Accepting & Coping With Your Own Death

Death is a universal experience, but that doesn’t mean we all think and feel the same way about it. When you’re faced with the reality that you may not have as much time left as you thought you would, there’s no easy answer to the question of how you should process this experience. You might feel fear, anxiety, sadness or hopelessness, which are all normal and common responses. So is denial.

But the life you have ahead of you doesn’t have to be filled with only difficult emotions and experiences. If you’re able to process and accept your feelings, your time can be valuable, hopeful, freeing and even filled with joy.

How to cope with dying

American humorist Josh Billings (1818-1885) is reported to have observed that “life consists not in holding good cards but in playing those you do hold well.” We would all like to be dealt good cards in the expectation that we could thereby master all the challenges that arise in our lives. In reality, however, we can play only the cards we have.

How we play our cards is a metaphor for how we cope. This is especially important when we face major challenges in life, and perhaps even more so when those challenges are associated with our own imminent death.

Death-related challenges and losses are unavoidable because we are mortal beings, and our lives are finite. We cannot escape such challenges; we can only decide how we will cope with them. And we have the privilege of being able to make such decisions ahead of time.

The well-known “Serenity Prayer” speaks directly to how you and your loved ones might cope with challenging situations. The key elements in the prayer tell us that when we are coping we need:

  • Wisdom to understand our situation.
  • Courage to change whatever in that situation may be disturbing us and ought to be changed.
  • Acceptance of things that are beyond our power to change.

Every human being has the ability to adapt to change; what we all must learn is how to do that and especially how to cope with loss. We learn how to cope by trying out different strategies and tactics throughout life and by observing how others cope with various situations. Above all, we learn by carefully assessing our own strengths and weaknesses, together with the characteristics of the situations in which we find ourselves.

Choices in coping with dying image

As you reflect on your own coping, you might ask yourself questions like the following:

  • How have you tended to cope with major challenges in your life?
  • Have you been aware of your coping strategies?
  • What were the sources from which you learned to cope in these ways?
  • Have your coping strategies and tactics generally been successful for you?
  • Are there coping strategies and tactics you have employed that did not work well for you?
  • If so, as you think back on them, why do you think they were not very successful?
  • And how do you think you can avoid such problematic coping now?

One reason for asking questions like these is that if you know how you have dealt with challenges and problems in years past, you probably have a pretty good idea—though not an absolute guarantee—about how you will cope when your death is imminent. Or at least it may become clear to you how you could alter ways in which you are coping right now.

Choices in coping with dying

Your coping choices can help you appreciate the time that is now available to you. They can also enable you to use that time as well as you can to benefit both yourself and others whom you love. In so doing, these coping choices are a way of empowering yourself.

You may be aware that you yourself have coped with different problems in different ways. Perhaps you acted forcefully to change things in one situation, while holding back and seeking more information in another set of circumstances. Alternatively, you might quickly have decided there was nothing you could do about another unpleasant problem. So maybe you told yourself, “that’s just the way things are,” and decided to make the best of it.

Instead of looking for concrete "stages" in dealing with imminent death, think about the broad range of reactions and responses that you might be experiencing. There are not just four or five ways of reacting to or living out your dying, any more than there are just four or five ways of living out all the other parts of your life. Don’t allow yourself or others to treat you as if you were only a generalization and not an individual, unique person.

Tasks in coping with dying

Think about the tasks—physical, psychological, social and spiritual—you might want to undertake in this important period of your life. We make this suggestion because the very notion of tasks suggests endeavors or undertakings you might or might not wish to take up.

You can choose to engage in one or more specific tasks—or you can choose not to. You can begin a task or leave it for another time. You can work on a task for a while, then set it aside, and perhaps come back to it later. All of these choices imply empowerment. Coping tasks involve an active process, a proactive doing with a positive orientation, not just a defensive reaction against challenges in living.

Physical tasks

You may need expert medical and nursing assistance with some physical tasks. But your family members and friends can also help, provided you are communicating clearly (for instance, that you can no longer eat a full plate of food). The tasks may include:

  • Minimizing physical distress (e.g., pain, nausea, vomiting or constipation).
  • Taking care of fundamental bodily needs, such as hydration, nutrition, rest or exercise.

Psychological tasks

It’s important for you to feel secure even when death is imminent, to know you are safe and will receive the care you need. You will also want to be in charge of your life as much as you can. Things to consider:

  • Will you continue to make your own decision or designate someone you trust to make decisions on your behalf?
  • You may want to take your regular bath or dress in comfortable and attractive ways.
  • Can you continue your lifelong habit of drinking a glass of wine with your meal?
  • Is it possible to continue enjoying your favorite food?

You will know best the people and the things that contribute to your own security, autonomy and richness in living.

Family members comfort one another while resting on a bench near a community mausoleum.

Social tasks

Consider the personal attachments that you value and your interactions with society and its social groups. Facing your imminent death, do you wish to continue as you did before in the areas of:

  • Politics
  • Work duties
  • Sports
  • Fraternal organizations
  • Friend and social circles

Instead, you may prefer to focus on a narrower scope of interests and a more limited group of important family members and friends.

Spiritual Tasks image

Spiritual tasks

These are likely to involve seeking ways to identify or formulate meaning for your life, your death, your suffering and your humanity. You may want to feel:

  • That your life is meaningful and thus worthwhile.
  • A sense of connectedness with others and with the divine or the transcendent in your life.
  • Some type of hope, whether religious or nonreligious.

In all of these tasks, there is no universal goal you have to achieve. There are no particular reactions or set phases that have to be lived through and no specific goal or type of closure that must be accomplished before death occurs. Dying is a part of living. Each of us has lived his or her life differently; so, too, each of us can die his or her death differently.

You may decide to accept your fate, spend time with those you love the most and "make peace with God." Or, you may decide, as Dylan Thomas wrote, to "rage, rage against the dying of the light."

For most of us, how we die is likely to be quite similar to how we have lived. For all of us, there is no prescribed path or preordained mold that we must follow or fit into in the critical time at the end of our lives.

Hope: overcoming the fear of dying

Hope is an essential part of life. Fear, especially the fear of death, can lead you to feel desolate and isolated, essentially hopeless. Things you care about might start to feel pointless and lose their sense of importance. Even if your death is imminent, however, it doesn’t have to be this way. Having hope doesn’t mean you don’t accept your death. You might still feel down or sad sometimes, but if you learn how to accept your death, you don’t need to completely lose hope. And by holding on to hope, you might find that your fear will start to fade.

One thing accepting your death can do for you is help you realize that you’re still alive now and are still able to make good use of the time you have left. It can help you stay grounded and focus on what you’re still able to do. The situation might change, so the shape of your hope is likely to be fluid and respond to the respond to the realities of your situation.

Hope has great therapeutic potential. It can help uplift our lives in difficult moments. Don’t let yourself or others tell you that you can no longer be hopeful when your death is imminent. It is important to make each day count. Here are some things for which you may remain hopeful:

  • That someone will (continue to) love and care for you.
  • That you can have your favorite food for dinner tonight.
  • To be able to see a favorite relative one more time, or possibly a person from whom you have been estranged for many years.
  • To live as long as you can or until a special birthday, anniversary, holiday or the birth of a new grandchild.
  • An outcome grounded in your spiritual or religious convictions.
  • A cure for your disease or illness, providing a better situation for your children or grandchildren.
  • To be more comfortable or less distressed as you continue your journey.
  • What are you hopeful for today?

Keep in mind that it is perfectly appropriate for you to hold onto many hopes at the same time, not all of which need be completely consistent. Acknowledging the imminence of your own death does not preclude hoping for something important to you in the future.

Time to Let Go image

Time to let go

Family members are often advised that a time might come when their loved one needs to end the struggle to hang on to life and seek relief in death. If that is true, then it is also true that dying persons may sometimes need to help those who want to hold onto them or who cannot bear the thought of their absence to recognize that the time has come, and it is now OK for them to let go.

When it is your time, you can let others know that is the case. In this way, you can teach family members and professional care providers about your needs and your tasks. And you can help them learn about their own mortality so they can live richer lives and face their own deaths more courageously when their time comes.

This permission-giving and these parting words all have to do with expressions of concern for others and attempting to make the bereavement and the ongoing lives of those you love easier. They are efforts to assist your survivors-to-be not only to survive your death but also to survive and cope effectively with the loss and grief they will inevitably experience after your death.

Having plans in order means gaining peace of mind. Contact us to get your free Personal Planning Guide.

Making end-of-life arrangements in advance

One important way you can give yourself and your loved ones peace of mind is by making funeral or cremation plans before they’re needed. End-of-life arrangements are among the biggest practical and financial burdens that surround a death. They involve a lot of decisions and can come with unexpected expenses, which can be especially hard to deal with after a death.

Pre-planning can give you the assurance that your loved ones won’t have to worry about what you would have wanted or how they will pay. What's more, Dignity Memorial® planning professionals understand the complex emotions you may be feeling around your own death and are always ready to guide you. 

This article was written by Charles A. Corr, Ph.D., CT, and Dona M. Corr, RN, MS in Nursing. Charles A. Corr, PhD, CT, is professor emeritus, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and a member of the board of directors of The Hospice Institute of the Florida Suncoast. Donna M. Corr, RN, MS in Nursing, is a former professor of nursing, St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. Chuck and Donna have been teaching in the field of death, dying and bereavement for over 30 years.

They are both long-term members of the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement, where Chuck was chairperson from 1989-1993. Between them, the Corrs’ publications include more than 30 books and booklets, as well as over 100 articles and chapters, including the 6th edition of Death and Dying, Life and Living (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009), co-authored with Clyde M. Nabe.