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For Seniors : Psychologist Has Made Death His Life's Work

July 10, 1994|LINDA FELDMAN

Herman Feifel is losing his sight, but not his vision. Known as the father of the modern death movement, he is full of vitality, with a booming voice and the enthusiasm of a university student.

His thoughts come quickly--one hitched to the other, complete with references to philosophy, religion, psychology--and none are morbid.

"Life is not lived fully unless the idea of death is grappled with honestly," said Feifel, 78, the former chief psychologist at the Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic in Westwood, a faculty member at the USC School of Medicine and a resident of West Los Angeles.

Starting with his seminal 1959 book, "The Meaning of Death," his prolific writings have changed our way of thinking about death, inspiring two generations of researchers and clinicians, colleagues say.

But he admits, just as we can't gaze at the sun, it is hard to look at death straight-on.

"One thing we can say is that death means we're not forever, which for me emphasizes the uniqueness of life--living each day as a beginning, stressing the gift of life given anew each morning after waking from sleep," Feifel said.

"A young child believes that when you go to sleep you're dead, and that's not a remote idea since Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, was the twin brother to Thanatos, the god of death."

What kind of person studies death? It's not as if he had a calling at an early age. But there are some events in his background that pointed him in that direction.

"I grew up with the issues of redemption and death," he said. "In those days, when a relative died, at least in my environment, they died at home and were laid out. I was quite young when I saw my uncle's body. . . . There is a gift to comfort and care which is just as great as the gift of a cure--though modern medicine gives up after the physician admits there is nothing else that can be done medically."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in an Orthodox Jewish environment that he rebelled against early on, Feifel attended New York public schools and received his bachelor's degree from City University of New York. He received his master's degree in 1939 from Columbia University and enlisted in the Army Air Force before completing his doctorate.

Designated an aviation psychologist, he helped pick flight crews for World War II combat missions whose personnel had a good chance of not coming back.

"We flew by the seat of our pants making these selections," he said. "But the interesting factor was that fear of death was never part of the selection process for pilots. In fact, the most successful pilots were those who felt they could not die."

After the war, Feifel completed his doctorate and launched his study of how people accommodate to the ultimate stress--the knowledge of impending death. What fascinated him during the war and afterward was that the topic was never confronted by science.

In 1959, he received the first national research grant awarded to study attitudes toward death. Until then, the subject was not considered appropriate for genuine scientific inquiry and finding subjects was difficult. As one physician told him, "The one thing you never do is discuss death with a patient."

Eventually, Feifel found cooperative colleagues. During the 1960s and 1970s, workshops and courses on dying, death and mourning appeared in universities and professional schools all over the country.

Today, a select international group of physicians, theologians, educators, writers and behavioral scientists meets every 18 months to consider related issues. They range from the way we die in modern society to the way different cultures view death and dying, and most recently, the business aspects of death with people living longer by artificial means.

"Death, like sex, involves everyone, so just as we have sex education, we now have death education in universities and medical schools all over the world," he said.

These are the essentials, he said: the understanding that dying is not only a medical affair but also a human one. That life is not just a matter of length but of depth and quality. That healing the spirit is as important as healing the body. And that acceptance of personal mortality is one of the foremost entryways to self-knowledge.

"If we accepted death as a necessity rather than demote it to the level of mischance, if we accepted death from the very beginning," he wrote in "American Psychologist" in 1990, "energies could be available to us for more positive aspects of living, perhaps even fortifying our gift for creative splendor against our genius for destruction."

What of Herman Feifel's future?

He is struggling with loss. Having undergone several operations on his eyes, he is no longer able to indulge in either of his two favorite pastimes--reading and playing handball.

"I'm in transition," he said. "I have not accepted Braille yet. What Milton said, 'They also serve who stand and wait,' is not for me. I have a lot of fire left."

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