Dying May Be a More Positive Experience Than We Imagine, Finds Analysis of ALS Patients, Death Row Inmates

Iqra Mumal, MSc avatar

by Iqra Mumal, MSc |

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People dying of terminal diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and inmates on death row have something in common: their outlooks are more positive than might be expected.

A recent study examining attitudes on impending death, “Dying is Unexpectedly Positive,” appeared in the journal Psychological Science.

Death is an important part of the human condition, and people have always been fascinated by the idea of death. In the research world, most studies have focused on exploring the idea of one’s own death or responses to other people dying. However, not many studies have investigated what it is like for an individual to have months, days or hours left to live.

While one might associate fear and dread with the end of one’s life, the idea has never been researched in an academic context. Kurt Grey, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led a team to assess the emotional lives of people who were either about to die from terminal illness or were prisoners on death row.

The idea for this study emerged when Gray and his colleagues came across the last words of death-row inmates that were stored by the Texas Department of Justice. The prisoners’ written statements were upbeat and positive — which wasn’t at all what he expected from this group of individuals at death’s door.

The UNC team conducted its study in two parts. In the first part, researchers analyzed blog posts written by terminally ill patients who had either ALS or cancer. To be included in the study, the blogs had to have at least 10 posts over at least three months and the author had to have died in the course of writing the blog.
As a comparison, researchers recruited online bloggers asked to imagine they were going to die in a few months and then write blog posts about their experience.

Through the use of programming, researchers looked for either positive or negative emotional words such as fear, anxiety, happiness and love. Their results showed that dying patients included many more positive emotional words in their blogs than the online bloggers who were only imagining their own deaths. Furthermore, they found that as the patients grew closer to death, their use of positive words increased while their use of negative words did not.

Researchers similarly conducted a second study, but this time among Texas death-row inmates. Researchers analyzed their last words and compared them with those of a group of online participants who had to imagine they about to die. Once again, they found that the words of individuals close to death were more positive than those of individuals who only imagined their impending death.

Both sets of patients, in their last words, focused on ideas that would help them make meaning of life, such as religion and family, and which may function to decrease anxiety about their death. Results from these studies suggest that dying may be a more pleasant experience than we imagine.

“When we imagine our emotions as we approach death, we think mostly of sadness and terror,” Gray, a psychologist, said in a press release. “But it turns out, dying is less sad and terrifying — and happier — than you think.”