The simple exercise of befriending death can bring happy surprises.
Some people experience fear, anxiety, anger, and even depression when they think about death.
Is it possible to befriend death and see it as a natural ally instead of a scary enemy? As a consequence, could this decrease fear and anxiety and increase joy and happiness of being alive?
The Gestalt exercise of seeing death as a friend:
Gestalt therapists say we can engage in a dialogue with anything that comes to mind which means we can talk to this “anything” and give this “anything” a voice in reply.
As I was getting older and feared for my life as well as for my elderly mother’s life, I did this dialogue exercise with my “anything” being death. I chose two chairs, placed a light purple pillow on one of them and a dark grey pillow on the other (purple representing my favorite color and dark grey representing death). I sat on the light purple pillow chair, placed the dark grey pillow chair across from me and started addressing the dark grey pillow chair that was a proxy for death.
“I am scared of you,” I said to the dark grey pillow. “You are dark, and you are a mystery to me. You already took away from me quite a few people that I loved, and I hate you for that. I don’t know when you will come and get me or when you will come and get the people that I love that are still alive. My mom is 96 years old and I know you will probably take her in the next 10 years and I hate you for that. I wish you didn’t exist. I really don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
As I had nothing more to say, I reluctantly switched seats and sat on the dark grey pillow answering what I just said while I was sitting on the light purple pillow. I expected that becoming the voice of death would make me anxious, but it didn’t. Instead, I noticed my voice changing and becoming surprisingly more relaxed:
“I am sorry but there is no way you can avoid me. I will take every human on earth at one point or another because this is what I have done since the beginning of time and this is what I will do until the end of time. I am not your enemy. I am just part of life. Dying is part of being human. I am sorry that yes, I will have to take your mom in the next 10 years but look at this as a reason to enjoy the time you spend with her. I will also take you in the future but right now, you are alive and healthy. You need to be aware that life is short and needs to be appreciated. So, enjoy being alive!
As I had nothing more to say from the chair with the dark grey pillow (I will call it the “death chair” point of view) I got up and sat back on the purple pillow and reflected on what I had just heard. It was true that I was alive and healthy. It was true that my 96-year-old mother was still alive and healthy too. ‘We should really celebrate,’ I thought, next time I go to Paris to spend time with her.
I suddenly decided to pull the chair with the dark grey pillow on it next to my chair and position both chairs facing the window. I could see the gorgeous blue ocean from my window with a clear view of Catalina Island, I could hear my two scrub jays chirping in the trees, I could still feel on my skin the loving touch of my husband from the morning before he left for work. Life was indeed beautiful. Having the “death chair” next to me made me surprisingly feel more at peace and happier. Indeed, looking at life with death near me was an interesting experience, an experience that I had had before on several occasion, each time finding it fascinating.
It was also an experience I had gone through with several of my patients when they were experiencing fear, anxiety, and depression thinking about death. In almost every case, talking to death, befriending death and as a consequence, looking at life from a different point of view, had brought peace to them, had allowed them to appreciate their life fully (what life they had left when they were being treated for cancer for example) and had brought meaning to the lives of their loved ones .
The Gestalt two-chair technique:
In my previous article A quick way to uncover unconscious emotions, I wrote about Fritz Perl’s Gestalt technique that uses the interaction between the self and the self’s environment, and I showed how the Gestalt technique enhances awareness of sensation, perception, and emotion in the present moment.
One way to enhance awareness in this way is to use proxies like pillows and chairs that don’t have the same automatic defense mechanisms– such as denial –that are in the conscious part of us that we normally think as “our self.”
Thus, the part of ourselves that sits on a pillow or a chair can directly connect to feelings and needs that our normal “self” has pushed deep below the surface.
Dr. Leslie Greenburg of York University has conducted numerous experiments showing that the two-chair technique is often more effective than other types of therapies at getting patients to discover and deal with emotional problems. The two-chair method quickly surfaces raw emotions like fear and anxiety about death, allows us to explore those feelings, and to shift our point of view in order to experience the benefit of befriending death.
Several studies published in the last few years demonstrate the benefits of befriending death.
A few of the published studies on fear and anxiety about death and the benefits of making friends with death:
Sandra Krause and colleagues from Toronto University in Canada wrote in the Journal of pain and symptom management in 2015 that people with advanced cancer who were anxious about death had more severe depressive symptoms, more generalized anxiety and were less prepared for the end of life.
What about religious faith? Does it decrease fear of death?
Paul Wink (Wellesley College, MA) and colleagues wrote in The Journals of Gerontology in 2005 that there was no linear relation between religious belief and fear of death and dying. In fact, individuals who were moderately religious feared death more than individuals who scored high or low on religiousness. Wink found that the people who feared death the least were the ones who were older, who had experienced the most bereavement and illness and who were the most satisfied about their life in general. Wink mentions that those 3 elements (older age, history of bereavement and illness, satisfaction with life) probably helped people habituate to the process of dying.
Talking about getting familiar with the process of death, Irene Searles McClatchey and colleagues from the University of Georgia published a study in the Journal of death and dying in 2015 showing that 86 human services students had much less fear and anxiety about death after a course on death education.
So, it seems that. knowing more about death decreases fear and anxiety about it.
Mexican people go further.
Mexican people not only are not afraid of death; they celebrate death.
A celebration of death – Las Dias de Los Muertos in Mexico:
On October 31st (All Hallows Eve), November 1st (All Saints Day) and 2nd (All Souls Day) each year, Mexicans have a three-day festival, called Las Dias de Los Muertos, where they remember friends and family members who died and pray for them to help their spiritual journey. It is a Latin American custom that combines indigenous Aztec rituals with Catholicism. People dance and sing for the dead and they go to the cemetery to decorate the graves. In doing so, they reunite with the souls of the dead and celebrate family, friendship, and life in their home and in the streets. Many Mexicans recognize death as a natural phase, a continuum with childhood and adulthood.
They have skeletons and skulls everywhere during Las Dias de Los Muertos, those skeletons and skulls being almost always shown as enjoying life.
What can we learn from all this?
3 gifts can be brought to us by making friends with death:
Gift # 1: Enjoying life more fully
Shifting our point of view and seeing death as an ally, a known friend rather than a mysterious, scary enemy can make us enjoy life more fully. Befriending death can help us shift our focus from the uncertainty of death to the certainty and beauty of life, from the powerlessness of death to the power of life, from the sadness of death to the happiness of life. As a consequence, we can deeply enjoy every single minute of our precious life, take long walks looking at the perfect intricacy of nature, listen to our favorite music, smell our favorite perfume, taste delicious foods and rediscover the magic of touch.
Gift # 2: Bringing joy to those around us (family and friends)
By focusing on happiness and beauty, we can inspire the ones close to us. Expressing joy and sharing the new awakening of all our senses with our family and friends will stimulate their own joy and sense of pleasure. Telling our loved ones how much we cherish them will fill them with the love they need, allowing them to express love themselves.
Gift # 3: Feeling less fear and anxiety about death
Having death by our side as a friend instead of across from us as an enemy will decrease our fear and anxiety about it.
For me, as a result of my dialogue with death, next time I fly to Paris to spend time with my 96-year-old frail mother, I will fully enjoy her presence. I will tell her how much I love her. I will cook and bake for her, take her to her favorite restaurants, look at old pictures with her and listen to her stories about the past. Together we will have the best time ever because I am aware that life is short. Death can take life away from us at any time. We have very little control over death’s timing but one thing we have full control of is how much we can appreciate and intensely savor every single minute of our precious life.
So, what about you?
Are you aware that life is short? Are you appreciating every minute of your precious life?
If you look at your life with death as a friend next to you, what gift will you get from that new point of view?
Perls, F., Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1969) ISBN 0-911226-02-8.
Clarke, K. M., & Greenburg, L. S. (1986). “Differential Effects of the Gestalt Two-Chair Intervention and Problem Solving in Resolving Decisional Conflict.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, 33(1), 11–15.