Last updated on October 4, 2021.
Death is an inevitable issue that we all have to face in life, sooner or later. In traditional Chinese culture, death is a taboo to discuss, even the thought of it is inauspicious. That leaves many people bewildered when the time comes eventually, overwhelmed by sorrow and helplessness in the face of death, not knowing what to do, what to feel and what to expect.
This is where life and death education steps in, to prepare us for the predestined end of life so that we can enter the last chapter of life with composure and dignity, at the same time tend to the needs of our loved ones.
What is death anxiety?
Death signifies the end of one’s existence. Death anxiety encompasses the anxious feelings when we approach our late-stage life and when we discuss death and dying. The American psychiatrist Robert Langs postulated three forms of death anxiety:
Contrary to the fear that people have when facing a specific external threat, existential death anxiety develops when people realize the inevitability of death, both to themselves and to other people in the world. This type of death anxiety is universal and experienced by most people. Under existential death anxiety, we usually defend the anxiety by denial and obliteration. Repression, as a backup defense mechanism, will protect against anxiety-provoking memories, conflicts and relational patterns. These defense mechanisms allow us to maintain normal life functioning, while blocking the potentially negative life encounters.
Situations in which an event or meaning is unconsciously perceived, such as death-related traumas or near-death experiences, may damage these mechanisms, though. Nevertheless, the unconsciousness may explain our occasional dissatisfaction and anxiety about life with the fear of death.
Predatory death anxiety evokes when we face harm from other living beings and natural disasters. This death anxiety is evolutionary: in nature, the prey must stay alert to survive from the threat of its predators. Unlike other animals, humans develop various emotional responses apart from anxiety, such as denial, anger and acceptance as a self-defense mechanism to alleviate anxiety and fear. For instance, when diagnosed with cancer, a patient may first deny the fact, questioning if the given report is mistaken, followed by the evocation of anger towards the unfairness of the world, until at last, one may choose to accept the illness and complete the final journey of life in serenity.
In contrast to predatory death anxiety, predation death anxiety develops when we may threaten others physically or mentally. Generally, this type of anxiety accompanies the unconscious guilt towards others for the damage dealt. This type of anxiety is more common in healthcare personnel when they have to break the bad news to their patient’s family members. On the one hand, they have to accept their incapability to cure the patient, on the other hand, they have to bear the responsibility to harm others with the saddening truth. The unconscious guilt may in turn elicit one’s death anxiety.
Why are we anxious about death?
The society commonly perceives death as:
- non-functional, symbolizing the total loss of biological function and the end of life.
- inevitable. Nothing can stop or avoid death; everyone will come across it eventually.
People usually acquire and understand the characteristics of death in late childhood, while some may come to realize the idea earlier because of the death of a family member or friend.
Many connect death with loss and separation, prompting an anxious feeling that can easily trigger death anxiety, which may also be affected by one’s perception of death under certain family and cultural background.
Take Hong Kong for example, the number “4” has a similar pronunciation with “death” in Cantonese, and thus represents misfortune. Also, at a funeral, only black and white attire are allowed, where expressions of sorrow and regret dominate the occasion and any other behavior may be deemed disrespectful. These cultural phenomena connect death with negative values and deepen death anxiety among society.
Regrets related to death
An unaccomplished aspiration, an unrepaired relationship, an unfinished promise, an unsaid goodbye… throughout our life journey, we probably have left behind a trail of regrets. In the final moments of life, all those regrets may flood back in flashes of memories. They often add to our death anxiety when we think of it as the end of our life and the eternal separation with our loved ones.
Feelings of disorientation in life and death
Human beings search for and give meanings to events in life. We try to find meaning in an object, a happening or an encounter, in order to gain a sense of control over the uncertainties in life. By endowing our life and death with values, we can reduce the anxiety towards death and face this journey calmly. Those who are perplexed about the meaning of life and death, contrarily, may have minimal sense of control over their lives, coupled with intense anxiety and hatred towards death once they have to face it.
Altogether, these reasons have made death anxiety almost as inescapable as death itself. What can we do to free ourselves from the unease about death?
How to relieve death anxiety?
By weakening the conditioning of death to loss and separation, we can alleviate our death anxiety. We can strengthen the connection between the meaning of our life with death through different rituals and memorial activities. Acquisition of purpose in life can help us further reduce the uncertainty we encounter.
In a ritual practice, individuals have the opportunity to share their last words with their loved ones. Instead of a collection of regrets and sorrows, their epilogue can be expressions of gratitude and appreciation for their close family and friends. Such rituals not only bridge communication between individuals so that they can get over their regrets, but also help address the grief of those who live on through bereavement by acknowledging one another’s effort in the relationship.
A well-designed will can empower the self-worth of the individuals by encouraging them to appreciate themselves. The will also entitles one to choose how to confer a more extensive meaning beyond their own beings, via means of body or organ donation for example. A well-planned funeral in the will can convey one’s last wishes and help the loved ones move on.
Apart from ritual practice and will preparation, a trial of funeral and coffin opens up a way to experience and contemplate the dying process personally, and hence prepare ones for the fear of what would happen after their death. Nonetheless, it reminds us to treasure our time here on earth and reflect on the meaning of life.
Palliative care targets the dying by primarily offering comfort and pain relief. Apart from the physical pain, palliative care also brings forward the philosophy that everyone should die with dignity and have the greatest control over their death. In palliative care, social workers will assist in family and legal issues, while psychologists may provide assistance on mental issues. Advance directives are also instrumental to assure that one will not suffer when approaching death, thus reducing their death anxiety.
Death is always present. However, while death may end a life, it does not end a relationship. Becoming aware of our own mortality may liberate and awaken us to live our life to its fullest.
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In death education, the educators nurture the meaning of life and death through different activities. Through ritual practices, will preparation and advanced directives, the individuals can express their innermost feelings to their loved ones and themselves. In funeral trials and palliative care, the individuals can address their own death anxiety. By learning about the values of life, we can honor our existence and ultimately, our death. Death education honors death by educating about dying, death and bereavement to enrich their personal worth and values. It can also prepare ones for their role in the community. We should educate the youth about dying and death to offer an opportunity to challenge the aversive consequences of not discussing the serious topic. Consequences may include the family’s inability to provide the best help and support their dying loved one in an unfortunate case, causing additional distress and anxiety for the dying.
What is death education?
Why do we need death education?
Should dying and death be taught in schools?
In death education, the educators nurture the meaning of life and death through different activities. Through ritual practices, will preparation and advanced directives, the individuals can express their innermost feelings to their loved ones and themselves. In funeral trials and palliative care, the individuals can address their own death anxiety.
By learning about the values of life, we can honor our existence and ultimately, our death. Death education honors death by educating about dying, death and bereavement to enrich their personal worth and values. It can also prepare ones for their role in the community.
We should educate the youth about dying and death to offer an opportunity to challenge the aversive consequences of not discussing the serious topic. Consequences may include the family’s inability to provide the best help and support their dying loved one in an unfortunate case, causing additional distress and anxiety for the dying.