may be different from those who don't," Maddux said. They may, in fact, be more positive, he suggested.

Gray agreed. But he also pointed to the death-row inmates as a counter-argument. "It's not clear that death-row inmates would feel pressure to be positive before they're executed," he said.

As in all of life, though, people will vary in how they feel as death approaches, Gray said.

Religious beliefs undoubtedly matter, he noted, as does "social connectedness." That is, people facing death alone will likely feel differently from those surrounded by family and friends.

Basic personality matters, too, Maddux said. "Some people, by nature, are more pessimistic and prone to depression," he explained. "That will affect how they face death, too."

But in general, Maddux and Gray said, death may be less scary than many think.

That's important in a world where doctors often take "heroic measures" to prolong severely ill patients' lives, Gray said.

Maddux agreed. "This relates to our obsession with extending life at all costs," he said.

"Those heroic measures are often taken not for the patient, but for their loved ones," Maddux said. "But if you know that is not as scary for the dying person as it is for you, then maybe you'll be more willing to let them go when it's time."

Explore further: Emotions expressed by the dying are unexpectedly positive

More information: Kurt Gray, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of psychology and neuroscience, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; James Maddux, Ph.D., senior scholar, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.; June 1, 2017, Psychological Science, online

The University of California, Berkeley has more on dying well.

Related Stories

Emotions expressed by the dying are unexpectedly positive

June 1, 2017
Fear of death is a fundamental part of the human experience—we dread the possibility of pain and suffering and we worry that we'll face the end alone. Although thinking about dying can cause considerable angst, new research ...

Positive outlook may help heart disease patients heal

October 16, 2015
(HealthDay)—Heart disease patients with a sunny disposition are more likely to exercise, stick with their medications and take other steps to ward off further heart trouble, a new study suggests.

Senior years may truly be golden for happiness

August 24, 2016
(HealthDay)—In a culture that values youth, aging can seem like a dismal prospect. But a new study suggests that older adults are generally less stressed and happier with their lives than younger people are.

Single and happy? Your view on relationships may be key

August 21, 2015
(HealthDay)—Single people can be just as happy as those in romantic relationships—but it may depend on their temperament, a new study suggests.

Researchers investigate 'life-review experience' in near-death people

February 1, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Israel has found that many people do experience unusual memory events near death. In their paper published in the journal Consciousness ...

Hope for those with a depressive disposition

January 30, 2012
Good news for the 13 per cent of the population with depressive personality traits: their negative outlook does not have to be permanent. This has been shown by psychologist Rachel Maddux in new research from Lund University ...

Recommended for you

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

Precision medicine opens the door to scientific wellness preventive approaches to suicide

August 15, 2017
Researchers have developed a more precise way of diagnosing suicide risk, by developing blood tests that work in everybody, as well as more personalized blood tests for different subtypes of suicidality that they have newly ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jul 07, 2017
"Maddux agreed. "This relates to our obsession with extending life at all costs," he said.
"Those heroic measures are often taken not for the patient, but for their loved ones," Maddux said. "But if you know that death is not as scary for the dying person as it is for you, then maybe you'll be more willing to let them go when it's time.""

-We have religion to blame for this. Religions feed off the sick and dying. The longer you live the more chance you have to repent or be saved by a miracle.

"Accustom yourself to the belief that death is of no concern to us, since all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death" - Epicurus
pepe2907
not rated yet Jul 08, 2017
Or... it depends of how painfull life is for you.
Somebody considered that?
sara1965
Jul 18, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.