Dr. Gary Bell
How do you think you might react if you were diagnosed with a terminal illness like cancer? Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1969), who worked with the founders of hospice care, described the process of an individual accepting his own death. She proposed five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Most individuals experience these stages, but the stages may occur in different orders, depending on the individual. Also, not all people experience all the stages. It is also important to note that some psychologists believe that the more a dying person fights death, the more likely he is to remain stuck in the denial phase.
This could make it difficult for the dying person to face death with dignity. However, other psychologists believe that not facing death until the very end is an adaptive coping mechanism for some people.
Whether due to illness or old age, not everyone facing death or the loss of a loved one experiences the negative emotions outlined in the Kübler-Ross model. For example, research suggests that people with religious or spiritual beliefs are better able to cope with death because of their hope in an afterlife and because of social support from religious or spiritual associations.
A prominent example of a person creating meaning through death is Randy Pausch, who was a well-loved and respected professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in his mid-forties and given only 3–6 months to live, Pausch focused on living in a fulfilling way in the time he had left.
Instead of becoming angry and depressed, he presented his now-famous last lecture called “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” In his moving, yet humorous talk, he shares his insights on seeing the good in others, overcoming obstacles, and experiencing zero gravity, among many other things. Despite his terminal diagnosis, Pausch lived the final year of his life with joy and hope, showing us that our plans still matter, even if we know that we are dying.
Death marks the endpoint of our lifespan. There are many ways that we might react when facing death. Kübler-Ross developed a five-stage model of grief to explain this process. Many people facing death choose hospice care, which allows them to spend their last days at home in a comfortable, supportive environment.
“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else,” wrote Earnest Becker in his book, The Denial of Death. It’s a fear strong enough to compel us to force kale down our throats, run sweatily on a treadmill at 7 am on a Monday, and show our genitals to a stranger with cold hands and a white coat if we feel something’s a little off.
But our impending end isn’t just a benevolent supplier of healthy behaviors. Researchers have found that death can decide our prejudices, whether we give to charity or wear sunscreen, our desire to be famous, what type of leader we vote for, how we name our children, and even how we feel about breastfeeding.
Tune in and learn all about facing death!
“Ocean View”, Courtesy of TL, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forest Walk on a Foggy Day”, Courtesy of Stepan Unar, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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