Does knowing the cause of death help in coping?
October 10, 2011 3:38 PM   Subscribe

Why do I care so much to know the cause of my friend's recent, unexpected death?

I keep telling myself that the cause is irrelevant, but part of me still wants to know. I've realized that most of the time, it seems, the first question someone asks after hearing of a death is "how did it happen?".

Why are people, myself included, so concerned about the cause?
posted by cellojoe to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's partly to assess our own vulnerability, and to help dictate how we respond.
posted by sunshinesky at 3:45 PM on October 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Morbid curiosity is pretty universal.

I guess part of it is trying to create a narrative in which you can piece together a cohesive "story" of your friend's life. Knowing how they died helps put their death into the greater storyline of their life.

Also, there's an element of "could it happen to me" wherein if your friend was in a freak accident, you fear for your own mortality because hey - it could happen to you. Whereas if, on the other hand, your friend had a congenital disease or some such, you feel relief that "Phew, I'm in the clear."
posted by sonika at 3:45 PM on October 10, 2011

Because it helps the whole thing make more sense, especially if the death is untimely. Some people cope better with facts. Some people need to understand reality because fantasy/illusion/possibility gets away from them (this is especially true of those of us who are anxious). You also want to know because if it remains unknown, it signifies the now impassable chasm between you and your deceased friend.

Don't feel guilty about wanting to know the circumstances of your friend's death. It is about respecting your friend and understanding/knowing the truth of their life. That includes the truth of their death.
posted by jph at 3:46 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wanting to know how it happened is natural, I think. I dont' think there's any drama, morbidity, or disrespect involved in asking. In fact, most people tend to automatically include that information "John passed this morning of a heart attack" or "Jim was in a tragic lawn mower accident" Details generally aren't necessary, but cause of death is standard.

If you're worried about upsetting the friend's family by asking, maybe check the obits for their area to see if it was included?
posted by myShanon at 3:46 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

People want to know if there's something to learn from someone else's untimely death. Like if it was something potentially preventable - undiagnosed health problems or an accident. Were they doing something that they shouldn't have been?
posted by lizbunny at 3:46 PM on October 10, 2011

There are probably a lot of reasons, but I think it's partly a weird sort of survival instinct. We want to know one way or another if the specific manner of someone else's death is something we "have" to worry about in our own lives. In the same vein, I think we are relieved on some level when we hear that a person died as a result of a congenital disease or old age instead of something that struck randomly and could have just as easily have gotten anyone else.
posted by Cortes at 3:52 PM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that, when someone is our friend, we care about them, and that extends to caring about the cause of something horrible happening to them, particularly when that horrible thing is the end of their life. If you heard that your friend got a new job, you'd presumably be curious to know what the new job was. It is even more logical, then, to want more details when you learn that your friend's life has ended, since that's a lot bigger deal than getting a new job.
posted by The World Famous at 3:57 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Knowledge is power. Or rather, ignorance is weakness and vulnerability. When we don't understand things, we fear them more. We seek to learn, in order to reduce our fear. When we understand a danger, we can better calibrate how dangerous it is.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:03 PM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think there's also the hope that their death was not painful. You want to know that "at least" there was something less than horrible about what happened.

And that the circumstances can affect how you talk to their family or other people about it. I think there's some difference if it was sudden and the family is shocked, or it was a long illness and everyone was prepared, or for some people there might be religious/cultural/social issues with suicide or some other kinds of circumstances. Knowing those things helps you navigate the "aaah, what do I say" part.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:08 PM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

IANASociologist, but in my experience the details are needed to help with closure, regardless of any sense of vulnerability, morbid curiosity, etc.

A friend of mine died while leading a glacier hiking trip a few years ago. I knew the basic story well enough; he fell in a crevasse, and it was a significant enough fall that it was no surprise he didn't survive. There are many ways to fall while mountaineering, I know of a lot of them, so really there wasn't a sense of mystery. And there wasn't an element of unknown vulnerability; crevasses are obviously dangerous to anyone who's been on a glacier.

But because I love my friend I had to know what he was doing. Maybe it's because I respected him so much as an outdoor guide that I wanted to make sure he was hiking responsibly. Whatever the reason, hearing the details of his last seconds, his last words, who he was with, how exactly he fell was important to me, and a part of my heart rested a little bit once I knew, I felt like I was there with him in a way. With the details his death seemed so much more concrete and real, I feel the details had a lot to do with me accepting all this.
posted by midmarch snowman at 4:15 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Because death seems so existentially unreasonable to us, we desire to answer the why question in an effort to deal with it on an emotional level. To answer the why question, we feel that we need to know what happened.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:21 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think closure is a big part of it. Perhaps the cause is irrelevant in a strictly logical sense but people often need more than cold hard logic. Sometimes people really need to know the answer to the story or the solution to the puzzle because otherwise the brain doesn't get a signal that it's okay to stop thinking about it and it makes it hard to put it behind you. People don't just exist one day and stop existing the next; there's always a reason, floating around somewhere out there. It's hard enough dealing with death, but without the sense of closure and knowing the end of the story it's even harder to move on. Especially with something like a death because then it's like "Oh man if they're not telling people it must be really bad." That just makes it worse.
posted by bleep at 4:32 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think closure has a lot to do with it. You can complete the story of their life if you know how it ended. Survival instinct seems right, too... knowing what to avoid, if possible.

P. S. -- This is why I come to Ask MeFi. Thank you all. I'd mark everyone as 'best answer' if it wasn't a violation of intergalactic internet laws.
posted by cellojoe at 5:28 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Spring and Fall" - to explain death to a child - offers a profoundly authentic understanding of our sense of our own mortality and of our deep unity with others, and so makes clearer the almost universal need for closure.
posted by nickji at 11:11 AM on October 17, 2011

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