What does it mean to have a good death? Leah Green meets with Aly Dickinson, an end-of-life doula. Aly helps clients to plan what they want to happen at the end of their lives, and she accompanies them as they transition from life to death. She helps Leah draw up a death plan, and takes her to a death cafe, where strangers discuss dying over tea and cake
If I were to rank all of my fears, death — my own, and that of the people I love — would definitely be at the top of my list. It’s a pretty universal source of anxiety, whether we voice it or not. We cling to this fear, even if it won’t change the reality that all of us will die, eventually. The death positivity movement, however — which aims to shift this perception by encouraging a larger dialogue about death — is steadily growing.
Our anxiety surrounding death stems from how we tend to distance ourselves from the topic, explains Katherine Kortes-Miller, an assistant professor at Lakehead University and author of Talking About Death Won’t Kill You: The Essential Guide to End-of-Life Conversations. For many, “the only death and dying we see is on movies, where it’s heightened and traumatic, and not the death most of us are going to experience.”
The goal of death positivity is to “take death out of the closet,” Kortes-Miller says, so we no longer see it as a Big Scary Thing, but as an integral part of life. The nonprofit organization Death Cafe, for instance, has hosted thousands of loosely-structured events where people meet to “eat cake, drink tea, and discuss death,” according to its website.
Another group, Death Over Dinner, has a website that helps people plan dinners where they can discuss end-of-life issues, suggesting reading, audio, and video materials. Kortes-Miller co-organizes an event called Die-alogues, which hosts speakers and small-group discussions on topics like bucket lists, the use of social media to acknowledge death and dying, and animal companion death.
Popularized in a tweet by Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, death positivity is inspired by sex positivity, especially in its emphasis on choice. It advocates supporting people regardless of how they choose to die, whether it involves a green burial or aggressive medical treatments, explains Jillian Tullis, an associate professor at the University of San Diego whose research focuses on communicating about death in end-of-life settings. Creating space for the ways marginalized communities navigate death is another important part of death positivity — for instance, considering how much harder conversations about end-of life care might be for Black and Brown people, who have historically received worse healthcare than their white counterparts, Tullis says.
Millennials, ironically, seem especially interested in death positivity. (Doughty, for instance, is in her 30s.) Kortes-Miller notes that many young people have shared stories with her about family members who didn’t know how to deal with an aspect of a grandparent’s death, because no one talked about it. “They want to do more than the generation before,” she tells Mic. Tullis adds that many of her students have begun grappling with their mortality in the face of the climate crisis.
Death positivity sees normalizing death as crucial to wellness. Besides reducing anxiety around death, “it influences how we choose to live,” Tullis says. “When you have death and mortality as a guiding light, so to speak, it can help you understand what types of things are really important”— whether family, good food, or grand adventures — so we can prioritize them.
It can also help us prioritize who we spend our time with and how we spend it, and tease apart what’s really worth stressing over. Indeed, fully recognizing that life is finite can be freeing, Tullis says. She adds that talking about death also helps us make sense of it when it does touch our lives — and can better equip us to help others in our community make sense of it when it touches theirs, Kortes-Miller says.
By normalizing death, we can also begin learning more about what it’s like and talking to our loved ones about what we expect from them in the process, and vice-versa, Kortes-Miller says. This way, once we reach that point and can’t speak for ourselves, our loved ones can make important decisions — such as whether to pursue aggressive treatment or how to dispose of our bodies — based on what we actually want, not what they think we want, and we can do the same for them. “Nobody likes to think about dying and being sick,” Kortes-Miller says. But discussing these topics, however painful and difficult, can in fact be “a gift to the people we love.”
If you think death positivity could help you live your best life, here’s how to start embracing some of its tenets:
Take time to reflect
Figuring out your dying wishes may seem scary and depressing, but asking yourself the two questions Kortes-Miller suggests could help you ease into it: 1) What would you be willing to sacrifice in terms of quality of life for quantity of life? and 2) What are your non-negotiables — the important things about how you live now that you wouldn’t be willing to give up? Delicious food? Your memory? Your independence?
Start having conversations with the people closest to you
While self-reflection is important, the main goal of death positivity is to normalize death by having conversations about it, Kortes-Miller says. She suggests swapping stories about death with a good friend or partner. You could start by talking about the first time you learned about death and the message it conveyed to you. How do you want to use, and even disrupt, that message?
If that feels uncomfortable, starting with someone else’s story might be easier. A TV episode or a case you hear about on the news, like that of Brittany Maynard, who chose to end her life in 2014 after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, could act as a springboard, Tullis says.
Add some death-positive books to your reading list. Kortes-Miller suggests Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and Katherine Mannix’s With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial.
Attend a death positive event, or host your own
Check out a Death Cafe or other event in your area that encourages conversations about death. And just because it’s death-focused doesn’t necessarily mean the vibe will be all doom and gloom. Death Cafes, for instance, “often have cake and interesting people,” Tullis says, and Kortes-Millers notes that Die-algoues events are often abuzz with conversation and laughter.
You could also host your own death party. Some of Tullis’s friends get together to play Morbid Curiosity, a board game that features trivia and conversation cards about, well, death. One card, for instance, asks players, “If you could come back as a ghost, who would you haunt? What are the rules to haunting?” “You don’t’ have to go out and plan your funeral if you’re not there yet, but you can do little things that are fun and a little bit enjoyable,” Tullis says. In the end, death may really be only as scary as we make it out to be.
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No thanks, I’d rather learn not to fear death.
Herodotus, in the 5th century B.C., recorded an account of a race of people in northern Africa who, according to local lore, never seemed to age. Their secret, he wrote, was a fountain of youth in which they would bathe, emerging with “their flesh all glossy and sleek.” Legend has it that two millennia later, Spanish explorers searched for a similar restorative fountain off the coast of Florida.
We are still searching for the fountain of youth today. Instead of a fountain, however, it is a medical breakthrough, and instead of youth, we seek “transhumanism,” the secret to solving the problem of death by transcending ordinary physical and mental limitations. Many people believe this is possible. Observing a doubling of the average life span over the past century or so through science, people ask why another doubling is not possible. And if it is, whether there might be some “escape velocity” that could definitively end the aging of our cells while we also cure deadly diseases
Lest you think this concept is limited to snake-oil salesmen and science-fiction writers, the idea that aging is not inevitable is now in the mainstream of modern medical research at major institutions around the world. The journal Nature dubbed research from the University of California at Los Angeles a “hint that the body’s ‘biological age’ can be reversed.” According to reporting by Scientific American on research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies: “Aging Is Reversible — at Least in Human Cells and Live Mice.”
The promise to end old age is exciting and mind-boggling, of course. But it raises a question: Why would we want to defeat old age and its lethal result? After all, as writer Susan Ertz wryly observed in her 1943 novel “Anger in the Sky,” “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Your boring Sundays notwithstanding, perhaps you think it’s obvious that getting old and dying are bad. “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else,” anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote in his 1973 book, “The Denial of Death.” Why else would we willingly put up with a medical system that seemingly will spend any sum to keep us alive for a few extra days or weeks?
It is strange that the most ordinary fact of life — its ending — would provoke such terror. Some chalk it up to what Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave calls the “mortality paradox” in his excellent 2012 book, “Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization.” While death is inevitable, it also seems impossible insofar as we cannot conceive of not existing. This creates an unresolvable, unbearable cognitive dissonance. Some have tried to resolve it with logic, such as the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus’ observation that “death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.”
Transhumanism responds, “Whatever, let’s just avoid that whole second scenario.”
Another argument for transhumanism is less philosophical and more humanitarian. We think avoidable deaths are a tragedy, don’t we? Well, if most of the 27 million annual worldwide deaths of people age 70 and over could be somehow avoided, wouldn’t that put them in the category of “tragedy”? Shouldn’t we fight like crazy to avoid them?
While the transhumanism movement is making progress, it isn’t without its skeptics. Some don’t think it will ever work the way we want it to, because it asks science to turn back a natural process of aging that has an uncountable number of manifestations. Critics of anti-aging research envision any number of dystopian futures, in which we defeat many of the causes of death before very old age, leaving only the most ghastly and intractable — but not directly lethal — maladies.
Imagine making it possible to cure or treat most communicable diseases and many conditions and cancers that were once a death sentence, but leaving the worst sort of dementias to ravage our brains and torment our loved ones. Wait, we don’t just have to imagine that, do we? As Cave puts it, we are “not so much living longer as dying slower.” Will transhumanism inadvertently bring us more of this?
No one can say conclusively where the transhumanist movement will go, or whether it will ultimately change the conception of living and dying in the coming decades. One way or another, however, I think we could productively use a parallel movement to transhumanism: one that seeks to transcend our limited understanding and acceptance of death, and the fact that without the reality of life’s absence, we cannot understand life in the first place. We might call this movement “transmortalism.”
Of course, a huge amount of work to understand death has gone on over the millennia and starts with the straightforward observation that confronting the reality of death is the best way to strip it of its terror. An example is maranasati, the Buddhist practice of meditating on the prospect of one’s own corpse in various states of decomposition. “This body, too,” the monks recite, “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”
Frightening? Far from it. Such exposure provokes what psychologists call “desensitization,” in which repeated contact makes something previously frightening or foreign seem quite ordinary. Think of the fear of death like a simple phobia. If you are afraid of heights, the solution might be, little by little, to look over the edge. As the 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote of death, “Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.”
Perhaps while we wait for the promises of transhumanism, we should hedge our bets with a bit of transmortalism, which has the side benefit of costing us no money. Who knows? Maybe the solution to the problem of death comes not by pushing it further away but, ironically, by bringing it much closer.
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How Horror Movies Prepare Us to Talk About Death
“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”
“That it will never come again makes life so sweet.”–Emily Dickinson
There are a lot of uncertainties in life, but the only constant and known fact is that we all die. Despite this collective, inevitable experience that will eventually happen to everyone on the planet, we tend to avoid this fact altogether. It’s a painful topic, death. A fickle, unfair shadow that situates itself deep in the recesses of our minds; and when brought to the forefront, it usually initiates debilitating emotions and forces actions that the majority of us are not prepared to deal with. Our affairs are not in order; our options for burials are limited and at the mercy of a funeral director; and we are forced to make finite decisions while experiencing agonizing grief. Despite our culture’s adoration for Halloween and horror films, death is still a subject that many prefer to view as an abstract concept. It’s cathartic and safe to embrace the grim reaper within a holiday or cinematic context, but when it comes to our own mortality we recoil at the thought.
Over the past few years, thoughts about burial practices, death preparation, and the acceptance of the horror genre have been progressively evolving. 2018 was the first time that more Americans decided to choose cremation over more expensive burials. Alternative death options are becoming more widely accepted and advanced to not only alleviate the pain for loved ones, but to help reduce damage to the planet while nourishing the growth of new life through one’s passing. Additionally, the horror genre is thriving. Jordan Peele’s Get Out won an Oscar for best original screenplay in 2018; there are continuous remakes of classic genre films like IT and Pet Sematary; and numerous children’s films that lean into the spooky fascination with death such as Goosebumps and most recently Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are all becoming more mainstream.
In his book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, author Alvin Schwartz wrote “don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by, for you may be the next to die”, a line that is part of “The Hearse Song”. His trilogy of terror aimed at children was filled with creepy folklore tales and grim illustrations courtesy of artist Stephen Gammell. Straight-forward and blunt, Schwartz was revolutionary in his approach to conveying curiosities revolving around death for those at a young age. Through lore that spanned cultures across the world, he was able to shine light on a dark subject that many parents censor their children from entirely. However, this type of censorship ultimately does not help children. Just like Disney fairytales of a happy ending where the good guy always wins and true love is everlasting, it isn’t reality.
And yet, our society as a whole refuses to address the inevitable truths of life, death, heartbreak, and loss which inadequately and falsely prepare us for the day that we meet these experiences. In the film adaptation of Schwartz’s classic books, there’s a familiar storyline that accompanies haunted locations—the misinterpretation of the past and inflamed legacy of an individual who has passed away. Scary Stories features a character by the name of Sarah Bellows depicted as a sinister spirit who wreaks havoc on a group of friends once her book of self-written stories is stolen. In the end, young protagonist Stella addresses Sarah’s ghost and tells her that she will write her story the way it really was and let everyone know what really happened to her. This is a prime example of reclaiming one’s death (and life) in a manner they choose – a concept that is becoming more commonplace in the funeral industry and is a staple within the Death Positive Movement.
The average American funeral costs $8,000-$10,000, not including the burial and cemetery price tags. Many of the decisions around funeral preparation are made after a loved one dies. As a result, individuals are more easily taken advantage of and choose the most expensive and standard options not knowing for sure what their loved ones preferred to do with their remains, or if there are even alternatives. HBO’s new insightful and tender documentary Alternate Endings: Six New Ways To Die In America aims to introduce viewers to options that may be a better financial, emotional, and environmental fit for their death and the death of their loved ones. The documentary opens with scenes from the National Funeral Directors Association’s (NFDA) annual convention where hundreds gather to display and learn about the latest advancements or trends in the funeral industry. Companies offer the service of decorating personalized caskets, hologram eulogies, and even submerging one’s ashes in the dirt of their native homeland.
The six alternate endings mentioned in the documentary include: a memorial reef burial, living wake, green burial, space burial, “medical aid in dying” (MAID), and a celebration of life. The memorial reef, green, and space burials are all alternate options within the realm of a standard cremation or grave burial. Memorial Reef International builds artificial coral reefs to enhance coral generation, increase marine biomass, and provide eco-friendly alternatives that sustain life for hundreds of years. Another eco-friendly option is the green burial which skips the casket entirely as the body is wrapped in a shroud and placed directly into the earth. This method also bypasses the expensive cost of cement vaults in a standard cemetery which are just meant to keep the grounds even and easier for the landscapers to mow the grass.
As the effects of climate change grow increasingly dire, more and more people seek ways to give their bodies back to the earth to sustain new growth. Water cremation or aquamation is a form of green cremation which does not emit toxic chemicals nor does it contribute to greenhouse gases. Its carbon footprint is one-tenth of what fire-based cremations produce. In an article by National Geographic, it states “American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.”
The traditional ritualistic aspect of funerals is also evolving. A terminally ill couple in Alternate Endings chooses to have a living wake, a celebration where loved ones and friends are able to say goodbye in person. By embracing their mortality, they’re allowing those close to them to say their final words and experience the appreciation of their life that they may not have realized had they kept their death at a distance. It’s a way to say how much you love someone to their face before you no longer have the chance. Living wakes are performed while the person is still alive and celebrations of life occur after someone has passed. After losing their five-year-old son, two parents in the documentary decide to fulfill their child’s wishes by throwing a party in his honor complete with five bounce houses, painting stations, and an appearance from Batman himself. Even at five, their son realized how sad funerals can be and facing his own death, he specifically requested he not have one.
Now, if someone as young as five years old can embrace their mortality and make a decision about his passing, then why is it so hard for adults? There’s a stigma around death and it is easier to just ignore it as long as possible, but in the end, doing so can be detrimental. In fact, thinking about death can be a positive and productive practice. Mortician Caitlin Doughty understands this and set out to change the way we view death by creating the Death Positive Movement through her work with The Order of the Good Death. “The Order is about making death a part of your life. Staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.” This is achieved through various resources and advocacy. The name may sound like a cult, but I assure you it’s not.
In her book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, she describes her idea of a “good death” as being prepared to die, with affairs in order, the good and bad messages delivered, dying while the mind is sharp, and dying without large amounts of suffering and pain. It means accepting death as inevitable as opposed to fighting it when the time comes. Therefore, she has collaborated with an array of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists to provide the best resources possible including information on end of life planning, green burial technology, as well as methods on how to alter our innate fear of death that has only been enhanced through recent (and unfortunately perpetual) devastating events in the news.
While the horror genre provides viewers the chance to vicariously experience our fear of death in a safe, dissociative capacity, there are now more resources and options than ever before to help us face the inevitable. Instead of solely harnessing terror and sadness, there are ways to find beauty and inspiration in death. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Welcoming our mortality allows us to cherish people more because we don’t know how much time we’ll have with them. It is the driving force behind learning, loving, creating, and achieving what we want out of life. While death can be its own scary story, at least there’s comfort in knowing that it is something we will all face one day and there is some control you can have over the process as well as one’s legacy. And when that fateful day comes, let it be the good death you’d want for yourself and those you love, with plenty of peace and the least amount of pain and regret as possible.
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Everyone is at least a bit afraid of dying. Yet that fear is the driving force behind so much of life. Anything we achieve is because we know death will come: forming relationships, writing books, having children…these are all a result of our fear of an inevitable end.
Perhaps, with infinite time on Earth we’d put far less work into living. A healthy awareness of our own mortality in our daily lives, then, can be a good motivator. But when is it too much? The answer, especially for people like me with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), is when it becomes an obsession.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered with OCD. Like many others, my intrusive thoughts revolve around death-adjacent topics. OCD presents diversely but, simply put, sufferers have intrusive thoughts that they cannot control. In an attempt to control those thoughts, they’ll perform compulsions.
My own death didn’t necessarily frighten me. For a child plagued by constant, violent images and compulsive behaviours, it seemed a bit too much like freedom to be scary. It’s no coincidence that, held prisoner by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, people with OCD are 10 times as likely to die by suicide.
Integrative psychotherapist and OCD specialist Craig Shirley of the OCD Treatment Centre tells me that my experience is common. He says that many people with OCD don’t fear death so much as they fear the uncertainty and the idea of “missing out on life”.
“People with OCD often want to be able to have complete certainty around particular things, which of course in this case they can never have,” Craig adds.
Twenty-six-year-old Zoe tells me that she developed OCD shortly after her grandpa died. “My family has always been my safety net, and my grandpa’s death woke me up to the fact that that could all slip away,” she explains. “I remember watching Mulan, the scene where the ghosts of her ancestors are fighting in the temple. I had a panic attack knowing that if my family died, they would not come back as quirky ghosts. They’d just be gone.”
Zoe adds that she became desperate for things to go back to how they were before, which led her to perform rituals to “heal” her family. “Because change, illness and death are inevitable, I became hysterical as the initial rituals became ‘less effective’. I revised them all the time, my routines becoming longer and more obvious to everyone around me. This only worsened after I saw my nana die a couple of years later.” This perceived responsibility to “help” everyone at the expense of your own mental health is common with OCD sufferers – we often believe that we’ve somehow been tasked with saving everyone through our rituals.
As a child, I would obsess over my own demise, keeping extensive diaries so that I could remember everything I’d ever done. I tried to control the inevitability of death, making promises to an imaginary OCD God to be good, to do my rituals as long as nothing harmed me or my loved ones.
While Zoe has had therapy that’s brought her rituals under control, she still obsesses over death and health. “In the last five years I’ve had two friends die and in the aftermath I went crawling back to some of the rituals I performed as a kid, like a comfort blanket. I felt responsible and tried to redeem myself,” she says.
Similarly Suzi, 32, who is Catholic, told me that while death was a constant spectre for her, the idea of heaven placated her anxieties. After getting treatment for OCD, she found that in overcoming her obsessive thoughts and OCD-related rituals, she also lost the Catholic rituals she had always fallen back on.
With that loss of faith, Suzi says she also lost the “safety net” of heaven. “My OCD has always been centred around fears for my own wellbeing, and not trusting others with it. I was terrified of suffering, pain and death. I no longer knew what happened when people died, and I struggled with the concept of people not having a soul, of my conscious mind ceasing to exist when I died.” She adds that after being diagnosed with chronic illnesses, her fear has transformed. “Where once my fear of death was about what happens after people die, it’s now about not achieving the things I want to.
A sudden death scares me less than the knowledge that my life will end and I have no control over when. As a child, I would obsess over my own demise, keeping extensive diaries so that I could remember everything I’d ever done. I tried to control the inevitability of death, making promises to an imaginary OCD God to be good, to do my rituals as long as nothing harmed me or my loved ones.
This fear hasn’t gone away. However, experiencing actual loss in my life has turned death from a haunting spectre into a very real, looming possibility. It has also made me aware of how badly I handle grief, which makes the possibility of dying scarier.
The more I enjoy something – a person’s company, a moment in time – the more aware I am that everything is temporary. We cannot control that inevitability and as an adult, I know that, so the way my obsessive thoughts manifest is different from the rituals I used to have. I try and fit as much as I can into my life, to the point of obsession. I record everything. If I have dinner with my grandad, I’ll note down the things he says afterward, unable to enjoy the present for fear of the future. Transience is scarier to me than death; the idea that anything we love can be ripped from this Earth at any moment is at once what drives and paralyses me. The rise of an insistent obsession seems gradual until the point where it takes over everything.
Despite the fact that around 1.2% of people in the UK live with OCD, it’s still one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented disorders.
The experience of having intrusive thoughts is difficult to explain to someone without OCD. Imagine you’re having a relaxing time, say a nice bath. Out of nowhere, you’re hit with a graphic image of a dead loved one. It’s upsetting, no matter how often you’ve experienced it. So to get rid of the thought, you might perform a compulsion, like counting everything you see. While my compulsions have gotten better with time, my obsessions have not. Whether it’s images or troubling thoughts, I feel like I have no control over what I think about.
Despite the fact that around 1.2% of people in the UK live with OCD, it’s still one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented disorders, which makes it difficult for sufferers to be honest. Confessing to a friend that you obsess over violent images against your will is daunting. It leaves sufferers feeling lonelier, which serves to exacerbate the disorder.
I spent the first few years of my life in the dark about my condition, thinking that I was “wrong”. In the media, OCD has typically been represented as an obsession with cleanliness. While that is sometimes the case, the ‘compulsions’ – the only visible part of OCD – are often the least harrowing. What goes on in a sufferer’s brain is for many the worst part of the disorder, and harder to represent.
OCD is a way of trying to control an uncontrollable world. Loss is the most unruly, devastating thing we can go through. Perhaps that’s why entire religions have organised around trying to make sense of it.
Of course, not everyone who’s afraid of death suffers from OCD. Craig tells me that the noticeable difference is about “how much time the OCD is taking up of someone’s life”.
He says that while many people without OCD want reassurance or ruminate over things, you know if you need to seek help when the symptoms are “getting in the way of everyday activities” or if you’re “becoming increasingly obsessed around a particular theme or worry”.
When you’re constantly assaulted by painful thoughts against your will, it might seem counterintuitive to seek them out. But with OCD, the most effective form of therapy is Exposure Response Prevention, wherein a sufferer confronts images and situations that they find uncomfortable and ignores the urge to perform compulsions.
Zoe tells me that a combination of therapy, talking to fellow sufferers and discussing death openly has made her rethink dying. This works for me, too.
The one thing that has helped me to feel more in control of my thoughts has always been learning. That can take many forms: educating myself on my disorder but also educating myself on what I fear. When I was so scared of arson that I would go home to check if my house was on fire, I taught and reminded myself of the (slim) possibility of that ever being the case.
And so, to deal with my fear of death I started to learn more about death positivity. First, I did this through Caitlin Doughty, the mortician and YouTuber. After reading Doughty’s books, I learned that she got into the death positivity movement when she developed OCD after seeing a child die aged 8. Her fear of death, and her rituals surrounding it, forced her to confront her fear head-on. Now she has three books under her belt and an impressive career tackling “death denial”.
The one thing that has helped me to feel more in control of my thoughts has always been learning.
From there, I read more and more about death, death rituals and the way other cultures embrace and accept death. I took practical steps, like thinking about what I want when I die. Sure, it’s morbid. But it makes me feel less as if I’m leaving this Earth against my will.
Now, I genuinely believe that my OCD was worsened by our culture of silence and denial around death. We often describe death in euphemistic terms – people “go to sleep”, they’re “in a better place”, etc.
Open conversation about death has been promoted by death acceptance advocates like Doughty’s collective Order of the Good Death, but the movement is still “alternative”. Being euphemistic only makes us deny death more, but it’s been proven that open, non-euphemistic conversation informs people and goes some way toward preparing them for the unimaginable. It makes us more able to handle grief.
The rise of death doulas, who coach people through dying, points to a more accepting attitude towards death. Death doula Shelby Krillin tells me that she frequently encounters people with OCD who have anxieties around death, and that it often stunts our ability to grieve. “It hinders deep conversations and connections with the ones we love who are dying, and the side effect is superficial conversations. When that happens, feelings, wishes and thoughts go unexpressed,” she tells me, adding that sitting with death is “true vulnerability.
She points to the Buddhist attitude of “embracing the groundlessness of life” as a pointer for starting to discuss death. “What we don’t know, we fear. Talking about death gives it three dimensions. You get to look at it from all angles. When people start truly grasping their own mortality, it makes our lives more vivid and wondrous
Like many anxious people, I fill in the blanks with the direst consequences imaginable, a process known as catastrophising. If my boyfriend is at the shop too long or my grandad doesn’t answer the phone, my brain tells me they’re dead. If my dog is sick, she’s dying. If I smell smoke, my house is on fire. Filling in the blanks with the truth and soothing myself with facts is reassuring.
Craig tells me that honesty is the best approach. “Accepting death isn’t necessarily about just finding a different way of looking at it, but also about accepting more deeply the things that we as human beings can and cannot control, and learning to accept that,” he reflects.
Accepting the things we cannot control is a necessary part of overcoming most manifestations of OCD. As death acceptance becomes less alternative, it’s my hope that we can all learn to talk openly about the inevitable end we all face and my belief that a culture of honesty might have helped me as an obsessive compulsive child.
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Facing our own mortality becomes easier when we accept that it’s a natural part of life
Since he watched his mother collapse and die, Richard Bridgman’s fear of death has left him emotionally paralyzed.
It was right around Thanksgiving—nearly 45 years ago—and Bridgman was sleeping overnight on his mom’s living room couch.
“In the middle of the night, she walked into the room and said, ‘Richard, I’m dying,’” recalls Bridgman, who tried to reassure his mom that she’d be OK. But his mother, who had a heart condition, was suffering a massive heart attack. “She looked at me and fell over on her head. I didn’t know what to do. She was dead.”
Death haunted much of Bridgman’s early years. His stepfather died when Bridgman was 15. His father, an alcoholic, died when Bridgman was 17. And Bridgman was 26 when his mom died before his eyes. Now, 72, and long retired from the bill collection business he once owned in the Springfield, Illinois, area, he has spent most of his adult years trying to cope with—if not overcome—his immense fear of death.
“Death became an obsession,” he said. “No matter where I went or what I did, death was always in the back of my mind.”
Most people prefer not to think about death, much less plan for it. In a tech-crazed world, where communication is broken into 140 characters and six-second sound bites, our connection with each other is dissected into so many bite-sized morsels that discussion of death would seem an unwieldy topic of conversation.
“Everybody has a fear of death, no matter what culture, religion, or country they come from,” said Kelvin Chin, author of “Overcoming the Fear of Death,” and founder of the Overcoming the Fear of Death Foundation and the nonprofit turningwithin.org. “Fear is simply an emotion caused by the anticipation of unhappiness.”
But wait. What if death isn’t actually unhappy? What if it simply—is? For Bridgman, whose fear of death was overwhelming, that simple question was a critical step in learning to deal with death. That question was posed to him by Chin, whom he discovered via a Google search. Several supportive phone consultations with Chin—combined with a simple meditation process that Chin teaches—have helped to keep Bridgman’s fears under control.
“I spent so much money on psychiatrists and psychotherapists—none of them did any good,” says Bridgman. But Chin steered Bridgman toward meditation. “Meditation is better than medicine,” Bridgman said.
Everyone must figure out their own way to handle the fear of death. One expert, who overcame her own fear through years of attending to the dying, says death is rarely the terrible thing that most folks fret about.
“Death is usually a peaceful process,” explains Donna Authers, a professional caregiver, motivational speaker, and author of the book “A Sacred Walk: Dispelling the Fear of Death and Caring for the Dying.”
“Very few people die screaming. They just go to sleep.”
But it took Authers years to learn the lesson that death need not be frightening. As a child, death haunted her. When she was 2 years old, her father was killed in World War II. Her mother, who had remarried, died on Authers’ fifth birthday. “Instead of a birthday party, I woke up to the worst day of my life,” she said. Her grandfather committed suicide when Authers was 15.
It was Authers’s grandmother—while dying from cancer—who taught her the most critical lesson in accepting death’s inevitability. Authers brought her grandmother home to tend to her during her final days, but her grandmother could sense her granddaughter’s terrible fear.
That’s when her grandmother took her by the hand and, unafraid, reminded Authers, “Death is part of life. You, too, will be where I am someday, and you can’t face death with fear,” she said. That changed everything. Seeing her grandmother bravely face death caused her own fears to dissolve.
“I was no longer afraid of death and dying,” Authers recalls.
Authers ultimately left her job as an IBM marketing executive to become a caregiver. Through the years, she has found that faith is the most important quality among those who face death without fear. “People who have faith in something don’t grieve like those who have no hope,” said Authers.
Increasingly, however, Chin has found that millennials—more than any other demographic—fear death the most.
“It’s the downside of social media,” said Chin. “The bombardment and speed of communication lead to an overload that can trigger a fear of death.”
Perhaps even the world of politics can play a role, suggests Sheldon Solomon, professor of psychology at Skidmore College and author of “The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.”
In times of political upheaval—particularly when people are reminded of their mortality—the fear of death increases, even as they tend to be attracted to political figures who promise them more security, said Solomon, who has conducted numerous experiments on this issue.
“When people are reminded of their own mortality, in an effort to bolster faith in their own view of reality, they become more hostile to anyone who is different.”
Even then, says Solomon, perhaps nothing alleviates a dying person’s fear of death more than love.
A terminally ill grandmother he knew was distraught at the prospect of death. No doctor and no medicine could help her. Then, she received a short phone call from her granddaughter, begging her for her cupcake recipe. “No one can make them like you,” her granddaughter said.
“That call did more in five minutes than anything else could have,’” says Solomon. “It reminded the grandmother that she will live on in the memories of the people she loves. That was all she needed to know.”
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How Fear Of Death Drives Our Behavior
Many people tend to push frightening realities out of mind, rather than face them head on. That’s especially true when it comes to the terrifying event that no one can escape—death. Psychologist Sheldon Solomon says people may suppress conscious thoughts about their mortality, but unconscious ones still seep through.
In the book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, Solomon, along with psychologists Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, illustrate how death anxiety influences people’s behavior in ways they would never suspect. The fear of death is so overwhelming, they say, that people go to great lengths to seek security; they embrace belief systems that give them a sense of meaning—religion, values, community.
Through decades of studies, Solomon and his colleagues have shown that people suppress their fear of mortality by supporting those who are similar to themselves. “If somebody does something that’s in accord with your belief system then being reminded of death should make you like them more so,” Solomon says.
People don’t just respond by clinging to their in-group. They act in ways that make them feel better about themselves, whether that’s demonstrating their physical prowess or buying status goods. In short, Solomon says, “we shore up our self-esteem in response to existential anxieties.”
This week on Hidden Brain, we learn how the specter of death hovers in the background, shaping everything from the risks we take to the politicians we elect.
Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel, and Thomas Lu. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories on your local public radio station.
The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, 2015.
The Birth and Death of Meaning, by Ernest Becker, 1971.
The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker, 1973.
These articles describe how death reminders influence the following behaviors and preferences:
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