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.”