Death is still taboo in most western societies. Odd, considering it’s one of life’s only certainties (along with taxes, obviously), and we all regrettably experience grief and loss during our lifetime. This means most of us fail to talk about the experience of dying until it’s happening to us or someone we love, and when we think about what it might be like, we tend to think in negative terms. But a new study suggests dying – when there is foresight – is actually happier and less terrifying than we might imagine.
Researchers analysed the emotions expressed in blog posts written by a mixture of terminally ill patients and prisoners on death row and concluded that dying is "less sad and terrifying – and happier – than you think", reported the Independent.
The writers’ accounts of dying didn’t convey loneliness or feelings of anxiety, but were actually "filled with love, social connection, and meaning", the researchers said. The patients had terminal cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), while the prisoners faced death sentences in Texas.
The study, conducted by psychologists at the University of North Carolina and published in the journal Psychological Science, compared the real accounts to the words used by volunteers asked to imagine they faced imminent death. The team used algorithms to analyse both sets of blog posts for words with positive and negative connotations.
The surprising thing? The emotional tone of the words used became more positive as the writers approached death, and they were more likely to broach weighty topics like family and religion, presumably as they took stock of their lives.
"All water and nutrition now through gravity bags – drip, drip, drip. Need assistance for every movement. Surrounded here by so much love and care I feel I am ready for the next step," read one of the posts analysed by the researchers.
"I have no regrets at all – I have had a full life, touched and been touched by such wonderful family and friends. So if there is to be a final lesson for me it is that love is the ultimate gift – love and honesty."
Assistant professor Kurt Gray, one of the researchers, said most of us "think mostly of sadness and terror" when we imagine our emotions as we approach death. But, as humans, we're "incredibly adaptive" and tend to go about our daily lives as normal, even if we're dying.
“In our imagination, dying is lonely and meaningless, but the final blog posts of terminally ill patients and the last words of death row inmates are filled with love, social connection, and meaning.”
68% of British people fear death, according to a survey by YouGov, and for some people, fear of death can become a phobia known as thanatophobia, or "death anxiety".