Death is all around us. It permeates almost every aspect of our life showcasing its omnipresence.
Death, as symbolized by the proverbial Grim Reaper, is actually personified in infinite ways. Large scale wars, suicide bombers, endless famines, chronic illnesses, accidental fatalities and natural disasters—among many others—unveil the reality of death. Experiencing the loss of a loved one can bring us to the brink of a colossal folding: the collapse of the fragile truce, maintained in our psyche, between death anxiety and death acceptance.
Indeed, death is painful to those left mourning. It can be incomparable, incomprehensible and inconceivable. Death has no true words, feelings or ways to describe it. Death is that part of life which is scary, taboo and reserved for way later in life. However, death is also Janus-faced. One side of the mask unveils hurt, shock, terror, trauma and suffering. The opposite side unveils moments of personal rebuilding, positive transformation and self-actualization.
Thus, within a positive psychology framework, death has the capacity to be the matrix for an increasingly engaging and fulfilling life.
Death Allows Us to Rebuild Ourselves and Our Relationships
Our awareness and acceptance of death can lead to our salvation. Through death, we view life with a different purpose and observe changes or details that may have previously gone unnoticed. A major obstacle to a heightened awareness of death is denial. Denial, an elementary defence mechanism, allows us to erect barriers—blocking our true awareness of death from consciousness.
Denial allows us to keep the reality of our mortality submerged in our unconsciousness—avoiding an almost unbearable volcano of anxiety, depression and anger from overwhelming our psyches. Thus, death is left occupying seldom traversed territory—shrouded in a cloud of mystery. Whereas famous thinker Max Weber characterized modern society as progressing towards a state of disenchantment, where rationalization and scientific reasoning threaten to obsolesce notions of mystery and mysticism, death stands unweathered by the siege.
Even with increased scientific understanding in the field of death and dying, death lies beneath a blanket of enchantment—full of mysteries and secrets. Humans search for explanations, reasons and an understanding of death. We do not have a great understanding of death. This mysterious thing that threatens our existence can be terrifying.
How can we increase our awareness and acceptance of death while avoiding the anxiety it causes?
The idea of death really intensifies when we lose a loved one or experience a crushing loss in our lives. Through the process of grief, this period is when we can learn to grow from death.
We have to accept the reality that death makes us uncomfortable. We have to acknowledge that it causes anxiety. While grieving, we may go through several states of grieving as championed by Kubler-Ross; however, death can also be a time to rebuild ourselves and our identities.
Through grief, we learn to detach (but not forget) a past relationship and identity in relation to the loved one and learn how to reconstruct new identities through new or re-invigorated relationships. Our energies are sublimated—that is, channeled and re-directed in a way that positively reconstructs our lives. This channeling could include, volunteer work, finding a new passion in life or making new friendships.
When we learn to detach, we create new room and space or better yet, opportunities for us to form new social attachments and build from previous social experiences and attachments.
Death Creates New Meaning and Purpose
Death has the power to re-create meaning and purpose in life. Psychologist Paul Wong proclaims that in order to know and appreciate life, we must know what it means to die. To die also means to live.
Therefore, it is through our recognition and acceptance of death that we can truly live a fulfilling and flourishing life.
Death is not just something on television or on the daily news; death is in our own lives and touches us on a personal level. When a loved one dies, we are grounded in the reality and realization of our own mortality. Death is not supposed to be foreign. It is a part of our personal fabric—our personal story.
Death affords us the opportunity to view life in a temporal dimension. The idea that life is finite adds a layer of meaning to life. We must have a high level of respect for death in order to resourcefully, as well as humbly, use the time we have left in this world to give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. It is death that motivates us to really indulge in and experience the various types of moments and instances. Without a finite timeline, life could be afforded very little or no meaning.
We may notice the constant smile on a once unfamiliar face in the workplace, spend extra time with our loved ones or even let go of past grudges against friends or family. On one extreme, we may engage in death defying activities such bungee jumping, skydiving or mountain climbing.
Death Inspires Self-Actualization
Death has the capacity to allow us to be the very best we can be in the slotted amount of time we have. Abraham Maslow saw this stage in life as self-actualization: where we reach our full potential and cultivate our meaning and purpose in life. From the depths of sorrow and grief experienced after the death of a loved one, an increased confidence and resiliency levels may arise while grieving.
The ability to get through such a painful and incomprehensible event portrays how resilient we can be and may prepare us in facing future losses. As mysterious and scary as death can be, an awareness and acceptance of death allows us to confidently face unknown and unfamiliar circumstances in life. In order to really reach the highest levels of self-actualization we must remember that life is not perfect. Life is not linear and does not always travel down the path we want. Death helps us build a certain level of tolerance and awareness to the reality that we do not always get what we want. We learn to compromise and settle—realizing that not every situation, problem, or battle can be won.
We also learn that death can strike at any time. We may never be ready for it. However, it is possible for us to come out of a death experience stronger and more resilient.
Wong, P., Tomer, A. (2011). Beyond Terror and Denial: The Positive Psychology of Death
Acceptance. Death Studies, 35(2), 99-106. Retrieved from http://www.drpaulwong.com/documents/wong-PP-of-death-acceptance-death-studies2011.pdf