Although thinking about dying can cause considerable angst, new research suggests that the actual emotional experiences of the dying are more positive than you would expect.
"When we imagine our emotions as we approach death, we think mostly of sadness and terror," said Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, US.
"But it turns out, dying is less sad and terrifying -- and happier -- than you think," Gray said.
The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that we focus disproportionately on the negative emotions caused by dying, without considering the broader context of everyday life.
The researchers analysed the emotional content of blog posts from terminally ill patients who were dying of either cancer or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
For comparison, the researchers asked a group of online participants to imagine that they had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and to write a blog post, keeping in mind that they had only a few months to live.
Using a computer-based algorithm, the researchers analysed the actual and imagined blog posts for words that described negative and positive emotions, such as "fear", "terror", "anxiety", "happiness", and "love."
The results revealed that blog posts from individuals who were terminally ill included considerably more positive emotion words and fewer negative emotion words than did those written by participants who simply imagined they were dying.
Looking at the patients' blog posts over time, the researchers also found that their use of positive emotion words actually increased as they neared death, while their use of negative emotion words did not.
The researchers conducted similar analyses comparing the last words of inmates on death row with the poetry of death-row inmates and the imagined last words of another group of online participants.
Again, they found that the words of those who were actually close to death were less negative and more positive in emotional tone than the words of those who were not close to death.
Both the terminally ill patients and the inmates facing execution seemed to focus on things that help us make meaning of life, including religion and family, suggesting that such things may help to quell anxiety about death as it approaches.