Dying people are surprisingly happy about it, study finds

'Meeting the grim reaper may not be as grim as it seems'

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The Independent Online

People who are dying are far more positive about it than people expect, according to new research.

Many expect that death will be an anxious, unhappy process. But the new study sheds light on people's feelings as they approach the end of their life – and they are surprisingly happy.

The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, compared the way that people imagine they will feel when they're dying with the way that people who actually are dying feel. It did so by looking at the writing of people who had terminal illnesses or were on death row.

It found that the people who imagined their own death tended to think it would be a negative, worrying. But the people who were actually dying tended to be more positive than expected.

"When we imagine our emotions as we approach death, we think mostly of sadness and terror," says psychological scientist Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "But it turns out, dying is less sad and terrifying – and happier – than you think."

The research should encourage people to look differently at death, and to the way that we care for people who are dying, the scientists said.

"Humans are incredibly adaptive - both physically and emotionally--and we go about our daily lives whether we're dying or not," Gray explains. "In our imagination, dying is lonely and meaningless, but the final blog posts of terminally ill patients and the last words of death row inmates are filled with love, social connection, and meaning."

The first part of the study took blog posts by people who had terminal illnesses – either cancer or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It also took blog posts by people who had to imagine they were dying, and writing a blog post with only a few months to live.

The researchers then used a computer program to explore those responses, looking for the amount of words that described negative or positive emotions. And it found that the people who actually were dying had far more of the good emotions, and much fewer of the bad ones.

It also found that among the people who really were dying, the number of postive words actually increased as the people got closer to their death.

A second study used a similar methodology but looked at letters written by people who were on death row, and compared them with people who had to imagine themselves into that situation. Again it found that the tone of the people who really were about to die had a more positive tone.

The researchers say that the results question the traditional thinking about how we die and how we think about it.

"Currently, the medical system is geared toward avoiding death – an avoidance that is often motivated by views of death as terrible and tragic," the researchers write in their paper. "This focus is understandable given cultural narratives of death's negativity, but our results suggest that death is more positive than people expect: Meeting the grim reaper may not be as grim as it seems."