Dying is Unexpectedly Positive

Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a person who is terminally ill will notice that as death approaches, the subject often feels a burst of positive emotions. Contrary to our popular culture, where death is seen as frightening, something to be avoided, the dying don’t necessarily feel that way. Positive emotions about dying are present irrespective of whether the subject is religious or not.

Researchers Kurt Gray and others at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently studied the writings of death row inmates as they approached execution, and others who had a terminal illness. In all cases, the subjects knew they were going to die, and in the case of death row inmates, they knew the time and the date. The study published in Psychological Science is summarized in Science Daily.

“Humans are incredibly adaptive — both physically and emotionally — and we go about our daily lives whether we’re dying or not,” Gray explains. “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.”

Gray, his graduate student Amelia Goranson, and their co-authors Ryan Ritter, Adam Waytz, and Michael Norton came across the last words of death-row inmates in Texas, collected by the state’s Department of Justice. They were surprised to find that the preponderance of statements were upbeat. Not at all what one would expect from hardened criminals, afraid to die, and clinging to life. The researchers subsequently studied blogs of terminally ill patients who died in the course of writing the blogs. A computer algorithm studied the occurrence of positive and negative emotion words. They found that as death approached, the blogs tended to be balanced toward positive emotion words.

“Currently, the medical system is geared toward avoiding death — an avoidance that is often motivated by views of death as terrible and tragic,” the researchers write in their paper. “This focus is understandable given cultural narratives of death’s negativity, but our results suggest that death is more positive than people expect: Meeting the grim reaper may not be as grim as it seems.”



  1. Commander Patrick Bryans

    One of the great tragedies of our present outlook on existence is our attitude to that recurring event which we call death. We approach it, for the most part, with fear and loathing, seeking by every means to resist its call, prolonging, often beyond its usefulness, the activity of the physical body as a guarantee of “life”. Our dread of death is the dread of the unknown, of complete and utter dissolution, of being “no more”. Despite the vast amount of evidence gathered over the years by the many spiritualist groups that life of some kind continues after death; despite the intellectual acceptance by many that death is but an awakening into new and freer life; in spite of the growing belief in reincarnation; notwithstanding the testimony of the wisest Teachers down the ages, we continue to approach that great transition with fear and trepidation.

    What makes this attitude so tragic is that it is so far from the reality, the source of so much unnecessary suffering. Our fear of death is our fear that our identity will be obliterated. It is this which terrifies. If we did but realise and experience that that identity is an immortal Being which cannot die or be obliterated, our fear of death would vanish. If, further, we realised that after so-called death we enter into a new and clearer light in which the sense of our identity is altogether more vivid, and also that there are yet higher aspects of our Being of which till then we are unaware which await our recognition, our whole approach to death would change for the better.

    We would see death and physical-plane life as stages in an endless journey to perfection, and death as the door into far less limiting experience on that road. Freed from the confines of the physical world, our consciousness would find great new vistas of meaning and beauty hitherto denied it. In the time immediately ahead, the Masters and Their Disciples will teach the truth of that experience we call death and open up for all a great new freedom. We will learn to accept death for what it is: restitution of our vehicles to their source — “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” — and liberation into new and meaningful life.