Ask people to imagine what they’d say if they knew they were dying and most would have words of sadness, fear, and regret. But new psychological research bolsters what chaplains, hospice workers, and others who spend a lot of time in the company of those approaching the end of life have long known: the process of dying is a complicated one, with room for moments of profundity and light alongside fear and darkness.
In a series of experiments documented in the journal Psychological Science, researchers compared the blog posts of terminally ill people and the last words of death row inmates to the words of healthy people asked to imagine themselves writing near their death.
The people actually approaching death used more positive terms and fewer negative ones to describe their emotions than those imagining the experience. In the blog posts—all from real people who eventually died from their disease—emotions grew more positive as death approached.
It’s not a perfect study—people with unspeakable regrets or fears may be less inclined to publicly chronicle their final days than those who do not. But there are a few reasons why death may be more terrifying as a distant abstract than an immediate reality.
People tend to overlook or discount the psyche’s ability to adapt to new circumstances when imagining the future, according to research from the Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Because we don’t properly account for our own resilience when envisioning future calamities, we tend to think that we’ll feel sadder, for longer, than we actually do.
Even amid the trauma of a terminal diagnosis and the discomforts of the dying process, the mind can adapt to find pleasure in the comforts available. And when we believe we have less time to live, whether due to age, illness, or external threat, we subconsciously adjust our priorities to favor those things closest to home. Research has found that old people, young people with serious diagnoses, and people living in uncertain political climates vastly prefer time with old friends and family over new contacts and experiences. The depth of these connections bring meaning to the final days of life in a way that can be hard for healthy people in an externally-focused, future-oriented mindset to comprehend.
It’s inaccurate to portray the close of life as a universally positive or peaceful experience. “We die the way we have lived,” says Barbara Karnes, a hospice nurse who has written extensively on the dying process. “I think it is human nature to look for love, connection, and meaning. We don’t necessarily have to be dying to do that. Dying gives us the opportunity, the gift of time, to reach out, but many do not take that opportunity.”
Death focuses us on what we care about most. But we don’t have to wait until the end is imminent to live as if each day matters.
“If there is any great difference between the people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it’s this: They know they’re running out of time,” Kerry Egan, a Harvard Divinity School-trained hospital chaplain, writes in her book On Living. “They have more motivation to do the things they want to do, and to become the person they want to become…. There’s nothing stopping you from acting with the same urgency the dying feel.”