A healthy approach to life and death

Sat, Jan 5, 2013, 00:00

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?”

People who face the reality of death in their work testify to its impact. “I don’t live like every day is my last but working in this field, you tend to prevaricate less and decide what is really important,” says Dr Regina McQuillan, palliative medicine consultant at St Francis Hospice, Raheny. “I don’t think in terms of long-term plans because I realise long-term plans often don’t work out. So if there is something I want to do now, I try to do it rather than put it off to an indefinite date.”

McQuillan, who has worked for 20 years in hospice care, says one of the great regrets of the dying is a failure to deal with broken relationships. “I often encounter people who have this idea that they will deal with bad situations in their life, or achieve some sort of reconciliation in the future, but then it becomes too late. My attitude is you either want to fix it or you don’t want to fix it.

“I think people can get an insight in different ways. You don’t have to work in palliative care, although for me it has had that impact.

“People do get stuck in particular ways and thinking about these issues can help. The idea that you should be contemplating death is tied up for many people in terms of salvation and the notion: How is it going to affect you in the afterlife? I would say: How is it going to affect the life that you have?”

Being faced with death on a daily basis has also had a profound effect on Freddie Maguire, managing director of Massey Brothers funeral directors. “It has made me more empathetic and more understanding of our vulnerability and frailty as human beings,” says the former accountant, who has attended “thousands” of funerals in the past 40 years.

“We have this life to lead and being of service to other people is basically the purpose of life. I’ve learnt that from this work but also spiritual teachings. There are a lot of clergy and other spiritual people working with us.”

Maguire detects an increased willingness to think about mortality, and cites the “hundreds” of bookings Massey now has for its prepaid funeral service. “It’s gaining momentum.” He also notes a shift in emphasis towards celebratory rather than sombre events, some of them incorporating sporting or musical themes.

Kay agrees that talking about death is no longer taboo – unlike “30 years ago when you did not mention the C word” – but discussion can be superficial and “I think some people are still afraid of talking about emotional issues. People who make bland or cliched statements at funerals may feel uncomfortable around expressing condolences; they just don’t have the language to express how they feel.”

D’Souza also reports a type of evasion. “As the erosion of organised religion and philosophy, once the mainstay of a forum for discussion on the meaning of life and death, continues to gather pace, where and how do we find a safe place to talk about living and dying? If parents cannot hold this reflective space within the family setting, where does the next generation attempt to grapple with death and make meaning of their lives?”

Faith and finality

So is it easier to face death if you have a strong faith? “You can’t generalise,” McQuillan says. “For some people there is a very strong faith and it’s very sustaining. For others, there is a very strong faith and it’s terrifying or bewildering. They’re asking: ‘Why has God done this to me?’”

Kay, who is a member of the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy, which has its roots in “humanistic philosophy”, says: “I think atheism and fundamentalism are flip sides of the same coin, and for the most part probably make it easier to think about death. When you believe in ‘nothing’ then that is final – decision made. When you believe in an afterlife, you have hope in the form of a reward to look forward to – it doesn’t require much thought, it’s black and white, much easier than grey.”

That’s not to say anyone finds it easy. “If you embrace death, or face it, that doesn’t mean you won’t be afraid of it but you will be acting consciously of it.”

There is a balancing exercise, she stresses, and “any morbid dwelling on death would not be good for wellbeing as it would keep a person stuck instead of getting on with living”.

The many uses of death awareness

Reflecting on death has produced some great art. In fact, Tolstoy went so far as to say, “Whatever an artist is thinking of, he is thinking of his own death.”

Visual artist Martin Healy is not as certain as Tolstoy, although he admits, “I have explored forms of belief and in a sense this could be perceived as a kind of resistance to the finality of death.”

One piece he created for a 2011 Dublin exhibition was a bronze replica of “the dash” between the dates of birth and death on philosopher Martin Heidegger’s gravestone. Okay, so it’s not quite Hamlet. But Healy explains: “I wanted to make something that succinctly summed up the brevity of life and was a kind of distillation of ‘being’.

“Although my work does not consciously draw on a ‘death awareness’, I think some of my works allude to a tenuousness or precariousness of existence and perhaps in some ways a certain futility. This is particularly the case with the film works Last Man [a still from which is pictured above] and Fugue, which depict characters who are essentially alone and invested with unspecified anxiety.”

Art is not the only field in which death awareness has had its uses. In 2005 the former boss of Apple, Steve Jobs, said in his Stanford Commemoration address: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Now there’s a cheery thought.