We have seen that how people view death varies with age. In the process, we encountered the notion of feeling anxious about death. Death anxiety is tough to pin down; indeed, it is the ethereal nature of death, rather than something about it in particular, that usually makes us feel so uncomfortable. We cannot put our finger on something specific about death that is causing us to feel uneasy. Because of this, we must look for indirect behavioral evidence to document death anxiety. Research findings suggest that death anxiety is a complex, multidimensional construct.
Researchers apply terror management theory (Pyszczynski, Greenbert, & Solomon, 1997, 1999; Strachan et al., 2001) as a framework to study death anxiety. Terror management theory addresses the issue of why people engage in certain behaviors to achieve particular psychological states based on their deeply rooted concerns about mortality (Arndt & Vess, 2008). The theory proposes that ensuring that one’s life continues is the primary motive underlying behavior; all other motives can be traced to this basic one. Additionally, some suggest that older adults present an existential threat for younger and middle-aged adults because they remind us all that death is inescapable, the body is fallible, and the bases by which we may secure selfesteem (and manage death anxiety) are transitory (Martens, Goldenberg, & Greenberg, 2005). Thus, death anxiety is a reflection of one’s concern over dying, an outcome that would violate the prime motive.
On the basis of several diverse studies using many different measures, researchers conclude that death anxiety consists of several components. Each of these components is most easily described with terms that resemble examples of great concern (anxiety) but cannot be tied to any one specific focus. Some research on U. S. and Atlantic Canadian adults indicated that components of death anxiety included pain, body malfunction, humiliation, rejection, nonbeing, punishment, interruption of goals, being destroyed, and negative impact on survivors (Fortner & Neimeyer, 1999; Power & Smith, 2008). To complicate matters further, any of these components can be assessed at any of three levels: public, private, and nonconscious. That is, what we admit feeling about death in public may differ greatly from what we feel when we are alone with our own thoughts. In short, the measurement of death anxiety is complex, and researchers need to specify which aspects they are assessing.
Much research has been conducted to learn what demographic and personality variables are related to death anxiety. Although the results often are ambiguous, some patterns have emerged. For example, older adults tend to have lower death anxiety than younger adults, perhaps because of their tendency to engage in life review and their higher level of religious motivation (Thorson & Powell, 2000a, 2000b). Lower ego integrity, more physical problems, and more psychological problems are predictive of higher levels of death anxiety in older adults (Fortner & Neimeyer, 1999). Men show greater fear of the unknown than women, but women report more specific fear of the dying process (Cicirelli, 2001). And few differences have been reported in death anxiety levels across ethnic groups (Cicirelli, 2000).
Strange as it may seem, death anxiety may have a beneficial side. For one thing, being afraid to die means that we often go to great lengths to make sure we stay alive, as argued by terror management theory (Pyszczynski et al., 1997, 1999). Because staying alive helps to ensure the continuation and socialization of the species, fear of death serves as a motivation to have children and raise them properly.
Learning to Deal with Death Anxiety. Although some degree of death anxiety may be appropriate, we must guard against letting it become powerful enough to interfere with our normal daily routines. Several ways exist to help us in this endeavor. Perhaps the one most often used is to live life to the fullest. Kalish (1984, 1987) argues that people who do this enjoy what they have; although they may still fear death and feel cheated, they have few regrets. Adolescents are particularly likely to do this; research shows that teenagers, especially males, engage in risky behavior that is correlated with low death anxiety (Cotter, 2001).
Koestenbaum (1976) proposes several exercises and questions to increase one’s death awareness. Some of these are to write your own obituary (like you did earlier in this chapter) and plan your own death and funeral services. You can also ask yourself, “What circumstances would help make my death acceptable?” “Is death the sort of thing that could happen to me right now?”
These questions serve as a basis for an increasingly popular way to reduce anxiety: death education. Most death education programs combine factual information about death with issues aimed at reducing anxiety and fear to increase sensitivity to others’ feelings. These programs vary widely in orientation; they can include such topics as philosophy, ethics, psychology, drama, religion, medicine, art, and many others. Additionally, they can focus on death, the process of dying, grief and bereavement, or any combination of them. In general, death education programs help primarily by increasing our awareness of the complex emotions felt and expressed by dying people and their families. It is important to make education programs reflect the diverse backgrounds of the participants (Fowler, 2008). Research shows that participating in experiential workshops
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about death significantly lowers death anxiety in younger, middle-aged, and older adults (Abengozar, Bueno, & Vega, 1999).
1. How do people of different ages deal with the thought of dying?
2. How do people conceptualize their own death?
3. What is death anxiety, and how is it shown and confronted?