Thinking about Death: Personal Aspects
• How do feelings about death change over adulthood?
• How do people deal with their own death?
• What is death anxiety, and how do people show and cope with it?
icardo recently learned that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He knows the disease is fatal, and he is afraid of dying. He cannot understand why this has happened to him, and he is very angry at God for “doing this to him.” Formerly a very religious person, he now refuses to go to church or to talk with his friend, a parish priest.
Being afraid to die is considered normal by most people. Certainly, Ricardo could relate to this. As one research participant put it, “You are nuts if you aren’t afraid of death” (Kalish & Reynolds, 1976). Still, death is a paradox, as we noted at the beginning of the chapter. That is, we are afraid of or anxious about death, but we are drawn to it, sometimes in very public ways. We examine this paradox at the personal level in this section. Specifically, we focus on two questions: How do people’s feelings about death differ with age? What is it about death that we fear or that makes us anxious?
Before proceeding, however, take a few minutes to complete the exercise in the Discovering Development feature. Although it may be daunting and difficult at first, writing your own obituary is a way to gain insight into what you think are your most important accomplishments and relationships. In a way, it serves as a process for conducting a life review.
A Life Course Approach to Dying
How do you feel about dying? Do you think people of different ages feel the same way? It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that feelings about dying vary across adulthood. Because young adults are just beginning to pursue the family, career, and personal goals they have set, they tend to be more intense in their feelings toward death. If you were to ask young adults who are at a funeral how they feel about death, they would be likely to report a strong sense that those who die at this point in their lives would be cheated out of their future (Attig, 1996).
Although not specifically addressed in research, the shift from formal operational thinking to postformal thinking could be important in young adults’ contemplation of death. Presumably, this shift in cognitive development is accompanied by a lessening of the feeling of immortality as young adults begin to integrate personal feelings and emotions with their thinking.
Midlife is the time when most people confront the death of their parents. Up to that point, people tend not to think much about their own death; the fact that their parents are still alive buffers them from reality. After all, in the normal course of events, our parents are supposed to die before we do.
Once their parents have died, people realize that they are now the oldest generation of their family—the next in line to die. Reading the obituary pages, they are reminded of this, as the ages of many of the people who have died get closer and closer to their own.
Probably as a result of this growing realization of their own mortality, middle-aged adults’ sense of time undergoes a subtle yet profound change. It changes from an emphasis on how long they have already lived to how long they have left to live, a shift that increases into late life (Attig, 1996; Cicirelli, 2006; Neugarten, 1969; Tomer & Eliason,
2000) . This may lead to occupational change or other redirection such as improving relationships that have deteriorated over the years.
In general, older adults are less anxious about death and more accepting of it than any other age group. Still, because the discrepancy between desired and expected number of years left to live is greater for young-old than for mid-old adults, anxiety is higher for young-old adults (Cicirelli,
2006) . In part, this greater overall acceptance of
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