Professor Peter Adams: thinking about his death

Professor Peter Adams says there's nothing wrong with thinking about your own death: it's part of life.

Professor Peter Adams
Professor Peter Adams; new book reflects on the inevitable.

I’m hoping the reader starts to think there are strong positive reasons to establish a relationship with death. It’s troublesome to ignore it.

Professor Peter Adams, School of Population Health University of Auckland

Death. It’s something we may have been thinking about a lot in recent months, thanks to the ominous influence of Covid-19.

Usually, our concerns focus on the death of loved ones rather than our own mortality. But Professor Peter Adams has been thinking about his own death for some time. He’s written about it in his latest book: Reflecting on the Inevitable: Mortality at the Crossroads of Psychology, Philosophy, and Health.

In it, he describes the topic of his own mortality as “my-death”, and says shuffling off this mortal coil should be a subject we discuss openly, rather than it being taboo.

“Don’t leave death until the end of your life,” says Peter. “Your own death walks alongside you right from the beginning. Why not embrace a relationship with one’s own death throughout life?”

Easy enough to say. But how? Reflecting on the Inevitable uses conversations between four characters to present the challenges we face in thinking about our death, in different circumstances and at different stages of life. In reality, the conversations in which the four characters engage are effectively discussions going on inside Peter’s own mind.

“A long time ago, I was very interested in how important it was to look at my own death as an integral part of my being alive. It goes right back to when I was first studying philosophy in the 1970s.

“I don’t consider the actual process of dying has much to do with death as an event in life. The death of other people is a sad and scary topic, particularly of loved ones, and is well covered in all sorts of literature.

“But this book says you can’t think about your own death as you think about the death of other people. I use these characters to explore these concepts.”

A number of Peter’s books have been written in this style, using dialogue between characters to convey concepts. “But what’s different [in this book] is a lot of the key content comes through these dialogues. Usually, I use the dialogue as a way of supplementing or complementing the main points of a book. But in this one, the characters are actually developing key ideas.”

The aim is to tease out strands of personal mortality from their confused entanglement with other aspects of death, such as the process of dying, the death of other people, and death’s representation in concepts and images, such as skeletons, graveyards and the grim reaper.

“Don’t leave death until the end of your life. Your own death walks alongside you right from the beginning.

Professor Peter Adams School of Population Health, University of Auckland

Peter works in the School of Population Health in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences and is best known for his work on addiction and gambling. Previously he spent 13 years working as a clinical psychologist and the book aims to integrate some of these experiences and to link them up with broader goals in public health and various aspects of medicine.

He has written several books that make use of illustrative dialogues, and this latest one, published by Oxford University Press, is written in a way the average person will understand and relate to. “The conversations are created to be representative of conversations we might have with our own friends or family.

“The primary target would be someone with an interest or curiosity about their own death, because there’s very little written in this way, as an overview of the topic. The second audience could be those working in palliative care … as well as social workers, psychologists and students.”

He says it’s important for people to have “a reasonably worked-out position” on the subject of their own death.

“Most of my books start conceptually and finish pragmatically. Because of my background in health, I’m interested in whether an awareness of my-death is useful and the book concludes with a discussion of ways in which we might promote such my-death awareness more generally.

“There have been various movements in health and in sociology, and even grassroots movements such as the ‘Death Cafes’, to try and promote death awareness. But no one’s explicitly explored it using the same strategies for my-death awareness, which I’m arguing is different.”

In Death Cafes you sit around, have coffee and cake and chat about death.

“The ‘death awareness’ movement is an interesting development. It recognises we need to normalise conversations about death. But I’d like ‘my-death’ awareness to be included, particularly in learning, for those working with the dying, such as doctors, undertakers and nurses, and those working with people in general, such as counsellors, lecturers and lawyers.

“The ultimate goal of this book is to promote a lifelong relationship to your own death. That’s separate from one’s relationship to one’s dying and the death of other people. To recognise it as a territory in its own right, and how important and vibrant life is for me and how valued it is. It’s part of how I construct my values around my life.

“I’m hoping the reader starts to think there are strong positive reasons to establish a relationship with death. It’s troublesome to ignore it.

“It prepares you for the final period of life because that time is full of so many other things to do, like saying goodbye to people.”

While in lockdown, Peter had a birthday but far from contemplating being one foot closer to the grave, he lit himself a candle on a cupcake, sang himself happy birthday, and played ‘When I’m 64’ on the clarinet, posting the video on YouTube. It reflects his attitude to life.

Peter has another book out soon that looks beyond death, How to Talk About Spiritual Encounters, written entirely in the style of café conversations. It explores why people find it hard to talk about their spiritual and religious experiences, then examines ways in which language can best be used to express them.

– Denise Montgomery

This story first appeared in the May 2020 edition of the University of Auckland's UniNews magazine.