PSYC 3570 – Death & Dying: Chapter 1
History of Death
Early Human Societies
- Viewed death as a community event; losing a tribe member seriously weakened the tribe as
a whole in terms of maintaining strength against nature.
- Rituals were considered protection from the Gods and unforeseen natural disasters.
- Christians who passed away were called “peaceful sleepers”
- Death became most intense concern as people began acknowledging themselves as
individuals which increased their vulnerability (the quality of life improving).
- The Ave Maria was a prayer for a good death
- Changes in burial practices – body and face concealed and therefore, taken out of nature.
Rationalism and Science Era
- Death became entwined with violence and sexuality (strange, alien & perverted)
- Horror (i.e. being buried alive)
- Technological advances and growing importance of family and privacy (vs. tribes)
- Death then revisioned as a guilt-free process after the dismissal of purgatory (Hell), and also
viewed as the reunion with loved ones (Heaven).
- “The invisible death”: Takes us into a different place in the mind; became dirty and
medicalized; AKA absolute failure.
- People experienced avoidance, misinterpretation and denial when realizing their time was
approaching (i.e. disease).
- Death viewed as neither evil or a sacred passage but a “failure of the machine” Not Thinking about Death: A Failed Experiment
- Nurses, psychologists and social workers were unprepared to cope with and understand death-related
- Hollywood portrays death very differently (i.e. CSI)
- How people died became an increasing concern for the grieving survivors
- More people (patients, families, physicians) are ready to listen and communicate their needs and
- Fatalistic attitudes today are more dangerous than ever, as many deaths can be attributed to lifestyle
- Thinking about death and taking life-protective measures generally increases the probability of an
Your Self-Inventory of Attitudes, Beliefs, & Feelings
- Most beneficial to take in present experiences, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings. This gives you a personal
data baseline and also makes you appreciate the ways to view death.
- Attitudes : our action tendencies (i.e. Do I approach or avoid this situation?)
Beliefs : our worldview (i.e. Fatalism)
Feelings : our sense of being; qualitative information (i.e. Do I feel safe or endangered?)
- These attitudes, beliefs, and feelings are influenced by personal experiences – if we experience a death
that got to us (family, pet, etc) then we are more likely to understand what other people are/have been
- Many organizations developed to provide people with emotional support
- Important to appreciate what the deceased meant to you, and the role you played in the situation (i.e.
your last visit with the person) - The purpose of a living will – most people do not use it because they believed their last few days were
a long way off, and did not think about their death. It is now part of established hospital policy
(therefore, increasing use)
- Organ donors – few people sign (associated with drivers licenses) or carry organ donor cards, despite
its widespread availability. Most nondonors fear being declared dead prematurely, and are more
anxious about death. People who view themselves as self-reliant and effective are more likely to be
- Risk-Taking Behaviors – Stepping off the curb; Safe pedestrians stood on curb until light changed in
their favour, scanned traffic both ways, and when interviewed, put their life in jeopardy only 2% of the
time per week. Risky street crossers (stepped off the curb against traffic signals, didn’t look before
crossing) put their life in jeopardy 16% of the time. These riskier people also were 4x more likely to think
and/or attempt suicide, reporting more frustrations with life. Therefore, attitudes/feelings can be
expressed in behavior choices which increase or decrease their probability of death.
- In God they Trust – People with positive religious coping styles experienced less pain and distress
during their last few months of life. Patients who doubted or had conflicts in religious beliefs seem to
have negative health outcomes/effects.
Man is Mortal: But What Does That Have To Do With Me?
- Attitudes towards life and death challenged when a loved one passes.
- Powerful difference between intellectual knowledge and emotional realization (i.e. being informed of a
death vs. viewing the actual corpse).
- Hard to show concern/comfort for fellow survivors while trying not to show own emotions/distress
- Once we come to terms with a particular death, easier to discuss/deal with.
Anxiety, Denial, & Acceptance: 3 Core Concepts
- Death Anxiety – to reduce the painful tension (by taking drugs, alcohol, isolation) Denial – to reject certain key features of reality in attempt to avoid or reduce anxiety.
Acceptance – various views of what to exactly accept? (i.e. does a good death require acceptance?)
- Depression, and a sense of loss are also common attitudes of death
- Everyone copes differently (i.e. some people who join forces with death and kill others in reality or
Studies & Theories of Death Anxiety
- Use self-report questionnaires; advantages: convenience, briefness, simple quantitative results
- Low scores on death anxiety are hard to interpret (low anxiety or high denial?)
- How high is high anxiety? What is normal?
- Sample population – college students overrepresented; ethnic/racial minorities underrepresented
- Only a one-time thing – respondents may express their attitudes differently at another time/situation.
Major Findings from Self-Reports on Death Anxiety
- How Much Do We Fear Anxiety? – People appear to not consider themselves to be very anxious about
death in their everyday lives. Very high scores of anxiety (when a respondent is in a state of alarm) were
seldom. People can be calm, and collected on a verbal level while also experiencing a strong emotional
response on a neurophysiological level.
- Gender Differences – Women tend to have higher death anxiety scores than men. This may be due to
the fact that women are more open and comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions
emotionally. It does not mean that women are “too” anxious. The level of death anxiety tells us about
the way a person interprets and responds to death-related situations.
- Age Differences – No age diff’s/lower death anxiety for elders. People come to terms with death as
they move through their later years. Death itself regarded as natural whereas fear of becoming
dependent/helpless may increase. Death anxiety related to relationship loss, increased health conerns, and uncertainties among the elderly. Social isolation, financial concerns, dissatisfaction with quality of
life, and bereavement are