Thanatology: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

Two certainties in life are death and taxes, according to Benjamin Franklin. Thanatology is an interdisciplinary field that deals with death and dying. In this lesson we will discuss the psychological aspects of mortality.

Death and Dying

One of the villains in the film The Crow (1994) uttered the phrase, 'Childhood is over the moment you know you're going to die.' It's a grim statement (in a somewhat grim film). To put it mildly, death is a bit of a downer. To some people death is more than just an eventual fact of life but rather is an event staring them in the face. In the elderly and terminally ill patients, the prospect of dying is something of real and immediate concern. Thanatology is the study of death and dying in a variety of fields. One of these fields is psychology, where thanatology deals with the feelings and other psychological phenomena that are encountered by the dying and those who care for them.

Thanatology and the Psychology of Death

Since this is a broad topic area, let's first focus on what we're discussing here. Thanatology is the study of death. Rather than constitute its own field, thanatology is typically pursued as an extension of a variety of fields, such as anthropology, psychology, or physiology. For instance, the popular TV show Bones features a forensic anthropologist skilled in thanatology. The titular character knows many things about the physical changes a body undergoes after death, and uses this knowledge to catch bad guys. In this lesson, we will be talking about the psychology of death and dying.

The Psychology of Dying

The list of people who must deal with death can include the elderly, the terminally ill, and the people close to them. To these people, death is an expectation, so certain psychological issues can arise from that expectation. There may be anxiety and depression from the realization that one's life is ending. In many cases, the expectation that death could arrive at any time can cause these issues. Loved ones may respond with shock and grief before or after the afflicted person passes on. To survivors, coping with the loss of a loved one is also often a priority.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has suggestions and standards for mental health professionals working with the terminally ill and their families. Barbara Okun and Joseph Nowinsky's book Saying Goodbye details the process of coping with terminal illness and death in a modern world. Harvard Medical School adapted Okun and Nowinsky's work into one model of what the dying and their families can expect. At the outset, they note that dying in our day and age can be more of a long term issue and less of a sudden and unexpected event. The process, then, can begin years before the actual death of the patient. This model follows five stages: crisis, unity, upheaval, resolution, and renewal.

Crisis refers to the first stage, wherein the terminally ill patient and their family have difficulty finding a mental balance after learning of a terminal illness. This stage is characterized by anxiety and sometimes anger and guilt, depending on whether the relationship between family members and the patient are strained. Unity refers to the second stage, named as such because of the tendency of families to come together in an attempt to resolve any lingering personal issues with the patient. Generally, the emotional state of those involved can 'cool' to numbness or ambivalence. The third stage, upheaval, refers to the decay of the unity experienced in the previous stage, as all members of the family go through major changes of lifestyle. Typical of this stage in the process are negative emotions like resentment.

The fourth stage, resolution, is encountered when the patient enters the final stage of life. Typically, the family and patient discuss memories of the past, and this stage can be full of happy or unhappy emotions because of those memories. The final stage, renewal, generally takes place after the death of the patient, and so involves only the family. Renewal is so named because the impact of successfully coping with the death of a loved one is an affirmation of the importance of life. Family members may begin to moved on with their lives while their deceased loved one is remembered with a special place in their hearts.

Death and Motivation

In the introduction to this lesson we started with a quote from The Crow about the knowledge that one will die someday. Despite the rather grim nature of the quoted line, we should note that a fear of death isn't always a bad thing. There's even a psychological theory (an evidence-based model) that suggests the fear of death itself is a major motivating factor for some people. This theory, called 'terror management theory', is based upon cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker's book, The Denial of Death.

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