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The Psychology of Dying

Dr. Siddall is a Psychologist with over 30 years of experience in clinical and forensic psychology as a clinician, educator and consultant.

the-psychology-of-dying

In youth, the prospect of dying is often portrayed as a romantic notion. Most of us recall the expression “ Live a fast life, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.” which originally appeared in the Monmouth College Oracle in 1924 titled the Creed of a College Man.

With maturity, this romantic perception of death and dying is typically surrendered to reality. For some people the fact that life is finite creates overwhelming fear and anxiety leading to dysfunctional avoidance behavior ranging from workaholism to substance abuse. For others the awareness of death provides the motivation for life’s most creative works.

Paradoxically, the universal fear of death may be the origin of our psychological distress, as well as, our most important motivation to achieve and create.

Denial of Death

the-psychology-of-dying

The Denial of Death is a work by Ernest Becker which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction posthumously in 1974. Becker expanded the concept of denial further by arguing that human civilization is a defense mechanism constructed to alter the reality of death. He wrote that people try to give their lives meaning by creating something that will last beyond their lifespan such as family relationship traditions, an original work of literature or art, or an endowment to a favorite charity. Psychologically, these enduring contributions to society become symbolic forms of immortality that act to resolve the fear of death.

Many of us find solace in poetic expressions that mirror our own feeling about death as evidenced by the two of my favorite quotes:

“Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.” John Muir


Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep by Mary Elisabeth Frye

“Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am in a thousand winds that blow,

I am the softly falling snow.

I am the gentle showers of rain,

I am the fields of ripening grain.

I am in the morning hush,

I am in the graceful rush

Of beautiful birds in circling flight,

I am the star shine of the night.

I am in the flowers that bloom,

I am in a quiet room.

I am in the birds that sing,

I am in each lovely thing.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there. I did not die.“

Still others find it comforting to be able to control the details of their deaths including their estate plan, memorial celebration, and even the way they choose to die.

A national nonprofit organization that advocates for patient rights and choice at the end of life including access to medical aid in dying is Compassion and Choices. It is the largest organization of its kind in the United States with supporters in every state. According to their literature they“provide end-of-life consultation for dying patients and their families at no cost. Professional consultants and trained volunteers work by phone or in person to offer assistance in completing advance directives, make referrals to local services including hospice and illness-specific support groups, advice on adequate pain and symptom management, and provide information on safe, effective and legal methods for aid in dying.”

Biology of Death

the-psychology-of-dying

Clinically, death is the state that occurs when the heart stops beating and blood circulation, breathing, and brain activity stops. Brain death, the absence of brain activity is the final indicator that the individual has died. Most people become confused and gradually lose consciousness near death.

When pain or distress is a significant issue a palliative or comfort care at home or in a hospice facility can provide much needed assistance. In addition to psychological support, the medication Morphine is often used to control pain and discomfort without disrupting the natural process of dying.

Typically, signs that death has occurred include : an absence of breathing, heartbeat, and fixed pupils, which indicate the cessation of brain activity. A person's eyelids may also be half-open, their skin may be pale and waxy-looking, and muscles relax and mouth may fall open as the jaw relaxes.

Body decompensation is the process that begins after death where human remains are broken down into simple organic matter as time passes. This process begins shortly after death with cell death and continues until all of the soft tissue mass is dissolved and only the skeleton remains. Microbes consume the soft tissue and organs. The body mass and organs liquefy but eventually dry out into a dust like deposit. The time it takes for the human body to decompose depends on environmental conditions and exposure to bacteria. Decomposition mostly occurs in the course of two weeks, and the body’s soft tissues start disintegrating even with preservation. If the body does not get enough protection from the elements, it can even skeletonize in a space of a year.

Life After Death

the-psychology-of-dying

Science provides us with a rational explanation for the cycle of life that transcends religious and spiritual stories of creation and life after death.

When the physical body dies and decomposes the remaining essential elements re-enter the environment and become the organic compost and building blocks for a variety of life forms including new generations of human beings. In this sense, biological reincarnation is a reality.

Further, memories of the deceased and personal and material contributions they have made to society also survive death. Therefore, the memories preserved by those you have influenced as well as your “good works” provide a meaningful and practical expression of life after death. Consider the following quotes:

“Unable are the loved to die. For love is immortality.” – Emily Dickinson

“A fact of life we all die. But the positive impact you have on others will be a living legacy.” – Catherine Pulsifer

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” ― Pericles

“Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us; our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.” Albert Einstein

Summary

For some people the fact that life is finite creates overwhelming fear and anxiety leading to dysfunctional avoidance behavior ranging from workaholism to substance abuse. For others the awareness of death provides the motivation for life’s most creative works. After death, the legacy you leave include your memories preserved by the living, your good works, and the return of your body's essential elements back to the earth to nurture future life.

Comments

James W Siddall (author) from Cleveland on September 25, 2020:

Thanks Wally, your comments are always helpful and appreciated. Jim

Wally Balcerzak on September 24, 2020:

Jim, Thought-provoking, and very rational, just like you! Enjoyed it, reminds me of some of the articles in the book "The portable athiest"

James W Siddall (author) from Cleveland on August 11, 2020:

Nicole: Thank you for your comments. I hope this article stimulates you to accept that death is a road we all travel together. Jim

Nicole on August 10, 2020:

Another thought provoking article! I loved all of the quotes you included - they all resonated with me. I don’t feel fearful about my own death, but the thought of it happening to my immediate family causes me great distress. This is something I need to process more productively. Your words are so helpful.

James W Siddall (author) from Cleveland on August 10, 2020:

Liliane. Certainly biologically based reincarnation! Jim

Liliane Najm from Toronto, Canada on August 10, 2020:

I wonder if the “return of th body’s essential elements back to the erth to nuture future life” could be the basis for the belief in reincarnation.