Death and Life

by | Aug 11, 2008 | Psychology | 0 comments

Mortality is a difficult thing to talk about. One would expect that something so commonplace as death would be better accepted, but that is not the way most humans, at least the people I know, handle the issue. For most of us, death is ignored as long as possible, and then only momentarily dealt with when we have our noses rubbed in it so to speak. We prefer to live in our delusion of immortality as much as possible. As if by contemplating death, we are contaminating our existence here.

Thinking about death is “morbid”, and is considered mostly to be unhealthy. I think the concern is that in dwelling on it, somehow one will want to die in order to check it out. For most of us, this is far from likely. Although, it may be true for seriously depressed or grieving people, who may not feel that life continues to offer them anything. For them the hope raised by belief in an afterlife may make death appealing, as the gateway to that afterlife.

However, in general, I’m not even sure that encouraging depressed people to avoid thinking about death is a particularly effective way of preventing suicide, or even helping people recover from their depression, though from a cognitive behavioral standpoint I suppose there may be some merit to the suggestion. It could be argued that thinking about dying in such a circumstance is entirely reasonable and in fact healthy. Certainly the fact that these types of thoughts are so commonplace in these situations is suggestive of a purpositive reason for these thoughts from a biological or evolutionary standpoint.

Recently, I was told by one of my patients about a study which was done of survivors of suicide attempts. According to him, the consistent thought of those who had, say, jumped off the bridge, was “I want to live!” as they were falling.  And when they did, the depression that had driven them to suicide in the first place had lifted. This is illustrative of the fact that a close confrontation with death in most cases is followed by a renewed interest in life.

Unfortunately, I have to acknowledge that as a psychiatrist I have met many people who have attempted suicide more than once; so obviously this doesn’t work all the time. However, it is my own experience that being (or feeling) near death leads to a heightened awareness of life, and the preciousness of the gift we all (briefly) share.

I would indeed argue that this existential issue is foundational to our psychological structure, and that facing it is (eventually) a painful necessity. Though most of us would like to put off that time as long as possible, I personally do not consider those who do so earlier as necessarily pathological.

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