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Herman Feifel, 87; Pioneer in Study of Death

January 24, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Herman Feifel, a psychologist whose work broke the taboo on discussions of death and dying and made them legitimate subjects for scholarly and scientific study, died of natural causes Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 87.

Feifel became known as the founder of modern death psychology after editing a volume of essays titled "The Meaning of Death," published in 1959. It became a classic in the field, earning wide attention with contributions from such eminent thinkers as psychiatrist Carl Jung, theologian Paul Tillich and philosopher Herbert Marcuse.

The Brooklyn-born expert on death, who for three decades was chief psychologist for the Veterans Administration outpatient clinic in Los Angeles, influenced generations of workers in the field of thanatology, including Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whose 1969 bestseller, "On Death and Dying," brought popular recognition of the emotional stages of dying.

Though both Feifel and Kubler-Ross are credited with raising awareness of the psychosocial needs of the dying, Feifel's work laid the foundation.

The American Psychological Foundation, in awarding him its 2001 Gold Medal for Life Achievement, hailed "The Meaning of Death" as "the most important single work" to galvanize the scholarly community into studying dying, death and bereavement.

"It was a landmark publication which brought the field of thanatology into existence," said Austin Kutscher, president of the Foundation of Thanatology, a New York-based organization devoted to improving the psychosocial and medical care of the terminally ill.

"The democracy of death encompasses us all," wrote Feifel, addressing those who preferred silence on the subject of life's end. "Even before its actual arrival, it is an absent presence. To deny or ignore it distorts life's pattern.... In gaining an awareness of death, we sharpen and intensify our awareness of life."

Feifel's awareness of death began when he was a child and saw his dead uncle's body laid out at home. The young Feifel saw death as "the big veto" to one's most ardent dreams.

Later, as a teenager, he saw the classic 1934 movie "Death Takes a Holiday," in which Fredric March, as the human embodiment of death, takes a vacation on Earth and falls in love with a woman.

Feifel remembered being comforted by the film's message about love conquering death. "It provided me with a wishful de-demonizing of death," he told interviewer Inge B. Corless in 1991.

Feifel majored in psychology at City College of New York, then continued his studies at Columbia University, where he began to focus on adult development and maturity. He earned his master's degree from Columbia in 1939 and began work on his doctorate.

His studies were interrupted when he joined the Army Air Corps in 1942. As an aviation psychologist, he helped select flight crews for combat missions. Although he found that the most successful pilots "were those who felt they could not die," what he found most interesting was that exploring a pilot's fear of death was never part of the evaluation process.

After his discharge in 1946, he continued to work as a research psychologist for the Office of the Adjutant General. At the same time, he resumed work on his doctoral degree, which he earned from Columbia in 1948.

His wartime experiences and the knowledge that millions of fellow Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust heightened his interest in death and dying. But, as he told Corless, the event that had the greatest impact was the death of his mother in 1952. Although he had been shot at during the war, it was the loss of his mother that put death "truly in my gut."

He searched the scientific literature on attitudes toward death and dying but found surprisingly little work had been done.

In 1956, he organized and chaired the first symposium of psychologists on the subject. Held at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Assn., the session, called "The Concept of Death and Its Relation to Behavior," ranged over psychology, philosophy and science and spurred Feifel to gather the articles that formed "The Meaning of Death."

In his own article for the book, Feifel compared attitudes toward death among normal and mentally ill populations. In many cases, he reported, those facing impending death "prefer honest and plain talk" about their condition and were thankful for the opportunity to air their feelings about dying, contrary to the dire warnings of their physicians that the subject would be too stressful for them.

"The one thing you never do," one doctor told Feifel, "is discuss death with a patient."

The book found a mixed reception in the medical and psychological communities. Feifel believed doctors' resistance to talking openly about death stemmed in part from their own fears. He found evidence of that in a 1966 study that showed that although doctors thought less about death than other groups studied, they feared it more.

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