Talk About Death

“Talk About Death” says chapter heading 41 in Irvin D. Yalom’s The Gift of Therapy.

Why does Yalom say this? Consideration of death provides us an opportunity for growth.

This conclusion arises from two observations. First, he says that behind many of our problems is the subconscious awareness of death. Concerns about the transitions of life are often about the shortness of life. Instead of letting it be an undercurrent, we can make it explicit and gain wisdom by considering the shortness of our lives.

Second, he observed that those who were facing death often made the greatest progress in therapy. He did therapy with cancer patients who were facing death, and he was amazed at how quickly insights about life would come to them in contrast to other patients who took so much longer to really confront key issues in their lives.

One explanation for why this is the case is what the philosopher Martin Heidegger called two modes of existence: the everyday mode and the ontological mode. In the every day mode, we consider the events of our everyday life. In the ontological mode, we ask questions about being itself. Growth occurs when we step into the ontological mode.

I might re-phrase it this way: our normal way of thinking is to look at the small picture. In order to grow, we need to look at the big picture and ask questions like: why am I here? What is my purpose? What really matters? What is my relationship to God?

The specter of death has a way of helping us move into the ontological or big picture mode. This is where growth occurs.

So, do we need to wait until we are dying to ask big picture questions? Of course, we do not, but it’s hard for us to move out of the small picture, every day mode. So, how can we move into the big picture mode? How do we help others do the same?

Yalom notes that there are many events in our lives that present opportunities for considering the bigger picture: the death of a spouse, children leaving home, retirement, a move to another place. These things have a way of stripping away temporary things that we rely on and opening the possibility for deeper questions. Though these events can be sad or challenging, we can also see them as opportunities.

Yalom did a study that illustrates this point. He studied a number of spouses who had lost a spouse to death. He found that many of them went beyond returning to their pre-loss emotional levels. A fourth to a third of them went on to greater levels of maturity and growth.

This reminds me of the advice of King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (7:2).

Not only the therapist, but the minister, the Christian, and anyone trying to make their way through the world should not avoid the subject but talk about death.


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