Life Events

The product of stress and coping research is the concept of a life event which refers to changes in an individual's life that are likely to have an impact on subsequent behavior. Such major changes can be either negative, such as death of a close family member, or positive, such as marriage. In addition to important life events, there are small life events—"hassles" or "uplifts." For example a hassle might be having too many things to do; an uplift might be meeting a good friend.

A person's life events have been measured frequently by using lists of events that the person has to check. Methodological problems (e.g., unwillingness to report very private problems) have prompted the development of clinical interviews.


Life events have been incorporated into theoretical models designed to explain coping. A well-known example is a model of coping formulated by the stress researcher R. S. Lazarus, which emphasizes the cognitive evaluation of the event. This evaluation includes the personal relevance of the event, its potential to affect well-being (primary appraisal), and the evaluation of the options one can use for coping (secondary appraisal). A means of analyzing coping processes, this evaluation leads to either favorable or unfavorable resolution (or no resolution) and, possibly, to reappraisal, when there is a change in circumstances. The model was applied to a variety of stressors, including bereavement.

Life Events in a Life Span Perspective

Lazarus's approach was also used to develop a life span. Such a model considers life events in their life-stage or sociohistorical context. Death of a spouse, for example, may have a devastating effect at age thirty-five than at eighty-five. The change in the meaning of a life event, according to its position in the life span, has prompted the gerontologist B. L. Neugarten to distinguish between "on time" and "off time" events.

The life span perspective has encouraged a consideration of life events within the general concept of a life story. Individuals create comprehensive life stories. The life story is recreated and revised in an effort to provide life "with a sense of unity and purpose" (McAdams 1992, p. 344). According to the life-span psychologist D. P. McAdams, particular life events—"nuclear episodes"— show either continuity or change over time. In addition to their conceptualization within a life story, life events can be considered in relation to one's identity. Thus, life-span psychologist S. K. Whitbourne describes experienced events as being either assimilated into one's identity or accommodated by changing to fit the event. An individual who uses assimilation frequently might deny the significance of an age-related sign or a life-threatening disorder. An "accommodative" type, on the other hand, might overreact to such signs, perceiving himself or herself as an old person.

Death As a Life Event

Is death a life event? Obviously any biography of a deceased person would include death along with other events. The death of a person can also be a life event in another person's life, as in the case of death of a close relative. It is less clear whether one's own death is a life event. For example, while one's own death indicates a major change in life, one cannot cope with this change if we consider death to be the disappearance of the subject (of course one can still try to cope with his or her own dying).

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), in his famous analysis of death in Being and Time, originally published in 1927, indicates that death is not an event but rather an existential phenomenon. For the subject, death exists at all times as a possibility, the possibility of the subject's inexistence. While the individual does not have to deal with his or her death as a lived life event, he or she still has to deal with it as a matter of concern for oneself. For Heidegger the relationship to death is founded in the general structure of the human being ( Dasein ) as a being that is concerned about itself. Heidegger calls this basic state of the being care and writes, "With regards to its ontological possibilities, dying is grounded in care" (p. 233). Heidegger saw death as a possibility of being that provides both individuality (no one can die in my place) and wholeness (my life exists as a totality only upon my dying). Therefore, the right attitude toward death is one of anticipation.

Among the major critics of Heidegger's construction of death, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argued powerfully that death, far from giving meaning to life, deprives life of meaning. Therefore, according to Sartre, one cannot "await" his or her death. In fact, because meaning can exist only insofar as there is a future toward which one can project oneself, death deprives such an anticipation of its very meaning.

Such analyses raise the following question: Is there a correct description of "my death"? It is indeed possible to argue that no description is correct and that we are free to construct death as part of the process of creating a life story. In any case, it is likely that the way one constructs death will affect an individual's emotional attitudes toward it and toward life.

Avoiding Death

Negatively constructing death may increase the need to use protective defenses; for example, one simply might want to avoid thinking about the event. Denial as a defense mechanism might be particularly suitable when facing the end of one's life, either because of illness or because of the actions of other people (e.g., prisoners in concentration camps). In less extreme situations, individuals are likely to use more subtle forms of denial. In The Denial of Death (1973), anthropologist Ernest Becker discusses ways to avoid coming to grips with the reality of one's mortality by integrating in a cultural system. Both Becker and terror-management theorists see self-esteem as an important psychological part of the "buffering mechanism." In essence, one who feels good about fulfilling a role in society thinks of herself as valuable and, perhaps, immortal.

Acceptance of Death

People differ in the way they construct death. Those who view death as threatening tend to distance themselves from it. On the other hand, death can be constructed as in a way that reflects acceptance. A distinction can be made between three types of acceptance. Escape acceptance sees death as a better alternative to a very low quality life; neutral acceptance sees death as integral to life; and approach acceptance sees death as the gate to a happy afterlife. The acceptance of death among older people prompted Wong to include a spiritual dimension of meaning (involving death acceptance) in a definition of successful aging.

A congruent notion, the socioemotional selectivity theory, attempts to define perceptual changes that accompany a growing awareness of the finite nature of time, most notably paying increased attention to meaning of things, quality of relationships, positive aspects of existence, and the importance of goals. People develop a sense of appreciation of a finite life as opposed to a sense of entitlement to an infinite one. These ideas are germane to a large literature suggesting that confrontation of death and finitude may promote a sense of urgency and help one to live more fully.

Meaning Reconstruction in Grief

As pointed out by death and grief researcher Robert Neimeyer, "Meaning reconstruction in response to a loss is the central process in grieving." A central task for a theory of bereavement is therefore to specify how loss affects meaning and the restoration of meaning. For example, it is possible to distinguish between two types of meaning: meaning as making sense of the loss, and meaning as finding some benefits in the aftermath of the loss. The first might relate to the task of rebuilding a threatened worldview while the second focuses on the self.

The potential success of meaning reconstruction is evident in the frequency with which positive emotions follow a great loss. The reconstruction of meaning may bring about a reappraisal of bereavement. To account for such a reconstruction, Folkman revised the original Lazarus-Folkman model by adding meaning-based coping processes that are distinct from the ones that regulate distress and that promote positive emotions.


In the early twenty-first century, while substantial numbers of people die early, death occurs mostly in old age in developed countries. Nevertheless, both one's own death and the death of a person close to him or her, even when expected, can seriously affect his or her system of beliefs and sense of meaning. Acceptance of death requires the active construction of meaning throughout the life span.

See also: Anxiety and Fear ; Becker, Ernest ; Psychology


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