Taking a Personal Death Inventory

| Grief Expert and Counselor

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Personal Death InventoryWhen I looked at the body of my seventy year old father in the casket, I had two distinct thoughts:

1. He was now in the state of physical existence that we call dead.

2. At the moment, I was physically alive but moving toward death.

These two thoughts were difficult to entertain at the same time. In fact, throughout the week of my father’s funeral, I found my thoughts racing between death and life. My emotional and psychological balance was nonexistent. I finally concluded that there needs to be a significant amount of time thinking about death and life.



Too often a person only thinks about being dead when someone is dying, because most people do not like to think about death. Thoughts of personal death are even more unpleasant and undesirable. Yet a small amount of time given to thoughts of personal mortality could improve an individual’s quality of life. As one woman stated: “When I think that I could die any time, I hug my children and tell them I love them today because tomorrow I may not have the chance.”

We have a saying in our home: I hope I never become so attached to life that I can’t give it up. Is it possible that people think too little about death and too much about life? Would the quality of life be better if we knew when we were going to die? Seven year old Alan K. said in Good Housekeeping, March 1979, “God doesn’t tell you when you are going to die because he wants it to be a big surprise.” If a person knows the exact time of death, he can make plans; but, does he want to? Along with this, a person might or might not want to know how he is going to die.



Fear is another important consideration. One man said: “I don’t fear death. I fear the unknown.” For some people, death is the unknown. However, death can also be a transition into the next life. Religious faith can help in understanding the transition into the next life and overcoming the fear of the unknown.



Making a decision about the future in the form of a will, life insurance, or the disposal of the body, forces one to think about death. Thinking about death also hinders the advances of two “grief enemies”: denial and avoidance.



How to dispose of the body forces one to think about surviving family members. The family needs to see the body in the “dead” state so they can begin the grief process. Without a viewing of the body, surviving family members may not grieve properly, and this is a very important part of the healing and living process.

Now may also be the time to plan on whether or not there should be an autopsy. In certain instances it is not required by law, but in most cases it helps the survivors understand why a person died. This understanding can also start the grief process in a positive manner.



Learning to confront death, although not pleasant, is a necessary part of life. After watching his son die, one man said to me: “No one can watch death overtake another human being without being changed.” Change and growth are what life and death thrive upon. Although we do not like to think about death, some time should be given to it; then, put it aside and get on with enjoying life.



In order to enhance your own death awareness, these questions have been developed. If answered honestly, they will help in the grief process by making your death awareness very personal.

1. How often do you think about the possibility of your own death?

2. Do you think too little or too much about death?

3. If you knew the exact time of death, what would you do? How would you feel?

4. If you knew how you would die, what would you do?

5. What do you fear about death? Why?

6. Why is having a will and life insurance important for facing death?

7. How do you feel about an autopsy?

8. In what manner would you like to dispose of your body?

9. When was the last time you saw a dead person? When was the last time you saw a person die? How did you feel at either time?

10. Briefly describe how you would like to die.


Canine, J. D. (1990) I Can I Will: Maximum Living Bereavement Support Group Guide. Birmingham, Michigan. Ball Publishers.


| Grief Expert and Counselor

Dr. John D. Canine, Ed.D., Ph.D. is a noted author, professional speaker, educator and leading expert on grief and bereavement. He is currently the CEO of Maximum Living Consultants, Inc. and he...