Meaning making and death acceptance

Elijah O’Donell

Life is what lies between birth and death. What makes this journey so difficult is that from the very outset, life moves relentlessly towards death like an unstoppable train racing towards a crushing end.

Nothing in life can really prepare us for the inevitable and singular event of personal death. The human mind is not capable of comprehending the full enormity and the horror of biting the dust after a lifelong struggle to make life enjoyable. How can the mind defend itself against its own capacity to foresee one’s own demise?

Confucius said: “If we don’t know life, how can we know death?” But I say: “If we don’t know death, how can we know life?”

We cannot even begin to understand the meaning of life, until we stare at death unflinchingly. Paradoxically, death holds the key to life. We cannot truly live without awareness of life’s inevitable end. How can we live fully and vitally, if we spend a life time running away from death? In a strange way, life is defined by its fragility and finiteness, and death holds the key to authentic living. Only fools live as if there is no tomorrow. Only fools think that they can avoid death anxiety by immersing themselves in pursuing pleasures and worldly success.

Death is like an unfathomable black hole, capable of destroying all our dreams, achievements, and happiness. But at the same time, the idea of death can save many lives by challenging us to fill the huge void by living a life of significance. The challenge for psychologists and death educators is to discover pathways to death acceptance. This essay focuses on meaning-making as a promising way to free us from the terror of death to self-actualization.

The Terror of Death

Death remains the biggest threat as well as the greatest challenge to humanity. It is the single universal event that affects all of us in ways more than we care to know (Greenberg, Koole, & Pyszczynski, 2004; Wass & Neimeyer, 1990; Yalom, 2008).

Because of the unique human capacity of meaning-making and social construction, death has evolved into a very complex and dynamic system, involving biological, psychological, spiritual, societal and cultural components (Kastenbaum, 2000). Whatever meanings we attach to death may have important implications for our well being. Thus, at a personal level, death attitudes matter: Death defines personal meaning and determines how we live (Neimeyer, 2005; Tomer, 2000; Tomer, Eliason, & Wong, 2008).

From Death Denial to Death Acceptance

In spite of its pervasive and profound impact and its power to engage the human minds since antiquity, death remains shrouded in mystery— an imponderable, blinding reality that is at once terrorizing and tantalizing.

All through history, human beings have developed elaborate defense mechanisms against the terror of death both at the individual and cultural levels. We now have a huge literature on death denial and terror management (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2002).

The medical profession has made it its mission to keep death at bay and save lives. When death occurs, it is often viewed as a failure of medicine or the attending physician. An aversion towards death also makes it difficult for physicians to communicate the “bad news” to patients and their family members in an honest and caring manner.

At the cultural level, death also makes its ubiquitous presence felt in a broad spectrum of social functions, from family, religion, and entertainment to medical care (Kearl, 1989). How we relate to our own mortality is in turn mediated by family, society and culture (Kastenbaum, 2000). All human activities are framed by death anxiety and colored by our collective and individual efforts to resolve this inescapable and intractable existential given.
All our defenses fall apart, when death sneaks up on us, often unexpectedly. The death of a loved one, a near fatal accident, or life-threatening illness can stop us in our track and thrust death right in our faces. The predicament of patients with terminal illnesses brings to sharp focus the critical issue of how to confront and accept personal mortality with courage, serenity and hope. When does one give up the heroic but futile battle against cancer and accept the inevitable outcome with serenity? On a personal level, how do we react when we receive the bad news that cancer has reached the final stage. As a cancer survivor, this question is never too far from my mind.

In sum, we cannot live indefinitely in a culturally and psychologically induced state of denial. The fact is that death is all around us, above us, below us and inside us. Death is you and death is me. Death lies dormant in every human being. We all need to confront the unsettling reality of personal mortality, the sooner the better. There are numerous reasons for embarking on this exploration of death acceptance.

Firstly, we cannot live authentically and meaningfully without embracing death. So much wasted time, self-inflicted miseries and human tragedies happen because of greed, envy, and misguided ambitions. Addiction, depression and aggression can also be related to desperate attempts to escape meaninglessness and death anxiety. Therefore, we all need to come to our senses and consider our destiny. To be prepared for this eventuality enables us to live wisely and die without regrets.

Secondly, there are cultural as well as individual differences in death attitudes. Our understanding of the good death and our preferred pathways to death acceptance may impact how we address various end-of-life issues.

Thirdly, research on the good death constitutes a new frontier of the current positive psychology movement. The interdependence between living and dying well makes it an important topic for advancing the scientific study of the good life.

Finally, we need to learn how to talk about death in a way that is liberating, humanizing and life-enhancing. We hope that through an increased understanding of death acceptance, we may learn to treat each other with respect and compassion not only in the medical context but also in daily interactions.

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