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Dying flower. Wikimedia
  • The writings of terminally ill patients and inmates on death row were examined in this research
  • For comparison, a group of online participants were asked to imagine that they had been diagnosed with terminal cancer or were death row inmates
  • The writings of people who were actually close to death were much more positive than those who were only imagining their condition

Washington D.C, June 13, 2017: Thinking about death can result in considerable angst. All of us have a common curiosity about the before-and-after of death. According to a new research, the actual emotional experiences associated with dying are both more positive and less negative than people usually tend to believe.

Researcher Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said, “When we imagine our emotions as we approach death, we think mostly of sadness and terror. But it turns out, dying is less sad and terrifying–and happier–than you think.”


The writings of terminally ill patients and inmates on death row were examined in this research. It is suggested that we are disproportionately focused on the negative emotions caused by dying; our obsession with death as a negative idea keeps standing in our way of considering the broader context of everyday life.

According to Gray, humans are incredibly adaptive, both physically and emotionally. We carry on with our daily lives whether we’re dying or not. In our imagination, dying is a lonely and meaningless event that pushes us into a vast blank space, away from the happiness of life. But the research showed that the final blog posts of terminally ill patients and the last words of death row inmates are filled with nothing but love, meaning and social connection.

In a recent Modern Love column written by beloved children’s author Amy Krouse Rosenthal the positive emotions that follow this kind of meaning-making were exquisitely expressed. Rosenthal passed away due to ovarian cancer 10 days after her column was published in The New York Times. She penned down her feelings about finding someone to marry her husband after her impending death with profound love and appropriate humour.

In their first study, Gray and colleagues focused on analysing In their first study, the emotional content of blog posts from terminally ill patients who were dying of either cancer or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or some other life-threatening disease. The blogs needed to have at least 10 posts over at least 3 months and the author had to have died in the course of writing the blog to be included in the study. For comparison, a group of online participants were asked to imagine that they had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and to write a blog post, keeping in mind that they had only a few months to live as well.

The researchers used a computer-based algorithm, trained research assistant coders, and online participant coders to analyze the actual and imagined blog posts for words that described both negative and positive emotions, such as “fear,” “terror,” “anxiety,” “happiness,” and “love.”

According to ANI reports, the results made it clear that blog posts from individuals who were terminally ill included considerably more positive emotion words and fewer negative emotion words compared to those written by participants who simply imagined they were dying.

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Closely looking at the patients’ blog posts over time, the researchers also realised that their use of positive emotion words actually increased as they neared death, while their use of negative emotion words did not. These patterns remained common even after Gray and colleagues took the overall word count and number of blog posts into account; suggesting the fact that the increase in positive emotion words in the posts was not simply due to the effects of writing over time.

For the second study, the researchers opted for another similar analysis comparing the last words of inmates on death row with the poetry of death-row inmates and the imagined last words of another group of online participants. Again, it was observed that the words of those who were actually close to death were less negative and more positive in an emotional tone than the words of those who were not actually close to death.

Even though Gray and his co-authors have acknowledged that the findings may not apply to all people who are approaching death and it is unclear whether individuals who are facing a great deal of uncertainty or those who die of old age express similarly positive emotions as they come close to the end of life, ultimately the findings assert that our expectations or imaginations may not match the reality of dying which has important implications for how people who are dying are treated.

The observations have been published in Psychological Science.

– prepared by Durba Mandal of NewsGram. Twitter: @dubumerang


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