How to Create a Death-Positive Mindset

The past few years have seen the rapid growth of a grassroots trend labeled the “death-positive” movement. If you’re hearing the term “death-positive” for the first time it might sound like an oxymoron: how can death possibly be positive? Historically in Western society death has been viewed in a totally negative light so we have developed a natural tendency to be repelled and offended by the topic when it arises (but keep reading anyway.)

But now there are death midwives, home funeral guides, green burial consultants, end-of-life educators, and palliative and hospice care providers all promoting the message that death … well, it doesn’t have to be so bad. In fact, in my own work with the dying I have come to recognize that the most negative aspects about death in our modern society arise from the fact that we refuse to think about it and prepare for the final days of life.

So how do we convert a death-phobic society into a death-positive one and improve the end-of-life experience for everyone? We have to start with our own mindset. When we clear up our own misperceptions and biases about death we’ll be able to plan for, think and talk about death with clarity and equanimity. Then we can help those around us to do the same work and get into the death-positive frame of mind. Here’s how you can get started:

Address your fears.

If you are totally honest, you likely have some deep fears of death and dying — that’s normal for us human beings. Death represents the unknown and we have every right to be afraid of what we don’t comprehend. But the trick is to manage your fear and learn to live with it without being controlled by it.

Say, “Yes I feel some fear when I think about death, but it’s a natural part of life.” Take a few deep breaths to calm down any anxiety that arises then gently convert your fear into curiosity: “No one knows what will happen, but I’m interested to see how it all unfolds.”

Explore your past experiences.

Most of us have some sort of grief-history, whether from the deaths of grandparents, other loved ones, friends, or pets. Or we may carry grief from other losses like divorce, moving away from home or leaving a job. The unresolved pain we carry from these past experiences can add to our negative mindset about death and prevent us from moving into a healthier, more balanced relationship with our mortality.

Recognize the painful stories of grief that you are holding inside and begin to journal about them. Allow the discomfort to come to the surface so that you can view it with compassion and tenderness, then acknowledge that life is a series of losses that cannot be avoided. Create a letting-go ritual such as burning pieces of paper in a fire or planting “grief seeds” (as Rumi refers to them) in your garden.

Challenge your misperceptions.

I recently saw a “word cloud” that listed the most common words associated with death and not surprisingly they included terms like spooky, grim, depressing, dark, and evil. These words all fit with the “grim reaper” image we often see as a depiction of death in physical form: a faceless, hooded being in a black robe, who carries a scythe to cut down his victims.

These perceptions of death must be challenged one at a time when they arise and met with new, more accurate thoughts:

· Instead of “Death is sad,” think: “Death can be beautiful and joyful even though we miss those who die.”

· Instead of “Death is tragic,” think: “Death can be the culmination of a life well-lived.”

· Instead of “Dying is senseless,” think: “Dying allows an opportunity to heal old wounds, love others with abandon, and enjoy all the little moments that life offers.”

This is not to diminish the fact that tragedies do occur and unexpected death, particularly when it seems to be “before one’s time,” is especially difficult to bear. But the point is to remember that death can be both tragic and beautiful at the same time. Learn to see the beauty in death wherever it arises.

As a journaling exercise, make a list of the little moments you hope to cherish in your own final days, like the color of the sunset, the smell of flowers in your garden, the sweetness of a piece of chocolate cake, the taste of red wine, or the harmony of a Mozart symphony.

Change your language.

Hafiz wrote, “The words you speak become the house you live in.” Think of ways to build a new, more positive “house” around the concept of death. Many of the words we use when we talk about death are habitual and ingrained from years of social conditioning. I call this “tragic-speak” and often hear myself resorting to it when I’m not consciously choosing non-negative ways of speaking.

When you hear of a death, stop yourself before responding, “Oh how terrible.” Perhaps you could say “My heart goes out to you,” or “I’m sending love” as a way of showing your concern. Responding with a less negative message changes the tone of the conversation and makes room for beauty to arise within the tragedy you are discussing.

However be careful not to offer platitudes that gloss over the suffering of another like, “It was for the best,” or “He’s in a better place.” Those comments can stifle and even shame the expression of grief and cause it to be buried. Let your “house” that holds death be big enough to contain the sorrow of another without judging or amplifying that person’s pain.

Think about death every day.

During my days as a hospice physician I naturally thought about death all the time because my work immersed me in it, and I continue those thoughts even now. While it may sound morbid, contemplating death every day has become the most life-affirming and uplifting practice of my spiritual repertoire.

When I acknowledge that nothing lasts and everything eventually dies, I embrace the very essence of what it means to be alive here on plant earth. I celebrate and appreciate this life I have been given precisely because I am aware that it is fleeting and won’t last forever. Thus I can make the most of every moment.

Begin by setting aside a few moments for a death-awareness practice in your daily schedule, perhaps before you go to bed or when you first awaken. Combine it with a gratitude practice: “Another day has come and I am grateful to be alive for I know that I will die one day.” In some Buddhist traditions there is even a mantra that repeats, “I may die today,” acknowledging that any given moment could be the last.

There are powerful reasons to adopt a death-positive mindset: to ease your own burden of fear, to improve your resilience when things go “wrong,” to become a calm support for others who are lost in the storms of life, to learn to enjoy all the little moments of life to the fullest.

When your own mindset changes, watch how quickly the world around you begins to change. Your positive thoughts will spread out like ripples, touching others and nudging them toward greater awareness and acceptance of death, as well. You’ve already started the process, just by reading this post, so keep it going … you won’t regret it!

Learn more about living fully while being mortal from Dr. Karen Wyatt at End-of-Life University.