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Abstract

Writing one’s own obituary is a technique rooted in the theoretical/philosophical principles of existential-humanistic psychology that has long been endorsed by existential-humanistic psychologists for its value in promoting second-order change (existential liberation) and self-cultivation. These processes are pertinent for emerging adults, for whom a principal developmental task is self-authorship (transitioning out of uncritically following external formulas learned in childhood and toward making internally based decisions to meet the demands of complex work roles and interpersonal intimacy as adults). To date, literature on obituary writing has been limited to a half-dozen sources, none of which offer formal investigations of its process mechanisms/dynamics. This study provides research support for the technique’s theoretical underpinnings and contextualizes its effectiveness as demonstrated in extant case studies in order to preserve its integrity in the current evidence-based practice zeitgeist. In this study, 22 emerging adults in a college course completed obituaries and reflections on the lived experience thereof. Thematic and summative content analyses were used to assess the thematic content included in the obituaries and the process by which the participants made sense of the act of writing them. Findings suggest that, in this sample, consistent with extant theorizing and informal observations, the experience of completing one’s own obituary begins with emotional discomfort followed by a transformative shift in the direction of a greater sense of acceptance, appreciation, and awe toward the possibilities of living the life one envisions. Finally, connections with and contributions to the emerging adulthood literature and suggestions for further inquiry are discussed.
The Humanistic Psychologist
The Existential Obituary Writing Technique for
Emerging Adults: Thematic and Content Analyses
Andrew M. Bland
Online First Publication, April 9, 2020. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/hum0000176
CITATION
Bland, A. M. (2020, April 9). The Existential Obituary Writing Technique for Emerging Adults:
Thematic and Content Analyses. The Humanistic Psychologist. Advance online publication.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/hum0000176
The Existential Obituary Writing Technique for
Emerging Adults: Thematic and
Content Analyses
Andrew M. Bland
Millersville University
Writing one’s own obituary is a technique rooted in the theoretical/philosophical principles
of existential-humanistic psychology that has long been endorsed by existential-humanistic
psychologists for its value in promoting second-order change (existential liberation) and
self-cultivation. These processes are pertinent for emerging adults, for whom a principal
developmental task is self-authorship (transitioning out of uncritically following external
formulas learned in childhood and toward making internally based decisions to meet the
demands of complex work roles and interpersonal intimacy as adults). To date, literature on
obituary writing has been limited to a half-dozen sources, none of which offer formal
investigations of its process mechanisms/dynamics. This study provides research support for
the technique’s theoretical underpinnings and contextualizes its effectiveness as demon-
strated in extant case studies in order to preserve its integrity in the current evidence-based
practice zeitgeist. In this study, 22 emerging adults in a college course completed obituaries
and reflections on the lived experience thereof. Thematic and summative content analyses
were used to assess the thematic content included in the obituaries and the process by which
the participants made sense of the act of writing them. Findings suggest that, in this sample,
consistent with extant theorizing and informal observations, the experience of completing
one’s own obituary begins with emotional discomfort followed by a transformative shift in
the direction of a greater sense of acceptance, appreciation, and awe toward the possibilities
of living the life one envisions. Finally, connections with and contributions to the emerging
adulthood literature and suggestions for further inquiry are discussed.
Keywords: obituary writing, emerging adulthood, second-order change (existential libera-
tion), self-authorship, thematic analysis
The most deeply meaningful and vital occasions of our lives are
often those that unrelentingly force us to confront contingency,
Thanks to Drs. Kirk Schneider, Kand McQueen, and Eugene DeRobertis for providing
consultation on this article.
This article is adapted from my presentation, “A Validation of the Effectiveness of the
Existential Obituary Writing Technique,” delivered in May 2017 at the 4th Annual Conference of
the Society for Qualitative Inquiry in Psychology (Section 3 of Division 5 of the American
Psychological Association) in New York, New York.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to XAndrew M. Bland, Depart-
ment of Psychology, Millersville University, Susan P. Luek Hall, Room 223-A, P.O. Box 1002,
Millersville, PA 17551. E-mail: andrew.bland@millersville.edu
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
The Humanistic Psychologist
© 2020 American Psychological Association 2020, Vol. 2, No. 999, 000– 000
ISSN: 0887-3267 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/hum0000176
1
responsibility, absurdity, loneliness, and that ultimate and inexora-
ble end of our familiar being to which we each must give the name,
“my death.”—Jim Bugental (1973–1974, p. 163)
Authentic living is contingent upon actively maintaining an awareness of one’s death.
Reflecting on death provides opportunities to (a) clarify one’s values, worldview, and
beliefs; (b) overcome self-preoccupation by consciously questioning one’s habitual pro-
clivities; (c) develop a greater sense of compassion and interdependence by recognizing
death’s universality; and (d) appreciate the preciousness and the fragility of life. Taken
together, these contribute to a greater propensity to take one’s life less for granted and/or
as something to be gotten through and instead to engage in it fully and responsibly
(Ostaseski, 2017).
The Obituary Writing Technique
Writing one’s own obituary is a technique rooted in the theoretical/philosophical
principles of existential-humanistic psychology and has long been endorsed by existential-
humanistic psychologists (Bugental, 1973–1974; Schneider, 2008) for its value as a
therapeutic tool both in the context of conventional counseling and for facilitating
personal growth in general. Clients or students (either in an individual or group setting)
are asked to write their own obituary, either in session or for homework. During
debriefing, clients/students engage in dialogue with their therapist, instructor, or facilitator
(and, if applicable, group) regarding the experience of writing and subsequently discuss-
ing the obituary.
Promoting Second-Order Change (Existential Liberation)
Consistent with existential-humanistic therapy’s focus upon transformation of self and
existential liberation (Schneider & Krug, 2017), obituary writing may be classified as a
strategy that promotes second-order change—that is, a deep restructuring of self that
results in long-term, core-level shifts in and expansions of one’s perspective of oneself,
one’s lifeworld, and one’s concerns (Bland, 2013; 2019; Fraser & Solovey, 2007; Hanna,
Giordano, Dupuy, & Puhakka, 1995; Murray, 2002). Second-order change entails actively
creating a new way of being by identifying and remediating underacknowledged and
underactualized capacities within oneself to bring life domains into balance and to commit
to a more promising future despite the inevitability of limitations beyond one’s control
(Schneider & Krug, 2017). Accordingly, the process of growth becomes self-reinforcing
(Maslow, 1999) and can prevent mental health symptoms, addictive, compulsive, and
disruptive behavior patterns, and physical diseases (Bland, 2013; Maté, 2003, 2010).
Promoting Self-Cultivation via Existential Learning
Obituary writing is intended to promote individuals’ ability to experience themselves
as alive in the here-and-now (in the short term) and to awaken the plausibility of their
living more fully and in accordance with their values (in the long term). Bugental
(1973–1974) observed that the exercise (a) provides a safe platform for clients/students to
sit with uncomfortable emotions and openly address difficult topics; (b) prompts clients/
students to appraise and potentially reconsider their involvement in superficial activities
that distract from those difficult topics and emotions (i.e., experiential avoidance); (c)
inspires hope, fulfillment, renewal, and refreshed perspectives on their lives and experi-
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2 BLAND
ences; and (d) promotes attunement to their values, life goals, and relationships as well as
a sense of responsibility to commit to necessary changes.
Inviting individuals to directly confront the reality of their mortality provides an
opportunity for existential learning, in which “something about a person’s life circum-
stances [is] changed such that [one] cannot go on as before” (DeRobertis, 2017, p. 43). In
turn, a sense of revitalizing intentionality (May, 1969; Schneider & Krug, 2017) is sparked
which spurs a process of self-transcendence and self-cultivation that employs the creative
imagination to shape one’s developmental trajectory (DeRobertis, 2017; DeRobertis &
Bland, 2019).
Promoting Self-Authorship for Emerging Adults
The second-order change and self-cultivation processes are particularly relevant for
emerging adults, for whom a principal developmental task is self-authorship (Baxter
Magolda & Taylor, 2016). This entails a continuous recursive process of transitioning out
of uncritically following external formulas learned during childhood and toward making
internally based decisions to meet the demands of complex work roles and interpersonal
intimacy as adults.
Extant Literature
Searches of EBSCO and Google Scholar databases in November 2019 showed that, to
date, literature on the obituary writing technique has been limited to a half-dozen sources,
most of which have concentrated on endorsing the value and intended outcome of the
technique (Bugental, 1973–1974; Ihanus, 2005; LaBelle, 1987; Oppawsky, 2002) and on
offering procedural instructions (Bugental, 1973–1974; Schneider, 2008). Two articles
have offered case illustrations as idiographic evidence of the technique’s effectiveness
(LaBelle, 1987; Oppawsky, 2002). Moreover, Shneidman (1972) explored the content of
obituaries written by college students.
Obituary writing provides an opportunity to view oneself objectively by being placed in a
position in which one must face one’s finiteness (Shneidman, 1972). In addition, the reflective
process of obituary writing is conducive to enhancing openness to experience and to change.
Underdeveloped areas of experience are not only expressed but also explored, and primary and
secondary processes integrated, as one communicates with one’s “internal supervisor” (Ihanus,
2005, p. 72). This promotes greater sensitivity to one’s body, identity, and areas for personal
and professional development as well as self-esteem and self-efficacy. “Self-revision is built
on juxtaposing one’s body of the past and one’s ‘potentiality-for-Being,’ coming toward
oneself, in the present of writing” (Ihanus, 2005, p. 71).
Bugental (1973–1974) provided basic theoretical considerations and procedural in-
structions for the technique as part of a collection of strategies for confronting one’s
mortality in a personal growth group context, which were slightly expanded in an
appendix in Schneider’s (2008) Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy textbook. Bugental
proposed that the exercise brings attention to how much of one’s day-to-day pursuits are
relatively meaningless, especially when one engages in compulsive activity as a means of
experiential avoidance. Accordingly, he observed that his group participants reported
“finding refreshed perspectives on their own lives and especially on their values and
choices about their relationships and activities” (p. 162).
Narrative case studies have demonstrated the technique’s effectiveness with clients in
various settings and phases of the life span. First, LaBelle (1987) reflected on the case of
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3EXISTENTIAL OBITUARY WRITING
an adolescent male who completed the exercise in a residential treatment facility and
concluded that it prompts adolescents to actively imagine what they want out of life. This
can be particularly empowering for those who have not previously considered life goals
or realized that they even have options for fashioning their lives in the first place. Second,
in talking about an elderly widow who completed obituary writing as part of individual
bereavement therapy, Oppawsky (2002) focused on how, for older adults, the technique
can help individuals make meaning of past or present circumstances or events and
therefore disrupt dysfunctional behaviors, beget self-discovery, help clients recognize new
options, and thus foster motivation for change. Further, obituary writing can be useful for
middle-aged and older adults as a tool for life review and reassessment (LaBelle, 1987),
it can be implemented at various phases of the therapeutic process (LaBelle, 1987;
Oppawsky, 2002), and it is applicable to all social classes (LaBelle, 1987).
Finally, Shneidman (1972) analyzed and reported typical themes in obituaries written
by over 100 college students who were enrolled in a course on the topic of death, the
findings of which will be discussed later in this article in relation to those of the current
study. However, his contextual focus was not so much to explore obituary writing
specifically as a technique but rather with the more general intent of challenging the notion
pervasive in U.S. society that discussing death is “ghoulish” (p. 267).
Purpose of This Study
During the new millennium, existential-humanistic psychologists have made calls for
more research (beyond philosophical argument alone) to support existential-humanistic
theorizing and therapeutic techniques (Criswell, 2003; DeRobertis, 2016; Fischer, 2003;
Wong, 2017b) in the interest of keeping the existential-humanistic movement alive and
relevant for new generations and not becoming relegated to the status of a historical relic
(DeRobertis, 2013). Despite therapists’ use of the obituary writing technique for several
decades and its occasional inclusion in workbooks and websites offering therapeutic and
self-development activities (Stanford Graduate School of Business, n.d.; Valentine, 2017),
research on the technique remains wanting beyond the pair of case studies summarized
above. To date, there has been no formal investigation of its process mechanisms and
dynamics. Therefore, this study helps fill that void by providing research support for the
technique’s theoretical underpinnings and contextualizing its effectiveness as demon-
strated in the extant literature in the interest of preserving its integrity in the current
evidence-based practice zeitgeist.
Method
Data Collection
This research evolved out of a class assignment completed by students enrolled in my
upper-division undergraduate psychology course at a mid-Atlantic state university. Al-
though this assignment was not originally intended as research, I found the students’
responses worthy of dissemination insofar as they ultimately provided meaningful insight
regarding the process mechanisms/dynamics of the obituary writing technique (as dis-
cussed above). The students’ responses also reflected a description by existential-
humanistic psychologist Kirk Schneider (personal communication, April 2017) of his own
clients’ responses to the exercise which affirmed the relevance of the findings. Accord-
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4 BLAND
ingly, I sought and received approval from my institution’s Institutional Review Board as
well as informed consent from the individual students to analyze and publish their
responses in de-identified form. To prevent coercion, informed consent was sought after
the semester had concluded and grades had been submitted. All but one of the students
consented for their assignments to be used as research data. The exception was a student
who did not respond to the request for informed consent; accordingly, that student’s
assignment simply was not included in the analyses.
During the ninth week of a 16-week semester, I was traveling and could not teach
class. Rather than merely cancel class, the obituary writing exercise and a reflective
journal on that experience were given as a homework assignment in lieu of meeting for
class. The assignment was adapted from Bugental (1973–1974) and Schneider (2008).
Instructions were printed on a double-sided sheet of paper, which was folded and placed
in an envelope I presented to each student at the conclusion of the class meeting prior to
the missed day of class. The students were asked to not open the envelope or view the
contents until they were ready to devote an hour to completing the assignment alone in a
distraction-free setting.
The front side of the instructions read as follows:
One of these days—it could be tomorrow, 3 years from now, 30 years from now, or 63 years
from now—you will die. Someone, somewhere, will open a newspaper or browse the web (or
whatever is around at that time) and find and read your obituary. What do you want it to say
about you?
Part 1
Please go to a quiet, private room. Turn off all potential distractions (phones, computers,
music, etc.). Take 5 min (no more or less than that, please). Imagine that you are someone who
knows you quite well, and it is that person’s task to write the obituary of a person who has
just died (that person being you).
Part 2
Now take 20 min (no more than that, please). Write a bit about the life of the person who has
died—not just what they did, but mostly something of the meaning of their life. What did that
person do with the fact of having been alive? What did that person’s life all add up to, as best
as you can say in a few words?
Please keep the obituary to no less than three fourths of a page but no more than 1 page
(double spaced).
Go to the next page. However, please wait until you gave completed Parts 1 and 2.
The instructions for the reflection portion of the assignment were printed on the back:
Part 3
Now, take another 25–30 min. Write a 2-page reflection on the experience of writing your
obituary. Please do not overthink your responses. Just write down the first things that come
to mind.
yWhat feelings did it bring up for you?
yDid your feelings shift as you completed the exercise? If so, how?
yWhat bodily sensations did you experience as you completed the exercise?
yBehaviorally, what did you find yourself doing as you completed the exercise?
yWhat thoughts did it bring up?
yAny memories and/or visions of the future?
yHow easy or hard was it to come up with what to say?
yTo say it all in 20 min? To get it all in three fourths to 1 page?
yIn what ways did you find this exercise affirming?
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5EXISTENTIAL OBITUARY WRITING
yIn what ways do you see yourself differently having completed the exercise?
yWhat adjustments or changes do you see yourself wanting or needing to make in your life
based on having completed this exercise? What plans do you have to accomplish that life
goal?
Participants
After removing two assignments completed by (a) the aforementioned student who did
not respond to the request for informed consent and (b) a student who, at 35 years old, was
beyond the age range for emerging adulthood (18 to 25 years; Arnett, 2000), the final N
was 22 students, all in their early 20s. Twenty (91%) of the students were third- and
fourth-year psychology majors, and two students (9%) were third- and fourth-year
psychology minors (one majoring in English and one in sociology/criminology). Eighteen
(82%) of the students were female, and four (18%) were male. The majority were White
(n17, 77%), plus two (9%) Black, two (9%) Latinx, and one (5%) multiracial.
Interestingly, several (n6, 27%) of the students identified in their assignments that
they previously had been diagnosed with and/or treated for mental health conditions.
These included anxiety (n1, 5%), depression (n3, 14%), and substance abuse (n
2, 9%).
Thematic Analysis
The purpose of this research was not to prove or disprove hypotheses but rather to
generate qualitative data that addresses the principal research questions of (a) what
thematic content the students included in their obituaries and (b) how the students made
sense of the act of writing their obituary by reflecting on the lived experience of having
done so. Thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) was used to highlight meaningful
patterns (Clarke & Braun, 2014; Joffe, 2012) that appeared in the students’ obituaries and
reflections, which, taken together, formulate a logical story (Tuckett, 2005) that maintains
fidelity to the students’ lived experiences and subjective realities (Joffe, 2012).
Deductive and inductive thematic analyses. The students’ obituaries and reflec-
tions were analyzed separately. For both sets of writing, thematic analysis was used
deductively—that is, situating the analysis in relation to extant literature (Aronson, 1995;
Braun, Clarke, & Rance, 2014)—with existential-humanistic theorizing serving as a
guiding framework for initially organizing the data. Specifically, emphasis was given to
how the students’ writing reflected existential-humanistic literature on values, develop-
mental processes, and on self-growth via confronting one’s mortality. In addition, the
content of the students’ obituaries was compared with that reported in Shneidman’s (1972)
aforementioned research.
Thereafter, consistent with Joffe’s (2012) observation that, realistically, one concur-
rently uses deductive and inductive analyses, themes were inductively demarcated. Cod-
ing and analysis were principally conducted at the semantic and essentialist levels (i.e.,
taking the students’ words at face value; Braun & Clarke, 2006), though occasionally
latent meanings (i.e., those derived by “examining underlying ideas, assumptions, and
conceptualizations,” Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 84) were highlighted. These included, for
example, some of the dialectics in the students’ narratives.
Procedure. My initial exposure to the data involved reviewing the assignments
during the semester they were completed. At that point, being in “teacher mode,” my focus
was providing relevant feedback to the individual students’ narratives via Track Changes
(the journals having been submitted as Word documents). Several months later, the
comments were removed, and each assignment was reread with fresh eyes in “researcher
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6 BLAND
mode.” (This constituted the first phase of Braun & Clarke’s [2006] steps to thematic
analysis, familiarizing yourself with the data.) During yet another reading, I provided
initial codes based on how the students’ writing corresponded to the specific questions in
the assignment. Next, I extracted (i.e., copied and pasted) portions of the individual
assignments into a new, composite Word document and reflexively coded material that
illustrated existential theorizing and/or that reflected or challenged extant literature on the
technique. I also reviewed the Track Changes comments that had been removed and
worked in relevant interpretative comments for the latent themes. (This constituted the
second phase, generating initial codes.)
From there, I maneuvered and reorganized the material in accordance with the initial
coding and began collating the coded data into potential themes. (This constituted the third
phase, searching for themes.) Next, extraneous writing was removed, some data were
occasionally recoded, some themes were consolidated into broader overarching categories
in cases where there was substantial overlap (i.e., “splicing and linking,” Joffe & Yardley,
2004, p. 61), and some information was split into separate themes when conceptual
elaboration was in order. Throughout this phase, a recursive and “organic” (Braun et al.,
2014, p. 190) process of coding and deriving themes from the data was used in lieu of a
predetermined coding system until I believed that the themes both stood well on their own
and cogently addressed the research questions (Clarke & Braun, 2014). (This constituted
the fourth phase, reviewing themes.)
Once the themes were thoroughly reviewed and finalized, they were mapped in
relation to each other to form a coherent sequential narrative and provided labels and
definitions that triangulated them with the extant literature (Clarke & Braun, 2014). (This
constituted the fifth phase, defining and naming themes.) Finally, parallels and occasional
discrepancies between the students’ writing and extant literature were formally explained
and discussed. (This constituted the sixth phase, producing the report.)
Content Analysis
Summative content analysis (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005) also was used to quantitatively
report how often themes or subthemes occurred in the data. However, given that themes
of equal relevance may be discussed in disproportionate quantity, it is important to bear
in mind that thematic analysis intentionally focuses more on “the ‘keyness’ of a theme”
and its importance in relation to the research questions irrespective of the number of times
it is discussed (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 82). Thus, given the highly individualized nature
of the obituary writing exercise, readers are encouraged to attend more to the thematic
content and the variations within and less on the frequencies—which, with some clearly
demarcated exceptions, are provided principally for the sake of offering a descriptive
portrait rather than making points about prevalence.
Findings, Part 1: Obituary Content
Voice and Time Perspective
Over four fifths of the students (n18, 82%) framed their obituaries in neutral third
person. However, some wrote from the perspective of a friend (n3, 14%) or of a niece
(n1, 5%). Almost two thirds of the students (n14, 64%) did not specify the time of
their death. Only four students (18%) spoke from the distant future (specifying between
78 and 101 years old as their age of death), two students (9%) designated the day they
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7EXISTENTIAL OBITUARY WRITING
completed the assignment as the time of their death, and another two students (9%) said
they had died the previous week.
Biographical Elements
Students who included biographical information tended to focus on the past (i.e.,
factual histories) or on what they envisioned for themselves in the future. Only two
students (9%) used a combination of both.
Factual histories. Some students (n2, 9%) included names of members of their
families-of-origin and of places they had lived (n2, 9%), as well as educational and/or
work accomplishments as of the time they wrote the obituary (n6, 27%). Over a third
of the students included descriptions of significant formative experiences, including a
“secure and supportive upbringing” (n1, 5%), a difficult childhood (n5, 22%), and
encountering friends’ self-harm or suicide during adolescence (n2, 9%).
Imagined future. Almost half of the students envisaged educational and/or voca-
tional accomplishments they hoped to achieve (n10, 45%), and some went so far as to
sequentially map out a career trajectory (n2, 9%). Furthermore, three students (14%)
specified places they wished to eventually live, and over a quarter (n6, 27%) included
future family (i.e., partners and/or children), some complete with names.
Principal Foci
Career. Almost two thirds of the students (n14, 64%) concentrated on the careers
they were working toward as students, often speaking as if those goals already had been
accomplished. Three students (14%) discussed having overcome academic struggles as
students. For context, several students in the sample were first-generation college students.
Perseverance. Nearly a third (n7, 32%) of the students focused on their perse-
verance. For example, Student 18 “always worked hard and did whatever it took to make
ends meet and make it through every trial and tribulation she was met with.” Similarly,
Student 6, a first-generation college student, described herself as “a hard worker who . . .
pushed through to pass classes and pursue the dream of graduating college. . . . Each day
she was taking another step toward [her] goals.”
Dialectical tensions. Almost half of the students (n10, 45%) included contradic-
tory statements that seemingly reflected their negotiating dialectical existence tensions
(Wahl, 2003). For example, on one hand, Student 15 “wasn’t the type of woman that
sought confirmation or validation”; on the other hand, she “had a difficult time loving and
believing in herself, and that is most likely why she kept pushing herself: to prove that she
is good enough” (Wahl’s acceptance/affirmation vs. rejection). Moreover, although Stu-
dent 10 “had a lot of boundaries to keep herself healthy and rested” and “she said no to
good things,” she nonetheless “still exhausted herself” by “always [having] something to
do, some place to drive to, somewhere to be involved at” (Wahl’s engagement vs. stasis).
Occasionally, the students arrived at a resolution of their dilemmas. Whereas Student 2’s
“biggest struggle was that she did not know what her purpose in life consisted of,” she still
was eager to “put her own dent in the world.” Toward the end of her obituary, she
concluded that along the way she had failed to recognize that “she already had a purpose
in life as a daughter, friend, and aunt” (Wahl’s meaning vs. meaninglessness; see also
Yalom, 1980).
Areas for growth. Some students more explicitly acknowledged their growing
edges. For example, over a third of the students (n8, 36%) voiced their recognition that
they “sometimes put others[’] needs before [their] own” (Student 11) and “would often
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8 BLAND
stress over whether everyone was happy around [them] instead of making sure [they were]
happy” (Student 6), “even when [doing so] had a negative impact on [their] physical and
mental health” (Student 13). Likewise, two students (9%) discussed their tendencies to
procrastinate, and one student (5%) addressed her battle with perfectionism: “Her most
important rule in life was one that she herself had trouble with: that it’s ok to make
mistakes” (Student 5).
Resilience and giving back. Over a quarter of the students (n6, 27%) focused on
the obstacles and adversities they had overcome and how these provided motivation for
them to give back in turn. For example, Student 8 “had to deal with the struggles of
adapting to [a different] culture, not being a proficient student, lack of family resources,
and the challenge of having a family member with a mental disability.” However, “despite
those trials, [he] was able to have a successful career” in which he “created programs and
provided counseling to the families dealing with the separation of family for immigrants
and for families dealing with mental illnesses” as a means of fulfilling his “drive to help
others in similar situations” as his own. Similarly, Student 1 reflected that having come
“from a hard childhood and being told that he would never achieve his dream simply lit
a fire under him to try harder and teach other [sic] to do the same because it will all
workout [sic] in the long run.”
Openness to experience and commitment to continuous improvement. Almost a
quarter of the students (n5, 23%) emphasized their openness to experience and their
commitment to continuous improvement. For example, “Even when things didn’t turn out
the way she expected, she channeled the disappointment into a growth opportunity”
(Student 9) and “Every step of life she took she realized that it was more important to be
present rather than to be perfect” (Student 18).
Beyond status. Two of the students (9%) highlighted their striving toward intrinsic
values and social interest (Adler, 1931/1998). For example, after reflecting on being
fortunate to have experienced a “secure and supportive upbringing,” Student 7 declared
that she “did not want money, notoriety, or really even to be noticed, but she wanted and
aimed to be a good person” via her involvement in social justice efforts.
Findings, Part 2: Reflections on the Experience of Completing One’s
Own Obituary
Affective Aspects
In this sample, the experience of completing one’s own obituary typically involved a
trajectory that began with emotional discomfort followed by a transformative shift in the
direction of a greater sense of acceptance, appreciation, and awe toward the possibilities
of living the life one envisions.
Death anxiety and urgency. For almost a quarter of the students (n5, 23%), the
experience provoked death anxiety. Student 2 wrote, “I was not at ease. Death is
something most people are not comfortable thinking about, let alone having to write about.
I am one of those people.” Furthermore, two students (9%) described the experience as
humbling, and over a quarter of the students (n6, 27%) said that it provoked a sense
of urgency as to whether they had lived out their goals and values. For Student 1, writing
the obituary “opened [his] eyes to the fact that everything [he] always wanted to do with
[his] life so far has not happened.”
Emotional discomfort. The majority of the students reported experiencing emo-
tional discomfort as they began the exercise—including feeling (a) fearful, nervous, or
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9EXISTENTIAL OBITUARY WRITING
startled (n6, 27%); (b) sad or solemn (n10, 45%); (c) confused (n2, 9%); (d)
disconnected and detached (n1, 5%); and/or (e) awkward/taken aback (n2, 9%).
Three students (14%) found it difficult to concentrate and/or keep up with their thoughts
as they commenced writing their obituaries. Conversely, over a third of the students (n
8, 36%) “didn’t even know where to begin” (Student 6) and “kept blanking on what to
say” (Student 18). Four students (18%) said they were able to overcome these issues by
stepping back and assuming another person’s perspective.
Furthermore, two students (9%) expressed sadness and three students guilt (14%)
specifically about the prospect of leaving their family and friends behind, which was often
accompanied by a sense of empathy: “I felt upset to think about what I would put them
through or the pain they would experience” (Student 20). Other students discussed feeling
self-conscious and embarrassed about completing the exercise. For example, two students
(9%) described the experience as “somewhat vain” in that “it’s not . . . often you are asked
to write about what your life means . . . to the world” (Student 18), whereas Student 6
“started getting sad also about the fact that [she does not] completely know how people
see [her].”
Some found the constraints of the task daunting. Almost a third of the students (n
7, 32%) found it difficult to sum up their lives on a single page, and two students (9%)
were unhappy about having excluded close relationships and/or significant endeavors and
accomplishments. Furthermore, over a quarter of the students (n6, 27%) “racked [their]
brains thinking about what [they] want [their] entire life to look like in just 20 minutes”
(Student 9).
On the other hand, not everyone found the experience unsettling. For example, Student
5 found the obituary “surprisingly easy to write” from beginning to end and reflected,
“Normally when I write about myself, I can’t help but feel arrogant. However, because the
piece was written thorough another point of view, the conceited feelings weren’t there.”
Further, some reported having little trouble with the space (n2, 9%) or time (n4,
18%) limits.
Transformative shift. Over four fifths of the students reported either directly (n
15, 68%) or tacitly (n3, 14%) that, following their initial uneasy reaction, they
underwent a transformative emotional shift as the experience unfolded:
Student 7: “Often in the moment, I feel as though I can be negative or doubt my abilities.
However, when I looked back on my life thus far, I was extremely kind to myself and was very
positive about my experiences as well as who I am as a person. . . . Even though I may not
be exactly where I want to be and often have mundane days, I have a life thus far that fills me
with joy and gratitude.”
Student 19: “It feels motivating to write of all these wonderful things that could manifest over
the course of time. It gives my life substance and meaning.”
Student 4: “I was smiling thinking of what being alive meant to me and hoping that whoever
has to write this knows how I truly feel.”
Student 8: “While I was writing this my heart felt light and it is the same feeling I get when
I am nervous about a potentially positive opportunity.”
Positive aftereffect. Most of the students explained that completing the exercise left
them feeling (a) relaxed (n3, 14%); (b) “calm and confident” (Student 13, n1, 5%);
(c) “peaceful” (Student 10, n1, 5%); (d) a sense of pride in their accomplishments (n
2, 9%); (e) hopeful, excited, and/or optimistic about the future (n9, 41%; e.g., “I still
. . . have time to do meaningful work with my life,” Student 12); (f) “empowered”
(Student 15, n1, 5%); and (g) “wise if maybe a little naïve” (Student 5, n1, 5%).
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Awakening. Some students reported mixed and/or contradictory emotions. For ex-
ample, two students (9%) felt a combination of satisfaction and dissatisfaction insofar as
the exercise spurred an awareness that they could do more to live out their potential and
thus “made [them] realize what [they] truly want to get out of life” (Student 11).
Affirmation, acceptance, and awe. Some of the students said that the activity
helped them (a) overcome self-doubt and better appreciate themselves (n3, 14%); (b)
embrace their shadow (e.g., “accept some of the things I don’t love about myself,” Student
9, n1, 5%); and (c) enhance their sense of temporality (e.g., consider “the broad picture,
not just the experiences I’ve had” with “a thought of creativity and wonder,” Student 22,
n2, 9%).
Somatic Aspects
This trajectory was accompanied by shifts in bodily sensations. Some students
reported that initially being asked to think about dying caused them to feel tense (n3,
14%), numb (n1, 5%), and/or nauseous (n1, 5%); for their heart to beat rapidly (n
1, 5%); or to tear up upon identifying “who I was survived by” (Student 21, n1, 5%).
Conversely, with the transformative shift also came repose (n3, 14%). For example,
Student 21 recalled, “When I finished, I felt some relief and my body didn’t seem so tense.
I had written everything that I wanted to say at that moment.” For Student 4, it “felt like
a weight was lifted of [sic] [her] shoulders [to have gotten] things out.” For Student 19,
the act of writing “the things [she envisioned] about [her] personal life” also brought tears
and “chills.”
Behavioral Aspects
The tension experienced by the students prompted, for some, restless behaviors
including fidgeting (n2, 9%), shaking one’s leg and/or tapping one’s foot or fingers
(n4, 18%), biting one’s nails (n1, 5%), playing with one’s hair (n1, 5%), and/or
grasping one’s face (n1, 5%). In addition, two students (9%) found themselves
frequently rewording their writing, and Student 2 reported often “looking at the clock to
see when the time would be up.”
For others, the tension gave the students pause. Four students (18%) sat perfectly still.
Student 16 found the experience “surprisingly quiet.” Two students (9%) frequently gazed
into space as they thought “deeply about what it really is that [they] want to be
remembered for” (Student 8) and “the meaning of [their lives]” (Student 15), and Student
21 glanced “at the walls . . . to see the pictures of [her] family to imagine what [her]
parents would say about [her].”
With the transformative shift and accompanying repose, two students (9%) said they found
themselves smiling. This was “because [they] felt fulfilled by . . . writing about all the positive
aspects in [their lives] and sharing them with someone else” (Student 4). Likewise, Student 10
felt content with her obituary and therefore disinclined to “rework the writing.”
Cognitive Aspects
Completing the obituary conjured up memories of childhood (n6, 27%), of family (n
2, 9%), of friends (n3, 14%), of simpler times (n1, 5%), of one’s transition into college
(n1, 5%), and of a person whose loss a student had not adequately grieved (n1, 5%).
It also sparked a variety of thoughts that served as points of departure for self-awareness.
Facing the unknown. For three students (14%), the uncertainty of the task triggered
a sense of self-doubt. Student 3 “felt [herself] questioning if [she] was doing it correctly.”
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11EXISTENTIAL OBITUARY WRITING
Two students (9%) remarked that it was hard to come up with to say, “mainly because
[they] don’t envision [themselves] dying anytime soon” (Student 9).
Facing the future. Accordingly, almost a third of the students (n7, 32%) said that
the experience piqued curiosity about their future. For Student 17, “questions came up
such as: How will [she] die? When will it happen and how old will [she] be? Who from
[her] family will still be here and left to grieve [her] absence?” Others said that it made
them ponder who they will marry and what being adult will be like.
Clarification of values. Two students (9%) reported that the assignment made them
“think about what is most important to [them] in life” (Student 9) which, prior, they “never
took the time to think about” (Student 22). For example, Student 22 remarked that she “did
not understand how impactful [one of her hobbies] had been on [her] life.”
Intentionality and responsibility. Almost two thirds of the students (n14, 64%)
reported that, by providing a friendly reminder of life’s transitoriness, the experience
prompted a greater sense of revitalizing intentionality (May, 1969; Schneider & Krug,
2017) and responsibility for their lives. For example,
Student 9: “It also made me want to live my life more purposefully. I really do want to see
life struggles as growth opportunities and become better rather than allowing myself to
become bitter. I also want to be intentional about my priorities in life.”
Student 6: “I need to work harder and faster towards the dreams I want so that I can
accomplish them because you never know when the end [will] come. . . . I think that now I
will definitely watch what I do and make sure that everything I do will be something that adds
meaning to my life.”
Student 12: “I am beginning to realize that there is not an infinite amount of time. . . . I have
also had to accept the reality of having to make choices in life and face the consequences of
those choices.”
Student 14: “I realize I need to plan more to make my life what I want it to be.”
Similarly, almost two fifths of the students (n4, 18%) discussed how the experience
put them in touch with their sense of calling, their desire to leave behind a legacy, and the
steps they need to take to make that happen:
Student 13: “I . . . thought about what I want my life to mean and what I want to leave behind.”
Student 16: “From this point on I want to make better choices on how to accomplish my goal.
. . . This involves [involving myself in tasks that] can be tedious and boring but [are] necessary
to better understand what I need to do to accomplish my goal.”
One student (5%) mentioned that the experience sparked a greater sense of intrinsic
motivation:
Student 5: “I would love to write something that becomes a masterpiece. However, in order
to do so I would have to . . . write a lot more. I have a habit of not doing it if I don’t have a
reason. It would be nice if somewhere down the line, I learn how to write for my sole
enjoyment and no other reason.”
Finally, almost a third of the students (n7, 32%) described how it motivated them
to drop facades/personas/imagos and to allow themselves to be vulnerable so their real self
(Horney, 1950; Rogers, 1959) could emerge:
Student 8: “It made me think about [whether] I have truly been portraying the person that I
want to be remembered for and what needs to change about myself to become the man I want
to be.”
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12 BLAND
Student 15: “This exercise was affirming to me because I got to see myself the way I hope
another person sees me. These qualities are what I hope that I show the world. I also realized
how much of a front I put up a lot of . . . times. When I am around my family or close friends,
I am a different person than when I am around people I’m not as close to. I think I do this as
a strategy to protect myself in this little bubble. If I don’t let anyone else in, I can’t get hurt.
Through this exercise, I realized that I should start showing my . . . intelligence and my
personality to other people, not just my close friends and family.”
Appreciation. The experience also helped many students develop a greater sense of
appreciation. For half the students (n11, 50%), it “got [them] thinking about what
[they] have actually accomplished so far” (Student 11), especially personal qualities
and/or achievements they had taken for granted. To illustrate, Student 12 reflected, “Life
keeps everyone so busy and can leave people to looking down a narrow tunnel of their
goals and aspirations without seeing their positive aspects of themselves in their peripheral
vision.” Accordingly, some of the students wrote about how the assignment helped put
challenges from the past into perspective, including histories of self-harm (n2, 9%),
indecisiveness (n1, 5%), and frequent relocation during childhood with a parent in the
military (n1, 5%).
Three students (14%) articulated a sense of resilience and a recognition of the value
of struggle. Student 15 noted that she found herself “to be a strong and empowered young
woman because [she had] overcome so much in [her] past. [She] wouldn’t be who [she is]
or where [she is] today if it weren’t for overcoming all of the challenges [she has] faced
in [her] life.”
Two students (9%) reconsidered making social comparisons. For example, Student 4
said, “There will always be people . . . who have more than us and less than us, so it is
important to show gratitude for the people, life, and experiences we do have” (emphasis
added). Conversely, Student 18 “had no regrets or things that [she] thought of that would
make [her] want a ‘re-do.’”
The assignment also helped two students (9%) take others less for granted. Student 9
mentioned that she “wants to show the people [she] loves how much they mean to [her]
and invest [her] time and energy into loving others” and that “it can be easy for [her] to
get caught up in the day-to-day responsibilities and to-do lists that [she] can forget about
the things that are most important to [her] in life.”
Enhancing consciousness, confidence, and self-efficacy. May (1967) defined con-
sciousness as the ongoing dialectic between experiencing oneself objectively and
subjectively, which provides creative capacities for authentic choice, freedom, and
social responsibility. Almost a quarter of the students (n5, 23%) discussed how
they found it helpful to put their lives in perspective by writing about themselves from
the standpoint of another person. Accordingly, Student 10 said, “I am reminded of
life’s value, and I feel encouraged about my progress. I feel slightly renewed, like I
just received the message ‘you’re doing fine, you’re on the right track’ and actually
believed it.”
About a third of the students (n7, 32%) discussed how the exercise prompted
a stronger sense of confidence, self-efficacy, and empowerment. For Student 12, it also
provided a point of departure to refer back to during moments of hesitation: “I believe
that in times of strife where I feel an utter lack of self-confidence and self-doubt in my
performance as a student or a person in general, I believe that I should think about this
exercise and think about the lives of those I have touched already.”
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13EXISTENTIAL OBITUARY WRITING
Goals for Growth
Many of the students identified insightful goals for personal growth.
Overcoming procrastination. Two students (9%) discussed how the assignment
motivated them to work toward overcoming procrastination. For example, Student 1
wrote, “It made me really start to want to get my life together and start to do what I set
out to do in the past but never began to even attempt.”
Improving self-care. Student 11 identified a specific strategy for improving self-
care: “I plan on eating better, exercising more, and even taking time off from school to
mend personal relationships with family and friends. In this time off from school I also
hope to volunteer and explore other jobs I could have while in school as well as when I
graduate. Overall I want to build connections and live a healthier life.”
Horney’s neurotic triad. Horney (1945) identified three basic interpersonal perso-
nas that individuals employ to cope with existential (basic) anxiety. Some of the students’
reflections suggested self-awareness of having assumed one of these defensive patterns
and identified plans to better allow their authentic self to unfold. First, three students
(14%) who exemplified Horney’s movement away from others (characterized by emo-
tional and interpersonal detachment) discussed plans to better connect with the world. For
example, Student 4 said, “Maybe I do need to start showing my emotions and being more
emotional with my friends and family.”
Second, another three students (14%) typified Horney’s movement toward others
(characterized by dependency and people-pleasing). The assignment “made [them] realize
[that they] often times care about others[’] needs before [their] own” (Student 11), and
they aimed to “focus on [themselves] more, not on the entire world” (Student 22).
Third, Student 14 epitomized Horney’s movement against others (characterized by
aggression and/or competitiveness). Having identified as hyper-ambitious and even an-
ticipating dying of a heart attack in her obituary, she insightfully reflected, “I did not
realize before how much of a driven person I am.”
Beyond experiential avoidance. Student 17 noted that the exercise prompted a
better understanding of the value of difficult emotional experiences and of better embrac-
ing the daimonic (May, 1969; Shumaker, 2017): “From here I think it would be beneficial
for me to assess the more negative aspects and address those in my future. [This] made
me more aware of that fact that one day I will die, which I will also use as I shape my own
future.”
Discussion
Applied to both the students’ obituary content and reflections on their experience, the
content analysis revealed several common elements as well as a reasonable degree of
variation in how they dealt with, resolved, and gained insight from normative anxiety
associated with the obituary writing experience. In addition, several relevant themes
emerged that (a) reflect extant literature on the technique and its theoretical/philosophical
underpinnings and (b) challenge the finality of Shneidman’s (1972) analysis of college
students’ obituary content.
Obituary Content
With some exceptions, most of the students wrote their obituaries in neutral third
person. Some included factual biographical information, while others discussed accom-
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14 BLAND
plishments they hoped to achieve in the future; only two students included a combination
of both. Many students highlighted relevant concerns centered around (a) relationships
and other-directedness and/or (b) perseverance and its application in their career devel-
opment. As emerging adults, these two themes are consistent with Erikson’s (1963)
evocation of Freud’s lieben und arbeiten (to love and to work) as the principal develop-
mental tasks involved in negotiating Erikson’s (1959/1994, 1963) intimacy versus isola-
tion and which are echoed in Baxter Magolda and Taylor’s (2016) conceptualization of
self-authorship (as described in the introduction). These themes also set the stage for
individuals’ successful cultivation of care and wisdom later as adults (Erikson, 1959/1994,
1963; see also Lawford & Ramey, 2015; McAdams, 2013).
Comparison with Shneidman’s sample. Content-wise, the obituaries by the stu-
dents in this sample generally contrasted with those in Shneidman’s (1972) sample. First,
whereas 97% of Shneidman’s students wrote their obituaries from the perspective of the
distant future, less than one fifth (n4, 18%) of the students in this sample did so.
Instead, the majority wrote from the perspective of the present with a realistic eye toward
their next steps.
That said, Shneidman found that his students “exaggerated sentimental fantasies,
romanticized themselves, and emphasized personal and private anamnestic details rather
than biographical and objective data” (pp. 265–266). In contrast, the students in this study
typically acknowledged their areas for growth, either explicitly or implicitly, and it was
rare that they overstated their achievements. Rather, they concentrated on improvements
they needed to make in their lives—including negotiating Wahl’s (2003) existence
tensions as well as overcoming people-pleasing, procrastination, and perfectionism—to
make those accomplishments happen.
Connections with resilience and self-actualization literatures. Some of the stu-
dents discussed having overcome adversities and how doing so motivated them to give
back in turn. This sense of hope for a brighter future in conjunction with desire to
altruistically make a difference reflects empirically supported qualities of resilience
(Southwick & Charney, 2018).
Other students emphasized their openness to experience, their commitment to contin-
uous improvement in personal growth, and their investment in social justice and culti-
vating a culture of kindness as an alternative to status (Prinstein, 2017). Taken together,
these suggest qualities of self-actualization as an ongoing process of paradoxically being
guided by more idiosyncratic and intrinsic aims while also becoming more self-
transcendent (Maslow, 1987, 1999; see also Bland & DeRobertis, 2017).
Reflections on the Experience
Connections with Shneidman and Schneider. Like Shneidman’s (1972) students,
the majority of the students in this study reported feeling initially unnerved by the obituary
writing experience—which they attributed to (a) death anxiety; (b) a sense of urgency
about whether they had lived out their goals and values; (c) sadness and guilt about
leaving loved ones behind; and (d) confusion, detachment, and awkwardness. Their
emotional discomfort was sometimes accompanied by tension (somatically) and by
restlessness or pause (behaviorally).
However, most of the students also reported having encountered a transformative
emotional shift and sense of repose as the experience unfolded, which they found
affirming and motivating. This shift echoes Kirk Schneider’s description of his own
clients’ experiences with obituary writing (personal communication, April 2017 and June
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15EXISTENTIAL OBITUARY WRITING
2019). It also suggests that the exercise provided a safe platform for the students (a) to
concretely experience the symbolic death of the familiar dependency of youth and
heroically face the self-responsibility of adulthood and (b) to vitalize their current
experience in a way that can inspire others (Campbell, 1988).
That said, cognitively, the exercise aroused a variety of thoughts ranging from
memories of the past to self-doubt (which, when appropriately heeded, can be empow-
ering; Arons, 2020) to curiosity about the future to a clearer understanding of one’s values.
Consistent with Bühler’s (1961) focus on active responsibility and commitment in
self-determination, many students explained that the experience prompted senses of
revitalizing intentionality (May, 1969; Schneider & Krug, 2017), of calling and intrinsic
motivation, and of striving toward fulfillment of qualities of being beyond the conditioned
self (Horney, 1945, 1950; Rogers, 1959). All these attributes contribute to the fulfillment
of Baxter Magolda and Taylor’s (2016) developmental task of self-authorship during
emerging adulthood.
Connections with resilience and self-actualization literatures. Echoing the resil-
ience literature (Southwick & Charney, 2018), some students articulated a sense of
gratitude for difficult experiences that ultimately stimulated growth and empowerment.
Further, the overall tone of the reflections conveyed an air of future-directedness and
ability to “struggle well” that Walsh (2016, p. 5) suggested is the genuine hallmark of
resilience. Others expressed appreciation for the significant people in their lives and an
intention to overcome taking things for granted.
Most of the students left the exercise with a greater sense of confidence and self-
efficacy, which some attributed to having written about themselves from the standpoint of
another person. Some discussed how the exercise helped put them in better touch with
their values and/or their life narratives which they had not previously considered partic-
ularly deliberately, and it provided a reference point to which they could later return for
inspiration. Finally, several students identified personal growth goals including overcom-
ing procrastination, improving self-care, surrendering interpersonal defenses and working
toward authenticity, and tempering experiential avoidance—all characteristics of self-
actualizing people (Maslow, 1987, 1999).
Additional Comparisons With Extant Obituary Writing Literature
Taken together, the findings of this study resembled Bugental’s (1973–1974; see also
Ihanus, 2005; Shneidman, 1972) observations about the technique as summarized in the
literature review above. These include (a) providing a safe platform for sitting with
uncomfortable emotions and addressing one’s mortality; (b) prompting reconsideration of
one’s involvement in superficial activities; (c) inspiring hope, fulfillment, and renewal;
and (d) promoting attunement to one’s values, life goals, and relationships as well as
commitment to making necessary changes. Further, the findings were congruent with
LaBelle’s (1987) observation that the technique can be empowering for young people with
concerns about self-efficacy and/or who have not considered their life narratives and the
degree of situated freedom they have therein.
Promoting Second-Order Change (Existential Liberation)
and Self-Cultivation
This awakened potential for personal growth also reflects the intent behind the
obituary writing technique for promoting second-order change (parallel with the construct
of existential liberation; Schneider & Krug, 2017). By way of a dialectic, dialogical
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16 BLAND
process with the objective world (i.e., individuals seeing themselves objectively as others
see them; May, 1983), identity (Schneider & Krug, 2017) and wisdom (Webster, 2010) are
actively created. Such a transformative experience is “ideally suited” (Shumaker, 2017, p.
1) for young people who are progressing through a developmental stage characterized by
the paradox of, on one hand, encountering a greater range of possibilities for oneself and,
on the other hand, grappling with the precarity of one’s future (Schwartz, 2016).
Moreover, Baxter Magolda and Taylor (2016) suggested that college educators should
intentionally help students develop self-authorship in order to successfully navigate adult
life. By jumpstarting their employment of the creative imagination as a guide for
identifying goals to responsibly shape their life trajectory (Bühler, 1961; DeRobertis,
2017; DeRobertis & Bland, 2019), the obituary writing exercise shows promise for the
possibility of the students engaging in a longer-term process of self-cultivation.
Promoting Existential Learning via Confronting Death Anxiety
Death anxiety should be addressed directly by emerging adults, for whom the phe-
nomenon underlies various forms of distress and diagnosable psychopathology and is
universal irrespective of one’s worldview, belief system, or demographics (Pashak et al.,
2018). “The possibility of death jars [one] loose from the treadmill of time” (May, 1953,
p. 271) insofar as it provides a vivid and life-affirming reminder of one’s impermanence.
In this sense, the obituary writing technique facilitated existential learning (DeRobertis,
2017) in that it served to stop the students in their tracks and thereby make it difficult for
them to uncritically continue living out habitual patterns and/or taking their lives for
granted. To illustrate, the students in this study remarked that the exercise (a) “made
[them] think” (Student 13) and “put [their lives] in perspective” (Student 16), (b)
encouraged them to “step out of [the] box” of their “everyday routine and feelings” and
“focus on seeing the bigger picture” (Student 15), and (c) left them feeling “hopeful that
[their actual] obituary could possibly be parallel to what [they wrote]” (Student 19).
By confronting the dialectic between death and life, the students became more capable
of living courageously and creatively in accordance with their values by engaging fully in
the present moment knowing they have a future of their situated choosing (Krishnamurti,
1954; Schneider & Krug, 2017). This serves as an alternative to either (a) denying death
by overemphasizing aliveness and optimism, projecting one’s fear onto the unknown,
attempting to defy death, and so forth or (b) engaging in pessimism and death obsession,
being accident prone or neglectful of one’s health, and so forth (Schneider & Krug, 2017).
The exercise also provided a platform for the students to safely question “the sea of
collective responses [to] and attitudes” about death (May, 1983, p. 107) and to develop a
sense of self-empowerment and self-determination as an alternative to conforming to
death anxiety in the culture.
Promoting Presence and Being
Though typically first experienced as emotions, in mature form, the qualities of
presence and of being beyond the conditioned self (comparable to those associated with
self-actualizing people; Maslow, 1987, 1999) that emerge out of confronting one’s
impermanence provide a source of inner guidance toward optimal functioning and
commitment to the common good (Ostaseski, 2017). Furthermore, as noted by Frankl
(1963), the moment one’s potentialities are actualized, “they are rendered realities; they
are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from
transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irrecoverably lost but everything irrevocably
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17EXISTENTIAL OBITUARY WRITING
stored” (pp. 190 –191). This is particularly pertinent for emerging adults as they develop
the ability to integrate a sense of past time perspective into a worldview dominated by
present and future (McAdams, 2015).
Connections to the Emerging Adulthood Literature
The theoretical tenets that are supported by the findings of this study also reflect extant
empirical research findings on emerging adulthood. For example, the integration of
subjective and objective modes of thought in postformal complex cognition has been
demonstrated as conducive to accepting the inevitability of death in emerging adults
(Jennings, Galupo, & Cartwright, 2009). Furthermore, interventions involving deep re-
flection on and discussion of one’s purpose in life have been found to promote emerging
adults’ goal-directedness and to serve as a protective factor against normative decline in
life satisfaction (Bundick, 2011). Moreover, the development of measurable traits asso-
ciated with wisdom have been found to be negatively correlated with hedonistic impulses
and positively correlated with values related to personal growth, positive interpersonal
relationships, and social interest (Webster, 2010).
Limitations and Suggestions for Future Research
First, a principal limitation of the current study is that it involved a sample of emerging
adults (college students), and the findings reflect their particular phase of development and
the relevant concerns therein. Although the findings both support the general theory
behind the obituary writing technique as well as contextualize outcomes described in
extant case studies and in informal observations (Kirk Schneider, personal communica-
tion, April 2017 and June 2019) involving a broad age range, it is important to note that
searching for a purpose in life (a key finding in the current study) is associated with life
satisfaction primarily for adolescents and emerging adults and less so for adults (Bronk,
Hill, Lapsley, Talib, & Finch, 2009). Therefore, it is suggested that further inquiry explore
the obituary writing technique from the vantage point of individuals in other phases of the
life span and their specific developmental tasks, challenges, and/or concerns. An addi-
tional limitation concerns the data having been derived from an academic assignment,
which could have impacted what the students were willing to disclose and/or could reflect
an effort to appear favorably in the eyes of their professor.
Second, given that emerging adulthood has a cultural dimension (Schwartz, 2016), it
is important to bear in mind that this study used a sample of predominantly White females
completing an upper-division psychology course. These dimensions of cultural context
(gender, race/ethnicity, education level, choice of major/minor) likely influenced the
findings—particularly the content of the obituaries and the specific life goals and areas for
growth identified by the students. Therefore, further study involving different demograph-
ics is recommended to identify additional themes and to assess the extent they could be
socially constructed. Doing so also could contribute to emerging literature on the multi-
cultural applicability of existential-humanistic psychology and psychotherapy (Hoffman
et al., 2019).
Third, because this study was designed primarily to explore the process mechanisms
and dynamics involved in the obituary writing technique, although the participants
identified goals and areas for growth, the sustainability of outcomes was not directly
evaluated. Accordingly, a longitudinal follow-up is recommended to assess participants’
progress in working toward their goals, along with a longer-term reflection on completing
the obituary writing exercise.
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Fourth, though some of the participants identified as having been previously diagnosed
with and/or treated for anxiety, depression, and/or substance abuse, overall, this study
involved a relatively nondistressed sample. Additional research should explore the process
dynamics of obituary writing with more severe clinical populations.
Finally, to contribute to the emerging body of research on the helper-as-person in the
training of helping professionals (Bland, 2018; Geller & Greenberg, 2012; Regas, Kostick,
Bakaly, & Doonan, 2017; Smith-Hansen, 2016), it is advised that further research explore
the obituary writing technique in the process of helper development and its potential utility
for promoting mindful presence, empathy, creativity, wisdom, and so forth in the interest
of facilitating clients’ growth.
Conclusion
The findings of this study closely resemble the characteristics of the process by which
emerging adults actively construct meaning from difficult experiences, as described by
Bargdill, Marasco-Kuhn, Muron, and Chung (2019). First, an experience emerges unex-
pectedly that disturbs their sense of everydayness and familiar predictability, makes them
aware of their inauthentic behavior, and prompts them to respond more authentically.
Second, the experience directs attention to life’s fragility and to the extent to which
relationships are taken for granted. Third, the experience enables them to become more
conscious of and to integrate their sense of identity, to develop a stronger sense of life
purpose, and to appreciate the small stuff in everyday life. Fourth, the experience
energizes personal growth and maturation, strengthens interpersonal relationships, and
motivates the achievement of significant life objectives. Fifth, the experience has layers of
meaning that are not fully understood at once but rather unfold over time and lead to
feelings of gratitude despite the mixture of negative and positive components. Taken
together, both this study and Bargdill et al.’s study heed Wong’s (2017a) suggestion for
advancing emerging psychological research on meaning-making (particularly from the
positive psychology canon) by providing more qualitative inquiry that (a) incorporates
“the dark side of human existence, which includes suffering and death” in order to
“deepen [psychologists’] understanding of what it means to live a meaningful, fulfilling
life and how to achieve it” and (b) takes into account lived experiences beyond self-
reported measures of surface-level behavior, cognition, and affect (p. 82).
Moreover, the obituary writing technique appears to hold promise as a relevant
antidote to concerns raised during the last decade about emerging adults’ abilities to
embrace healthy challenges (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018) and to engage interpersonally
(Twenge, 2014, 2017). Accordingly, this study comes in response to Bronk and Baum-
steiger’s (2017) call for research that demonstrates how contemporary emerging adults
may assume meaningful aspirations that result in self-determined goal-directedness and
that “construct a kind of positive developmental context for their continued growth” (p.
49) in a manner that is both personally fulfilling and conducive to constructive worldly
engagement.
This study provided the first formal investigation of the process mechanisms and
dynamics of obituary writing. In addition to preventing the technique from falling into
obscurity and obsolescence or becoming dismissed as unscientific in light of its limited
literature base, my intentions were (a) to offer research that counters faulty assumptions
about the passivity of existential-humanistic therapists as they typically are portrayed in
mainstream textbooks (Henry, 2017) and (b) to provide a heuristic foundation for
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19EXISTENTIAL OBITUARY WRITING
maintaining a dimension of depth in contemporary scholarship in developmental and
meaning-making processes while also (c) building bridges between literatures in existen-
tial-humanistic and mainstream psychology. On the other hand, it is worth noting that for
most seasoned existential-humanistic psychologists, the findings of this study generally
offer little that is conceptually new but instead provide an affirmation of extant existential-
humanistic theorizing as demonstrated in the reflective writing of today’s emerging adults.
Accordingly, it is important that the vitality of these existential-humanistic principles and
related research findings is maintained at the level of description—and not sedimented
and/or diluted into a prescriptive strategy or confused for a rote manualized activity with
an unambiguous, preordained outcome (Mølbak, 2012). Rather, the mindful use of
obituary writing as a technique serves simply as a “conduit or means” for helping
professionals and educators to collaboratively and creatively promote clients’ or students’
self-reflection within the context of a empathetically attuned relationship as the primary
vehicle for growth and sustainable change on an individualized basis (Elkins, 2016, p.
117)—and not as a shield against the mystery of engagement therein.
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Author Note
Andrew M. Bland is a member of the graduate clinical psychology faculty at
Millersville University in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He earned a master’s
degree from the University of West Georgia’s humanistic-existential-transpersonal
psychology program and a PhD in counseling psychology from Indiana State Uni-
versity. He is a licensed psychologist, currently practicing at Samaritan Counseling
Center in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He serves as treasurer and as co-editor of the
newsletter for the Society for Humanistic Psychology. His scholarship provides both
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23EXISTENTIAL OBITUARY WRITING
qualitative and quantitative support for the practical application of themes and
principles from contemporary existential-humanistic psychology in the domains of
love and intimate relationships, work and career development, the processes of
therapy and education, and lifespan development. He is co-editor of The New–Old:
Recollections, Reflections, and Reconnoiterings of Mike Arons.
Received July 19, 2019
Revision received February 3, 2020
Accepted February 15, 2020
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This book frames how existential theory and intervention strategies can be seamlessly integrated with evidenced-based approaches when treating adolescents. This groundbreaking text begins with an overview of EI theory and provides an exhaustive review of risk and protective factors that contribute to an adolescent's experience of existential anxiety. Other book highlights include a proposed developmental model of existential anxiety in adolescence, and individual chapters devoted to working with adolescents who present with anxiety, depression, substance abuse concerns, and disruptive behaviors. Rich case study descriptions enrich this exciting and impactful approach with empirical support. © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017. All Rights Reserved.