This week’s blog post addresses the importance of thinking about death and dying. An honest conversation about death is not necessarily easy. Ironically, however, such a discussion can be very positive and lead to living life more deeply.

On a recent episode of the Influence Continuum, I interviewed Judy Stevens-Long, Ph.D. Judy is a faculty emerita at Fielding Graduate University, where she served as Associate Dean for Curriculum Development from 2001 to 2008. She developed and directed the first online degree program in the country for Fielding. She is also faculty emerita from Cal State in Los Angeles where she taught before coming to Fielding. Dr. Stevens-Long is an expert in developmental psychology and was my mentor for my doctoral program at Fielding and oversaw my dissertation. I am very pleased that Fielding News highlighted this podcast discussion in its May 13th edition.

Judy’s research publications range from works on child development to work on death and dying. She is the author of Living Well, Dying Well: A Guide to Choices, Costs, and Consequences (with co-author Dohrea Bardell). Judy currently works with a hospice program in Santa Barbara as a death educator and patient service volunteer.

What is Developmental Psychology?

Developmental psychology is a discipline devoted to exploring the optimal conditions for positive maturity in humans from birth to death. Dr. Stevens-Long says that maturity includes:

  • the ability to think about a wide range of ideas with curiosity and sound judgment;
  • working and playing well with others;
  • exercising compassion and patience; and
  • making the best of the hand you are dealt in life.

The insights gained through studying human psychological development help formulate positive life skills, including appropriate parenting skills. For example, research has shown that corporal punishment and harsh, authoritarian parental behavior is damaging. When a child is raised in such an atmosphere, it is more susceptible to undue influence. Cult indoctrination reduces a person’s ability to consider more than one worldview; it takes away an adult’s ability to make sound judgments and reduces them to a more infantile developmental stage.

Judy advocates what is called “authoritative” (as opposed to “authoritarian”) parenting. Boundaries and structure are essential for healthy child development but must be based on consistent love and caring. As children grow older, parenting needs to adapt to their increasing need for independence. As the parent of every teen knows full well, adolescence can be a turbulent time and requires a constant balancing act between allowing increased freedom and enforcing safe and appropriate boundaries.

Although it may be common to attribute more importance to child development, Judy emphasizes that a great deal of mental and emotional growth occurs during the adult years. In other words development is possible throughout the entire human life span. 

Dr. Stevens-Long and Dr. Michael Commons published an essential book on this subject, Adult Life, now in its 4th edition. The book explores how people react to significant events as they age—events such as divorce, education, career change, and loss.

Why is Dying Part of the Human Development Discussion?

The reality of death and dying has never been easy for human beings to handle. We live in a culture obsessed with denial of aging in any form, let alone death itself. Judy emphasizes, however, that the best life involves coping skills that help one face life’s most significant challenges. Development occurs on four fronts: emotions, intellect, behavior, and spirituality. And the fact that we will all die is undoubtedly the most significant developmental challenge any of us will face. 

Dying with Wisdom: Approaching the End of Life

Advanced Directives 

One of the realities of the dying process is that we may lose our ability to control what happens to us if we become mentally unable to make decisions. These decisions require a great deal of assessment about what is most important in our lives. Thinking about what we would want to happen under those circumstances has to be done beforehand. 

Dr. Stevens-Long suggests starting with these questions to help formulate an advanced directive: 

  • What does “quality of life” mean to me?
  • What are a few things I wouldn’t want to live without being able to do? (Climb mountains, climb the stairs, read, write, talk, see, hear?)
  • Would I want a feeding tube, breathing tube, or other life-saving interventions? When and under what circumstances?
  • Who do I trust to be my health care proxy – someone who will carry out my wishes even in the face of resistance from the medical establishment or other family members? 

There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. But without explicit, written decisions in a legally binding format in the hands of a legally appointed proxy, they may be ignored. (This is most critical when in a hospital setting. Medical personnel wants to save lives, sometimes at any cost–financial or otherwise–and see death as a failure.) 

A regular review of advanced directives is essential, based on age, changes in spiritual thinking, or changed physical conditions. 

What are other questions to ask? 

There are numerous other aspects to be considered:

  • Cremation or burial (either traditional or one of the new alternatives)?
  • Do I want to be an organ donor?
  • Where do I want to die (home, in an out-of-home hospice, in a hospital)?
  • How do I feel about assisted suicide? Would I want that to be available, and if so, under what circumstances? 

Living Well and Dying Well are Intimately Connected 

What is a good death? Judy says it allows time for connection with significant people, time to say goodbye, and an atmosphere of compassion, empathy, and forgiveness.

Living a good life involves planning for a good death. As in every aspect of life, there are no guarantees that we will have the end we have envisioned. Still, it is essential to prepare as best we can, and be open and honest about it with ourselves, our children (in age-appropriate stages), and other significant people in our lives. Doing so can create more positive and essential connections now, even if the end is different from what we hoped it would be.


Further information: 

Home | Judy Stevens-Long (

Dying With Wisdom | Research and common sense about the end of life

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