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The Psychology of Death and Dying

Collectively, Americans seem to actively deny death as a natural occurrence in life. Just like our obsession with maintaining youthful appearances, we are fixated on maintaining unprecedented life spans, now a possibility through stem cell research and the potential future of widespread eugenics. Instead of acknowledging death, it becomes a taboo subject, occasionally brought up during life insurance policies and estate sales. Americans do not have holidays to pay homage to the deceased like El Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico or shrines of ancestors as a permanent fixture in their homes like the Japanese. The only portrayal of death found in the media is the typical notion of heaven and hell, for example movies like What Dreams May Come, where Robin Williams must emancipate his wife from the shackles of hell. Or other popular movies, such as Contact with Jodie Foster, where children perceive the dead as normal people existing in a parallel realm, not unlike physical reality. Another common misconception is that death is a temporary inconvenience, often illustrated in children’s movies like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Children are given the impression that death is just a really long, luxurious nap and if the right man kisses the sleeping individual she will magically spring back into consciousness.

Unfortunately, the only other prevalent acknowledgement of death in the popular media and American society can be found in violent actions movies and psychological thrillers. Gratuitous violence and cold-blooded murder accompanied by internal body parts externalized, decapitated heads and even cannibalism. We have a gross fascination concerning violence and the mutilation of the human form, a rather unhealthy obsession lurking in video games and cult classic movies. Americans have not addressed the finality of death, and only in recent years have new age religions fabricated a new approach toward death, or the passageway into the unknown.

As I child, forced to attend Christian services on Sundays, I bought into the fire and brimstone portrayal of death and spirituality. If an individual did not accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, bad things were destined to happen to that individual in the afterlife. I was pressured into believing that if I did not eat of the bread and drink of the wine, that I was going to instantaneously combust and be shot down into the fiery pits of hell. As I grew older and exposed to other belief systems, this innate fear of the wrathful divine slowly dwindled. After intense observation, I came to the conclusion that organized religion was used as a means to control the masses. I rejected the absolutist attitude enforced upon me since childhood and wanted to discover a different approach toward death and dying.

I had been exposed to death at a relatively young age. I had many elderly relatives and neighbors who died quite consistently; I’ve lost count of the various funerals and memorials that I’ve attended. The only reassuring aspect of organized religion is the certainty one feels concerning death and the afterlife. When I realized that I was skeptical of Christianity and heaven and hell, I had a difficult time understanding death and coming to terms with my own fears of it. For many years I had no concrete death ethic, it was just something I avoided or ignored. After taking this course, I have started to construct my own death ethic and idea about the afterlife, by gathering information and borrowing ideas from material that supports this course. I feel comfortable talking about death, it is no longer a clandestine subject, it is a natural occurrence in life, and ultimately it is the last rite of passage for every human being.

I’ve adopted more of a non-Western death ethic, where death is an invaluable experience for the dying individual. From my in-class notes on September 10, non-Western cultures view death as a transition for the deceased person, while Americans typically focus on death as a transition for those who are left behind. Non-western cultures tend to encourage the bereaved to express their emotions, while Westerners are given the three-day time period to mourn and are expected to carry on with their respective lives as usual, unaffected by grief. The only time Westerners are allowed to express their immeasurable grief is at the actual ceremony, where they are expected to repress their emotions afterward. I find this aspect of Western culture counterproductive, where emotions are never a catharsis for grief. Often, when we see others in pain, we turn the other direction, unsure of how to comfort them.

I believe death should be a commonly discussed topic, especially during the later years in ones life. We don’t know what occurs after this life; therefore we should not approach our own death with negativity or fear. I don’t have my beliefs of the afterlife cemented in a permanent belief system; I’m still gathering information in order to form a solidified idea. I am fond of the Native American belief that we reunite with our ancestors after this life. I find the beliefs of Native Americans very appealing, abandoning the linear rationalization of Western logic. I find this holistic approach toward death more accepting of the inevitable. Death should not be an isolated and dreaded incident after life, although it brings us incalculable pain, it also serves as a vehicle for unity to those who are left behind.

It does seem like a cruel, harsh world when we know our loved ones will be irrevocably removed from our physical lives, but the fleeting fragility of life generates deeper appreciation for those around us and our own lives. I believe if we were created to live forever, everything would be meaningless and taken for granted. I believe life is a great adventure, every moment is an opportunity to gain more wisdom, and that love is the compelling force within each of us. Death is a part of life; we know it will eventually steal us from this world, yet we are not knowledgeable of what threshold it will deliver us onto. The deceased never really leave us anyway; they live in our thoughts, memories and dreams. Just like your Relational Grief Theory, Kim, I believe our relationships with the deceased continue to grow, where we fabricate a new relationship that allows the deceased and bereaved to grow and ultimately heal. Beyond physical life the essence of the deceased still continues to accompany us in this life, perhaps to meet again in the afterlife.

I find this excerpt and theory very comforting when I confront my own relationships with deceased loved ones. Death is a permanent predicament in this life, but the finality of our relationships with the deceased no longer exists. It opens a new door and sheds some light onto a dark mentality, we no longer feel defeated or imprisoned by grief. I am ready to confront death with less fear and dread, which is a repercussion of this insightful course.

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