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Death and Dying

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Death and Dying

Every human who has ever lived will share two life events: birth and death. Death is an inescapable truth of life. The awareness of this truth can help us enjoy and make the most of life, or it can lead to crippling anxiety.

  • We will consider what death and dying mean.
  • What are some examples of death and dying in psychology?
  • We'll look at the stages of death and dying.
  • What is the process of death and dying?
  • How do death and dying relate to psychology?

The Meaning of Death and Dying

Defining death and dying is a difficult task. Traditionally, death is defined as the absence of a heartbeat. Advancements in medical care make this definition problematic. Today we have machines that can keep a person's heart beating and lungs breathing when they are not able to anymore. We need a more comprehensive definition of death.

Death is when circulatory and respiratory functions or brain functions cease irreversibly.

Medically speaking, a person has to meet certain criteria to be declared dead. Across cultures, death and dying can take on different definitions and meanings entirely.

In some South Pacific cultures, individuals hold the belief that life can leave a person's body in many different situations, like when you are asleep, sick, or in a coma. They believe that death occurs many times during life before the "final" death.

Religious traditions also impact cultural and individual definitions of death. In Hinduism, life and death are part of a cycle. People are reborn after they die and take on a new identity. Christians believe that there is life after death; a person's soul leaves the physical body and continues to exist forever. Native American and some Buddhist cultures hold the belief that the dead and living coexist and that the dead can impact the living.

Death and Dying, man walking with cane toward heaven, StudySmarter

Life after death, pixabay.com

Cultural traditions and beliefs also influence the concept of a good death or dying well. Did the individual die peacefully? Did they feel pain? Did they get to live a long, satisfying life? A good death allows loved ones and individuals to prepare for death. A dying person may want to complete unfinished tasks, finalize their will, and share final sentiments with friends and family.

Examples of Death and Dying

Death is a natural occurrence in life. It will be experienced by all of us. People die every day in many different ways: suicide, overdoses, homicide, genocide, and war. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the leading cause of death in America is heart disease. The ways in which a person dies can greatly impact the people they leave behind.

Processing the death of a loved one who died by suicide can cause feelings of confusion and sometimes guilt. When a loved one dies due to a chronic illness, the family knows exactly why the person died and likely had time to prepare for their passing. In any case, the process of grieving the death of a loved one looks different for each person in their unique circumstances.

Death and Dying Process

There are many ways that the death and dying process occurs. Holding a funeral or a wake helps loved ones face the reality of their loss and comfort each other. Attending a funeral or spreading a person's ashes are meaningful ways to honor and remember the deceased, which is an important part of processing a loss. Writing your will and making health decisions ahead of time can help a person feel at peace and help their family deal with loss.

Basic Principles of Death and Dying

Death and dying are not easy concepts to grasp. Children have to learn about death and dying from their parents and life experiences. Death is typically understood to possess three basic principles:

  1. Permanence: people cannot come back to life after they die.

  2. Universality: all living things will eventually die.

  3. Non-functionality: The functions of a living being cease after death.

Children learn about death and grasp these concepts in the order listed above. First, they discover death's permanence. Once a person has died, they are gone. Young children are not yet old enough to understand and accept that all of the people they care about will die someday (universality).

Preschool children tend to believe that people who die are simply less alive than they were before. Around age 9, children begin to understand that life stops when someone dies. The person who died is gone because they are no longer functioning.

Death and Dying an up-close of a child's face who looks sad StudySmarterChildren and death, pixabay.com.

The number of experiences and encounters with death a child or teen has faced also determine how well they understand death. Older adults who have lost more friends and family members than adolescents or young adults usually have a more mature understanding of death. This does not mean that older adults have overcome their own fears about dying, though; they may still experience death anxiety.

The Stages of Death and Dying

Contrary to popular belief, terminally ill patients often have a positive outlook on the remaining days of their lives. This may be due to processing their terminal illness and working their way through the stages of death and dying. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) outlined 5 stages of grief and loss by interviewing 200 people with terminal illnesses. She found that people tend to experience five emotional reactions toward death, ending with acceptance.

Denial is when a person rejects or refuses to accept the existence or severity of their diagnosis or the death of their loved one.

Olivia just found out she has stage 4 breast cancer, but she is still convinced the lump she found was just a swollen lymph node. She is still in shock and hasn't fully processed what having breast cancer will mean for her.

Olivia has come to terms with her diagnosis, but she wakes up angry every day. She has been coping by drinking alcohol and just got in a horrible fight with her husband.

Once the anger and initial shock begin to subside, people often start trying to find a way out of their illness or their grief. Their thoughts may sound like, “This is happening to me, but if I go through all of the treatments I will get better." "My friend has died, but if I'm a really good friend from now on I won't lose any other friends." Those who believe in God may try to strike a deal with God: "If you heal me, I will be good for the rest of my life." People in this stage may make promises they are unlikely to keep, such as "If I'm cured, I will never smoke again."

Olivia has been doing as many good deeds as possible. She is hoping that if she does enough, maybe God will cure her and let her live longer.

Olivia's anger has subsided, and she has stopped striking bargains with God. Now, she feels hopeless and sad all the time. She has been spending a lot of time in bed. She sleeps for long periods of time and has barely eaten.

Olivia has come to terms with her diagnosis. She is still devastated that she will not have more time with her family, but she has been recording video messages for her husband and kids to help them remember her. She has also been spending as much time with them as possible.

Death and Dying in Psychology

Bereavement is the period of time right after losing a loved one when grief is the strongest.

  1. Acknowledge the loss.

  2. Process the pain.

  3. Adjust to a world without the lost loved one.

  4. Move forward while maintaining connections to the past.

Death and Dying adult couple standing near a grave with flowers StudySmarterFunerals and grief, freepik.com.

Bereavement or grief usually lessens and resolves with time. It is a normal response to loss. There are times, though, that bereavement is more severe or long-lasting than expected and may require additional support. This type of bereavement is called complex bereavement disorder or prolonged grief disorder, and is experienced by 10-12 percent of bereaved individuals.

Complex bereavement disorder or prolonged grief disorder involves more persistent, intense, and disabling symptoms than normal bereavement.

Complex bereavement disorder includes at least one of the following symptoms for longer than is typically expected:

  • Frequent preoccupation with the deceased.

  • A persistent and intense yearning for the deceased.

  • Intense feelings of emptiness or loneliness.

  • Frequent desire to join the deceased in death.

  • Consistent thoughts that life is unfair or meaningless without the deceased.

You also have to have experienced at least two of the following symptoms for at least one month:

  • Intense reactions to memories, or indeed anything that reminds you of the deceased.

  • Ruminating about the circumstances or consequences of the death.

  • Lasting feelings of disbelief or inability to accept the loss.

  • Difficulty trusting or caring about others.

  • You either avoid any reminders of the deceased, or actively seek out reminders to feel closer to the deceased.

  • Intense anger or bitterness about their death.

  • Feeling shocked or numb since the death of the loved one.

Complex bereavement disorder can be treated with psychotherapy, for example, cognitive-behavioral therapy. If the symptoms are especially severe, antidepressant medications may also be effective.

Death and Dying - Key Takeaways

  • Death is when circulatory and respiratory functions or brain functions cease irreversibly.
  • Death and dying take on different definitions and meanings across cultures.
  • According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the leading cause of death in America is heart disease.
  • Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) outlined 5 stages of grief and loss: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
  • There are times, though, that bereavement is more severe or long-lasting than expected and may require additional support. This type of bereavement is called complex bereavement disorder or prolonged grief disorder.

Frequently Asked Questions about Death and Dying

Death is when circulatory and respiratory or brain functions cease irreversibly.

Psychologists study death and dying to provide insight into how to treat death anxiety and effectively counsel through bereavement.

The five stages of death and dying are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

One example of death and dying is the cultural belief that life leaves a person's body many times during life before the final death.  

Yes, there is a difference between death and dying. Death is an experience of the bereaved. Dying is the experience of the person whose life is coming to an end.

Final Death and Dying Quiz

Question

What is the definition of death medically speaking?

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Answer

Death is the event in which circulatory and respiratory functions cease irreversibly or, the event in which brain functions, including the brain stem, cease irreversibly.

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True or False? Both medical and cultural definitions of death are universal. 

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False. Cultural definitions of death can vary greatly.

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What is the difference between an acceptable death and a good death?

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An acceptable death is simply one that is not dramatic while a good death allows for a person and their loved ones to prepare for death.

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What are the three primary properties of death?

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Permanence

Universality 

Non-Functionality

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Which principle of death do children grasp first?

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Permanence

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When do children fully conceptualize death?


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9 to early adolescence

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Children ages 2 to7 years are _______ and may not be able to consider anyone's perspective but their own when someone dies.

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Answer

egocentric

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What is death anxiety?


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Who first formalized the 5 Stages of Dying? 

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Answer

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1969

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_________ in death and dying is when a person rejects or refuses to accept the existence or severity of their diagnosis to escape the prospect of death. 


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Answer

Denial 

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​At which stage in the 5 Stages of Dying might a person start to ask "Why me?"


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Stage 2: Anger

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At which stage in the 5 Stages of Dying might a person say things like "If I'm cured, I will never smoke again"?

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Stage 3: Bargaining

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___________ is the state in which a person experiences the loss of a loved one. 

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Bereavement

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Which of the following is not a task in bereavement? 


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Move on a quickly as possible

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What is the best way for loved ones to support people at stage 4 of the 5 stages of dying?

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Listen

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Fill in the blank: In _________, life and death are part of a cycle. 

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Answer

Hinduism

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Fill in the blank: According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the leading cause of death in America is _______ _______. 

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Answer

heart disease 

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"People cannot come back to life after they die." 

The above statement describes which principle of death? 

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Answer

Permanence

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"All living things will eventually die." 

The above statement describes which principle of death? 

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Answer

Universality

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At around what age do children begin to understand that life stops when someone dies? 

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When someone first learns that they have a terminal illness or that someone they know has died, they may become shocked and feel like what they were just told isn't true.

The statement above is describing which stage of Death and Dying

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Answer

Stage 1: Denial

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Question

Nonverbal displays of affection are very common in this stage.

The statement above is describing which stage of Death and Dying? 

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Answer

Stage 5: Acceptance

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In stage 4 of Death and Dying, which type of depression is in response to a loss that already happened? 

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Reactive 

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In stage 4 of Death and Dying, which type of depression is in response to a future loss, even one that might not happen? 

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Preparatory 

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Fill in the blank: ___________ is the period of time right after losing a loved one when grief is the strongest.  

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Answer

Bereavement

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True or False: Complex bereavement disorder or prolonged grief disorder involves more persistent, intense, and disabling symptoms than normal bereavement.

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Answer

True 

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Fill in the blank: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) outlined the 5 stages of grief and loss by interviewing _____ people with terminal illnesses.  

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Answer

200

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Which of the following is NOT one of the five stages of Death and Dying? 

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Isolation 

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True or False: Depression is the fourth stage in Death and Dying. 

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True 

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True or False: Native American and some Buddhist cultures hold the belief that the dead and living coexist and that the dead can impact the living.  

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True 

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