Making a speech. Having an operation. We don’t usually look forward to things like that, but we mostly find that they’re not as bad as we expected. As Mark Twain once said: “I’ve had many troubles in my life – and most of them never happened.”* Now some new psychological research seems to show that our expectations about the end of life are often mistaken too.
It’s hard to feel positive about dying. We expect to feel fear, sorrow and loneliness as the end of our earthly lives approaches. But those expectations seem to be mistaken. Before it happens, yes, we feel bad; but dying people are not plunged in the negative emotions that they expected to be. So says a new paper in the journal Psychological Science written by researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC).
The paper is another example of how the internet has changed culture and how we study it, because it’s based on something that wasn’t available in the past: easy access to the thoughts of those who know they will soon pass away. Kurt Gray and his colleagues at UNC studied the writing of two groups of people: first, those who had a terminal illness like cancer; second, those who were on death-row, facing execution.
For comparison, they used a group of people who didn’t actually have a terminal illness, but were asked to imagine that they did and write down their thoughts. The researchers analysed how the three groups used positive and negative words, expressing either good emotions like acceptance and peace, or bad emotions like fear and sadness. To their surprise, they found that the two groups who were actually facing death were far more positive about their situation than the group who were simply imagining that they faced death.
More surprising still, as the group with a terminal illness got nearer to the end, their use of positive words increased. But their use of negative words didn’t. After all, it’s possible that people could swing between highs and lows, accepting their approaching death one day, then frightened by it the next. That doesn’t seem to be the case. People really do feel more positive about what they are experiencing.
This is important news and we can hope that it will become more widely known. It should change the way that we conduct funerals and celebrate the life of the departed person. If our loved ones seemed happier and more relaxed in their final days than we expected, it wasn’t because they were trying to put on a brave face for the sake of their family and friends. They truly did feel that way – and perhaps they could have felt better still if it hadn’t been for the thought of our sadness at our passing.
But if dying isn’t the sad and painful experience that so many of us imagine it is, those who are left behind can feel more positive. Rather than seeing dying as something dark and depressing, we could see it as simply the final chapter in a happy story. We always know that we can’t go on for ever, but that isn’t something to fear and hate. Our final days can be full of light and peace.