Our world has changed dramatically since May 25. The illness and death numbers from the coronavirus pandemic was pervasive news until George Floyd’s death. Then it was police brutality, deadly encounters and protests dominating the news cycle. All of these topics make us more aware of our mortality. The official term is mortality salience.
According to Ernest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, we as humans are busy trying to ignore the fact that we are all going to die. This thought strikes terror in our psyches.
To manage this terror, we seek immortality with our beliefs and actions, or we try to put it out of mind. In my opinion, this is why less than 30% of adults do any end-of-life planning.
Becker said, “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” How can we understand our reactions to this “rumble of terror,” this constant awareness of our mortality during this pandemic?
Webinar on Covid-19 and Mortality Salience
The Ernest Becker Foundation recently held a webinar to discuss the current pandemic with three researchers who study mortality and human behavior: Sheldon Solomon, Lindsey Harvell-Bowman, and Kenneth Vail. They provide brilliant insights into what we are feeling and why.
Watch the webinar:
Sheldon Solomon is Professor of Psychology at Skidmore College. He, along with Jeff Greenberg (University of Arizona) and Tom Pyszczynski (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs) is the co-creator of Terror Management Theory (TMT). TMT explores the effects of the uniquely human awareness of death on individual and social behavior, and has been supported by the National Science Foundation. Sheldon was featured in the award winning documentary film Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality. He is co-author of In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror and The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Sheldon is an American Psychological Society Fellow, and a recipient of an American Psychological Association Presidential Citation (2007), a Lifetime Career Award by the International Society for Self and Identity (2009), and the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs Annual Faculty Award (2011).
Lindsey A. Harvell-Bowman is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication Studies and the Department of Psychology at James Madison University (JMU). Her research looks at the psychological effects of thinking about our own mortality (Terror Management Theory), and how death reminders can be manipulated to increase persuasion in advertising and messaging, particularly with regards to political communication. She has done research for airports exploring the relationship between death awareness, flight anxiety, and flyers’ consumer behavior and well-being. She is the author of many academic research articles, and is the editor of Denying Death: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Terror Management Theory. At JMU she leads the Terror Management Lab (or “Death Lab”), comprised of undergraduate and graduate students conducting research centered around Terror Management Theory. The lab examines a variety of topics such as suicide, social death, and election messaging.
Kenneth Vail is a Social Psychologist and Professor at Cleveland State University, where he directs the Social Psychology & Existential Attitudes Research (SPEAR) Laboratory. He is also the founder and President of the International Society for the Science of Existential Psychology. Dr. Vail’s research is focused on existential psychology, including the consequences of humans’ awareness of their own mortality, autonomy, and choice freedom, and the influence of these existential concerns on cultural activity, personal growth, and both physical and mental health. He writes pop-science articles about existential psychology research for Tree of Life at Psychology Today and has published dozens of peer-reviewed research articles and scholarly works, including The Science of Religion, Spirituality, and Existentialism. At Cleveland State University, Dr. Vail has earned awards (e.g., Golden Apple Award; Outstanding Teaching Awards) for his work teaching and mentoring across a variety of domains in psychological science.
Ways to Cope
Daily, we are being reminded of death. How are you reacting? If you are struggling, there are many resources available on the internet to help. One is the online festival, Reimagine: Life, Loss and Love, happening now through July 9, 2020.
A Good Goodbye is collaborating with event hosts around the world to co-create Reimagine: Life, Loss & Love, a Worldwide Virtual Festival on embracing life, facing death, and loving fully, during COVID-19. On June 24, I’m hosting Kicking The Bucket List: What You Need to Do Before You Die. Hope you’ll join in this 90-minute event for a mere $5. You can also peruse all festival events at Reimagine’s Worldwide Virtual Festival Calendar.