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Gratitude in the Face of Death

Updated on April 10, 2014

Unexpected Teacher

I learned about true generosity and gratitude in a way I wouldn't have expected. When my daughter needed to earn volunteer credits for high school, I selfishly thought this would be the perfect opportunity to spend time together. I had volunteered for Hospice in another county years before and had a wonderful experience, so volunteering for Hospice in our area seemed like a natural thing to do.

My daughter loves to bake, and when we learned of an opportunity to work the coffee cart, which required taking baked goods and coffee to patients’ rooms, we knew the job was a perfect fit. She could bake and, little did we know at the time, we both would be making a small impact on the day of the patients and their families and, even more surprisingly, they would be impacting our lives.

One wouldn't think that a cup of coffee and a cookie could hold much power; oh, but it does! The gratitude we encountered was startling. Family members and even patients regularly thanked us with genuine heartfelt sincerity. How could a simple cup of coffee and a couple cookies, albeit pretty good cookies, deserve this level of gratitude?

We became apparent that families were often spending hours sitting in the rooms with their loved ones, and the coffee offered a much needed break or distraction. Sometimes they hadn't eaten in hours, and the baked goods would tide them over, giving them a little more time by their loved one's side. We were honored to be able to give even this smallest respite during this difficult time.

But it was the gratitude of the patients that was the most remarkable. How could someone who may only have days left to live feel grateful for anything. Shouldn't they be angry, sad, or maybe even feel entitled – who could be more entitled to eat a cookie than someone who is dying? Maybe they did feel these things, but when they were offered coffee and baked goods they expressed gratitude, even when they declined the offer.

I remember walking into the room of one particular patient. She was sitting up in bed, but her face was pale, her voice was weak, and her hair was completely gone. My daughter and I poured coffee for some family members that were sitting with her; she declined, and then said something in a low, weak voice. She said that before I could leave, I was to take a rose from the beautiful arraignment sitting across the room. I momentarily thought of refusing - we weren't allowed to accept gifts - but two startling thoughts suddenly occurred to me. Sadly, the roses would probably outlive her, and, even more heartbreaking, this could be one of the lasts gifts she may ever be able to give.

Why during this time was she offering me this rose,this small token of her gratitude?


Gratitude and Dying

It turns out that gratitude actually lessens death anxiety. Death anxiety is a negative emotional reaction to one’s mortality or the process of death that and said to affect 10-15% of the population. It often stems from the inability to accept one’s own mortality and the idea that you may cease to exist one day.

For the individuals that suffer from death anxiety, the unknowns associated with death can give rise to many concerns. What happens when I die? Will I suffer? Will my family be ok? Regrets can exacerbate anxiety. Regrets of not fulfilling your life’s purpose. Regrets from not living a full life. Regrets from not accomplishing everything you wanted to accomplish.

Research has demonstrated that people who have a positive view of their lives with increased life satisfaction and purpose have a lesser degree of death anxiety. Gratitude has been shown to increase life satisfaction and, therefore, lessens death anxiety.

Research on Death and Gratitude

The mere thought of death can create great anxiety in some individuals. Feeling dread at the thought of death or the process of dying is understandable, but what might be surprising is that gratitude has been shown to alleviate these fears. In one study, 83 Chinese older adults were randomly assigned into one of three categories: gratitude, hassle, or neutral. They were to write about life events corresponding to these conditions and then respond to measures of death anxiety. Interestingly, the people in the gratitude group reported lower death anxiety compared to the other two groups.

Another study showed that reflecting on death enhances gratitude. In this study, 116 participants were randomly assigned to one of three categories: death reflection, traditional mortality salience, or control. The participant’s emotional state (including gratitude) was measured both before and after the tests. They then completed a number of questionnaires that were used to evaluate the effects.

The death reflection group was asked to read a death scenario (waking up in a burning building to sounds of screams and smell of smoke) and answer four open ended questions concerning the situation they read about: what emotions did they feel, how would they handle their final moments, a description of their life up to this point, and how their family would react if this happened.

The mortality salience group weren't given a scenario to read, but were only asked to describe in detail their thoughts, feelings, and emotions experienced when thinking about their own death.

The control group was given a non-death scenario to read (typical mundane day) and were asked similar questions to the death reflection s group: what emotions did they feel, how would they handle the situation, a description of their life up to this point, and how their family would react to this scenario.

The participants were then evaluated by a series of other tests to determine their level of gratitude.

The death reflection group showed a significant increase in gratitude. The salience group showed a non-significant increase in gratitude and the control show a slight decrease but it was not significant either.

These two studies seem to indicate gratitude and death acceptance/anxiety may be circular in nature. Gratitude can reduce death anxiety and reflection on death can increase gratitude.

Feelings on Death

Does thinking about your own death make you feel:

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But in the end...

In my case with the woman and the rose, it didn’t really matter if she was using gratitude to accept her own death or was expressing gratitude because she had been reflecting on her impending death. What mattered was that she was a sweet woman and her kindness in the most difficult of times inspired me to be more grateful in my own life.


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    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Having recently been at the side of a dying loved one, this makes a lot of sense. In our case, the one close to death was unconscious, and unable to respond to the expressions of gratitude that came from her family as they realized that she would soon leave this world. For me, it has given me cause to reflect on both her life, and my own, and look for the good that is around me, as one day, like her, I will no longer be here.


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