A healthy approach to life and death
Reflecting on death has long been championed by eastern and western religions. But now research shows why it’s good for you
Each New Year, the cartoons change but the storyline stays the same. An old man, representing Father Time, shuffles off the scene to make way for a baby – the kicker is he won’t be young for long.
It is difficult to think about the New Year without thinking about mortality, which is probably why it’s such a popular time for resolutions. For many people, the blunt reminder of time’s passage puts things in perspective and gives an urgency to human affairs.
Because of this traditionally short-lived effect, cynics say it’s the worst time of the year to commit to doing anything. But perhaps instead we should be asking: Why not think about mortality all year round?
“It’s a topic that is avoided because we live in a youth culture,” says Dublin-based psychotherapist Sarah Kay. “But death is something that is universal. We all face it, and my experience is that the people who face it in an accepting way usually get on with their lives better. People who tend to be in denial about it may be in denial about a lot of things.”
The benefits of thinking about death were highlighted last year in an extensive and rather uplifting review of psychological research in the field. The study, led by Kenneth Vail of the University of Missouri, examined research findings over several years and suggested that an awareness of mortality can improve everything from physical health to moral behaviour.
One experiment showed that simply walking past a cemetery can affect your willingness to help a stranger. People exposed to reminders about mortality were 40 per cent more likely to help someone in need than those not so “primed”. Other studies suggested death awareness encouraged people to quit smoking and go for regular health checks.
The authors presented their work as a rebalancing exercise, arguing that reflecting on death was typically seen in psychological theory, if not society at large, as a negative trait. Most research after 9/11, for example, focused on how the attacks led to problems with violence and discrimination but “studies also found that people expressed higher degrees of gratitude, hope, kindness and leadership after 9/11”, Vail said. “In another example, after the Oklahoma City bombing, divorce rates went down in surrounding counties.”
Death as a route to empathy
Even without such research backing, world religions such as Christianity and Buddhism – as well as some secular philosophies – have long championed death awareness, portraying it as a route to empathy, and a defining human characteristic.
The message has been reinforced through scripture (such as Genesis 3:19 “You were made of dust, and to dust you will return”) and feast days such as All Souls’ Day or its Latin American counterpart, the Day of the Dead.
“Interestingly, eastern systems seem to embrace death much more benignly; they integrate it into the continuous circle of life,” says Gillford D’Souza, director of counselling service Awakenings. “Are we afraid to face our ending because we find it difficult to trust and hand over control? Death is the ultimate letting go of control . . . Yes there will be so much left unfinished but that is what death brings – an unfinished life. But who says that there must be a nicely wrapped up completed finish to life?”