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Death Ages Well

Unless you are a teenager – a pupa human who believes themselves invincible – you’re probably scared to shit of death.

This is certainly true for me. For better or worse, I spend a lot of my time contemplating the inevitable, thinking about the why and how and what it will be like to all of a sudden be nothing, to become matter that is disassembled like an Ikea console being stripped for scraps. That seems, for lack of better words, lifeless. Yet, there’s literally no way around it: there are two laws of life – being born and being dead – and you cannot have one without the other.

But my (and maybe your) preoccupation with death may be a temporary thing: a study has found that being so far removed from death is met with negativity while its approach – from illness or being on death row – turns into a positive. Let’s unpack this.

The study was recently published in Psychological Science and found that final statements of death row inmates with terminally ill patients were both similarly positive, a welcoming of this final state based in thankfulness and reflection on a life well lived. In comparison with healthy people, things looked incredibly bleak.

Why does this happen? Science Of Us explains, highlighting a fact that should put us all at ease. Here’s why the sick are happy to die.

Confronted with a terrible situation, our minds work overtime to find a bright side or some larger reason for what’s happening. This is how we fashion silver linings like, “I hated that job, anyway” or “She wasn’t the One” or “He’s in a better place.”

The psychological immune system works hardest when we are at our lowest or most trapped, and nothing instills terror quite like impending death. Gray says, “The psychological immune system is mostly engaged when it really has to be, when bad things happen — and nothing seems worse than death. So when one is faced with death, all sorts of rationalization and meaning-making processes come in.” These processes kicking into overdrive accounts for how someone with terminal cancer or on death row would grow progressively more upbeat, not less.

Interesting. Your dying heart fills with happiness: that’s so sweet.

As for us living and hearing dying, we are unsurprisingly too caught up in ourselves.

Those of us who are not dying, on the other hand, tend to be “selfish when we think about death — we think about ourselves and how hard it would be for us,” Gray said.

That egocentric mentality helps explain why the imagined last words were more negative than the real ones. In a sort of extreme form of navel-gazing, the online study participants (in both phases) often dreaded or bemoaned their fates, using words like “fear,” “terror,” and “anxiety.” Meanwhile, those actually dying were more likely to say how grateful they were for their loved ones, or to assert their belief in a higher power and afterlife.

I guess that’s a byproduct of health privilege, I assume.

It’s a very fascinating finding that should put us all at ease: death is inevitable, sure, but becomes a de facto friend in our final hours, teaching us to reflect and to love in the darkness. I like that. Perhaps this will teach me to be less selfish, more in the moment, and concerned with things outside of what I have yet to accomplish.

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