If I told you to imagine that you had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and then asked you to write about your fictional life, your words would likely be dark, helpless and regretful. You might talk about the fear that you were feeling, either about leaving this world or the people that you would be leaving behind. Or, you might share your regrets about all of the things you wish you had done while you had the time.

But, here’s the thing. According to a recent study by Amelia Goranson (University of North Carolina), Ryan S. Ritter (University of Illinois) and others, the feelings of people who actually have a terminal illness are significantly more positive then the feelings of people who imagine that they have a terminal illness – at least in terms of how they communicate these feelings through their writing.

A similar study, organized by the same team of researchers, found that the last words of inmates on death-row were more positive than the last words of people who imagined that they were in this situation.

Why is the Fear of Death Worse Than Reality? A Few Theories…

According to these researchers, there were several possible reasons that our imagined deaths may be worse than our real deaths.

For starters, they argue that when people are looking into the future they tend to think about negative events in isolation, ignoring the greater context. For example, if you think about what your life would be like if you were diagnosed with a terminal illness, you might assume that your condition would be all-consuming. In reality, you would still have a life beyond your illness. Your passions, religious beliefs, friendships and hobbies would still be there for you.

As one of the researchers, Kurt Grey, said:

“We talk all the time about how physically adaptable we are, but we’re also mentally adaptable. We can be happy in prison, in hospital, and we can be happy at the edge of death as well.” – Kurt Grey

Next, the researchers discussed the idea that, when imagining a bad situation in the future, people tend to focus only on the negative aspects of their imagined world. While having a terminal illness is indeed tragic on many levels, it can bring you closer to friends and family and may even strengthen your spiritual beliefs. These positive aspects of dying, while overshadowed by our mortality, help to keep us balanced emotionally.

Finally, while it was not mentioned in the write-up for the study, another possibility is that imagining one’s own death does not allow us to go through the stages of grieving as we would in real life.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who I worked with when I was a young woman, described the 5 stages of dying as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It is entirely possible, from a psychological perspective, that we are unable to reach “acceptance” without actually facing our mortality in real life.

In a follow-up interview, Gray appeared to support this idea, saying:

“Individuals facing imminent death have had more time to process the idea of death and dying, and therefore, may be more accepting of the inevitability of death. They also have a very good idea about how they are going to die, which may bring some sense of peace or acceptance.” – Kurt Gray

Is it Time to Let Go of Some of Our Fears About Death?

As I wrote in a previous article, our fear of death is actually more complicated than it seems on the surface. Yes, some people do worry about “no longer being” but many people are more concerned about the process or dying, the people that they will leave behind, the existence of the afterlife or one of many other concerns.

While this study won’t address all of our fears about dying, perhaps it can give us a little comfort to know that, when we arrive at death’s doorstep, we will be more emotionally prepared to deal with it than we think we are.

Like everyone before us, we will adapt to our situation, no matter how scary. We will make the most of it and, hopefully, reconcile with ourselves, our family and our spiritual side.

What do you think about this study? Were you surprised to find out that our imagined deaths are much scarier than the reality? Why or why not?