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Is it really possible to postpone your death? After lots of digging around, Dr Karl’s found some scientific research that lays the question to rest.

Day of the dead: is it really possible to postpone the day you die? (Source: ManuelBugos/iStockphoto)

When I was a medical student I often heard the commonly-held belief that dying people can deliberately postpone their time of death. The rationale for them to do this was so that all the far-flung relatives could arrive in time to say their goodbyes, or so that the dying person could reach a personally important event, such as their birthday, a family celebration, or the footy grand final.

Is this possible?

So first, a bit of background. You see, we humans have a tendency to see patterns in our lives but these patterns often don’t stand up to close analysis. Why do we do this?

First, the Universe is big and complicated, and we have to simplify it to make sense of it all.

Second, as part of this simplification, it turns out that our brains are prone to selective memory. We easily remember events that happened on ‘significant’ days such as Christmas, while events that happened on random days tend to get lost in our memories.

So some of the stuff we believe is correct, but other stuff (not surprisingly) is totally incorrect.

Getting back to this belief that dying people can deliberately ‘hang-on’ to life, or postpone their impeding death, I eventually found a paper that dealt with this very topic. The authors of this paper rather cutely called the belief the ‘death-takes-a-holiday” effect and partly debunked it.

In their article, entitled Holidays, birthdays, and postponement of cancer death, the authors, Donn C. Young and Erinn M. Hade analysed every single death from cancer that happened in the state of Ohio between 1989 and 2000 all 309,221 of them. These 309,221 people were roughly equally divided between male (52 per cent) and female (48 per cent). Their median age at death was 72 years, but the range was broad from one day old to 112 years of age. For the study, the authors chose people who died of cancer because they tend to die slowly and this might allow a person to deliberately postpone their death.

The researchers chose to look at three significant dates of the person’s life their birthday, Christmas (25 Dec) and the American holiday of Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday in November). They looked at the number of cancer deaths in the week each side of that date.

The results were relatively clear cut. Overall, looking at Christmas, Thanksgiving and the person’s birthday, there was no statistically significant difference in cancer deaths between the week before that date, and the week after that date.

However, in direct opposition to their findings, there were some previous studies that claimed to have found some truth in this ‘death takes a holiday’ effect. This discrepancy bothered Drs Young and Hade, so they went back and analysed these earlier studies.

First, they found that many of these studies had sample sizes that were too small. Second, some of these studies ‘massaged’ the small pool of data over and over until they found a result. For example, one study performed over 100 statistical tests, but used a sample of only some 400 people.

Maybe Drs Young and Hade should do a bigger study. After all, they looked only at cancer deaths in Ohio from 1989-2000 which was only one third of all deaths. I can’t help wonder if they would have got different results if they looked at all deaths in the state of Ohio in that period.

So, it seems that people dying of cancer usually can’t hang on for a special occasion. But it does seem that the opposite might be true that people can ‘give up’ or ‘let go’.

This is simply personal speculation I have found no paper on this topic. It is purely based on stories from people in the health profession. They often report that if the patient is near death, they can say goodbye to friends and family, and then just die. Sometimes they say they are “tired of fighting”.

The Indian poet, playwright and essayist, Rabindranath Tagore, who won the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote: “Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”

Tags: death, psychology

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Published 19 June 2012

2012 Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd

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20 Jun 2012 1:09:54pm

Indian Poet Rabindranath Tagore – is totally correct in what he has written. Why do we FEAR death when it is a natural part of our cycle as a human being. The next life is awesome and is the next chapter of of “us” or our “being” in a different energy and realm. Earth is “school”!!!

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20 Jun 2012 7:13:52pm

Well I have postponed my death many times and currently plan to keep doing that.
There is no ” next life “

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20 Jun 2012 8:08:17pm

… or not.

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21 Jun 2012 3:04:43am

Death may be a natural part of our life cycle, but I see no more reason to welcome it than I would encroaching senility. Even if you do wind up on some other plane of existence, what good is it if, not unlike STARGATE’s ascended beings, you can’t interact with people in the here and now? For example, mother is 94. She’s bed ridden, he memory not doing well. I’m all she has. If I’m not alive to look after her finances, or visit her at the nursing home, who will? Some faceless bureaucrat? Similar examples abound and go far to explain why people with such responsibilities (single parents are another example) may not be keen on kicking off any time soon.

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21 Jun 2012 7:20:02am

If energy never disapears,but merely changes form then we really don’t know what form it will become next. We may very well lose our human memories since they are located in our flesh brain. Certainly unlikely we would retain human memories. a good reason to show kindness to other life forms.

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21 Jun 2012 7:50:12am

Hi, In the area of people delaying their death until a loved one comes to say goodbye I think you may find a lot of anecdotal evidence from people who work in palliative care. This seems to have happened with my late father in law who put off dying till everyone had been able to come. Once the last person he had been waiting for arrived he was able to let go and die. Ask some observant and compassionate palliative care staff if you would like to find out more of what happens with the dying.

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23 Jun 2012 8:01:02pm

I agree with Angela. If there is an effect of people postponing or influencing their time of death, I think that it is much more likely to be influenced by the desire to say goodbye to loved ones, rather than by a specific date. Unfortunately, the study does not test for that (which would be much harder to measure).

I have heard many stories of people holding on until a loved one can be there. I’ve also heard of many people who hang on until they are told that it is OK to go by family.

I have also of course heard many stories of someone passing away just before that special someone makes it, so perhaps it is indeed just selective memory as Dr Karl suggests.

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10 Jul 2012 7:01:20pm

Ditty to Angela. My ex’s grandmother stuck around in a seemingly elongated final moment until one of the granddaughters arrived after hurriedly flying home from the UK.

She gave a small smile as the granddaughter entered the room, then she was gone.

There were no significant dates involved, just (I like to think) the ability to wait until it was ok to let go.

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21 Jun 2012 10:33:59am

If only we had some proof of this instead of just wishful thinking

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22 Jun 2012 11:40:23am

Even without reincarnation or heaven delusions death is a natural part of life and if you accept that it is enevitable you will surely live a more rewarding life.

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22 Jun 2012 1:46:05pm

death is the end, any opinion to the contrary is merely an opinion nothing more.. As far as anyone knows death is the end and thats why it is so feared even by the religous who so eagrly assert otherwise. cool story Cyanne…

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22 Jun 2012 2:11:39pm

There is no afterlife. Life is not school. I fear that people who hold this belief don’t live their life, because as you say, “the next life is awesome”. This life is all we have. So live and love every day of it!

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22 Jun 2012 9:22:44pm

I have to say the “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” attitude is a bit stupid. If you believe death is the end, I don’t believe you would enjoy life more than someone who believes in a life after this one, as you should enjoy both. Life is definitely school either way as we are continuously learning!

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26 Jun 2012 1:32:40pm

Please find two references which feature the perspective of a unique Being who really knew what He was talking about re the all important topic of death

http://www.adidam.org/death_and_dying/index.html

http://www.aboutadidam.org/death_dying_and_beyond/index.html

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