“I want more time with Jason. I want more time with my children. I want more time sipping martinis at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Thursday nights. But that is not going to happen. I probably have only a few days left being a person on this planet.”
When Amy Krouse was on her deathbed, writing an open letter to her husband’s future partner, what was striking was the lack of fear.
Rather, the letter was a celebration, full of tenderness, reflecting on a life filled with love and imperfection; it was striking in her acceptance that she was nearing the end of her story and was ending it filled with love and peace with what was to come.
Our fear of death is often so deep that it is said to be ultimately responsible for all our fears.
The idea is that we hook our fears onto smaller, more manageable threats as a coping mechanism to deal with overwhelming feelings about the unknowable and the inevitable: death.
To feel a level of anxiety about death is an entirely normal part of the human experience and yet dread over death may not reflect reality.
We tend to hear the horror stories, which do exist, and less about the sense of connection and meaning many people facing death find.
A new study found that “dying Is unexpectedly positive”, at least as far as the emotional experience of it goes.
Psychologists from the University of North Carolina wanted to explore whether facing death is as scary as many of us expect it to be.
In one experiment, they compared the language of terminally ill cancer patients who wrote blogs documenting their final months with the language of non-ill participants who they asked to imagine what they would write if they were dying.
The healthy participants used “significantly” more negative language, words like “fear”, “terror”, and “anxiety”, while those actually dying used far more words like “happiness” and “love”.
“When we imagine our emotions as we approach death, we think mostly of sadness and terror,” said researcher, psychological scientist Kurt Gray. “But it turns out, dying is less sad and terrifying – and happier – than you think.”
In a second experiment, they analysed the last words of death row inmates compared with the last words people not facing imminent death imagined they would say.
Again, they found that the last words of the inmates were far more positive than those imagining how they might feel.
“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,” Gray said.
Dr Lisa Iverach, a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney, says such research is “helpful”.
“The more we push something away and don’t think about it, the more salient and anxiety-provoking it is,” she said. “For cancer patients or anyone who is terminally ill, death is on their mind and by having it in their consciousness, there is less fear.”
She says it seems to confirm that of the five stages of grief that people are said to experience when facing their own mortality, “a peace can be made with death”.
Karl Andriessen, a researcher in the School of Psychiatry at the University of NSW, says it’s “very hard” to imagine what it would be like until you’re in the situation yourself but says the research provides some insight into where that peace might come from.
As well as feelings of connection as providing some comfort, the participants facing death expressed gratitude for their accomplishments and for having friends and family.
“Maybe also there is relief because there is an end to the suffering – from physical illness or from being in prison,” Andriessen explained. “There could also be relief that there is an end to the story and it may be easier to find peace with their situation or with their family – if they have any family – at the time when they are close to their death.
“And having the opportunity to say goodbye may be important. Maybe that also helps them to find a sense of ease or relief with the situation they are in.”
Although death will always be difficult for those left behind, knowing that there was some peace may provide comfort for the bereaved.
Andriessen, who is currently recruiting for a study looking at how to better support adolescents experiencing grief, adds:
“It may provide some comfort to the bereaved but it’s only applicable to those bereaved who may expect that the person is dying so that they can prepare themselves.”
Amy Krouse died of ovarian cancer, on March 13 this year, 10 days after her love letter was published. Her husband, Jason, who was by her side with their children when she died, released this statement:
“It is Amy’s gift with words that has drawn the universe in,” he said. “Unfortunately I do not have the same aptitude for the written word, but if I did, I can assure you that my tale would be about the most epic love story… ours.”
Dying, sad as it is does not need to be scary. It can be a part of a love story.
Iverach, through her work, thinks about death a lot and uses it as a compass for how she lives. “I often use it as a way to think about ‘when I die how will I feel about this decision’,” she says.
We might not be able to imagine how we’ll feel when we are faced with our own mortality, but it can be helpful to imagine what we would like said in our eulogy, Iverach says. It can help create clarity around what is important to us.
“It stimulates us to cherish those we love, create enduring memories, pursue our hopes and dreams and achieve our potential,” she said.
“The more we think about death, the more fully we can live.”