What Color is Dying? (Hint: It’s a Trick Question)


During a chat over coffee this morning a colleague asked me the above-mentioned question and…I admit it…the first color that came to mind was black.

He smiled and said that was the first color that came to his mind, too, and during the following discussion we agreed that black would probably be the first color springing to mind for the majority of Americans and possibly other western cultures, too.  (It would probably be white for many of those from eastern cultures.)

So why is this a trick question?  Because black (and white in some cultures) is the color associated with death.  But dying people aren’t dead yet.  They’re still very much alive.  This question reveals how we tend to subconsciously view the dying as close-enough-to-dead-to-count, an unfortunate tendency that does a lot of harm to everybody.

This prejudice is deeply ingrained as evidenced by the fact that even my colleague and I (who have worked extensively with the dying in hospice) still defaulted to black as our first association.  Like any solid prejudice I believe it’ll take work to examine, uproot, and then change it, but it’s worth the effort because if we don’t, we’ll all wind up as one of “those people” while we’re dying and suffer the stigma and exile that currently goes along with it.

Once my colleague and I recognized and talked about our conditioned response, we then asked the question again and came up with completely different responses.  He said that, for him, dying is actually quite purple, a color that he loves and relates to on a deep level.  I on the other hand kept seeing a prism in my mind, shattering a sunbeam into a thousand different colors.

And here’s what I found most interesting about the difference.  When I saw dying as black I felt like I’d just pulled a plastic bag over my head.  But when I let that go and suddenly saw it as a prism full of rainbows instead, that feeling of suffocation turned into curiosity and wonder and a delightful sense of mystery which honestly was the experience I tended to actually have when I worked with hospice.  It was really, really magical hanging out with dying people, not black at all.

BTW, the opening/closing question marks at the top of the post came from a Wikipedia discussion of question marks (“also known as an interrogation pointinterrogation markquestion pointquery, or eroteme”), which was kind of interesting in its own right and totally distracted me.  (Not hard to do though.)  Here’s the link.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

14 responses

  1. “I on the other hand kept seeing a prism in my mind, shattering a sunbeam into a thousand different colors.” – I like that – much better than black. This discussion instigated my looking at several poems I wrote about the “black” and “being blackened” at different times in my life. I’ll look at them again and maybe work on them to see if they change to something like your prism of a thousand colors . . ..

  2. I thought of multiple hues too. (Honest. I didn’t peek at what colors you said before I answered, but I did read about the distinction between “dying” versus “dead.”) But all my hues were fading….

  3. Fading! So your colors were actually dynamic and in flux…reflective of the ebb? So so so interesting. I’m endlessly fascinated by the different ways people perceive/experience/translate everything. There’s no end to how much there is to learn. Thanks Karen.

  4. I confess. I’ve never even thought of this question before. I might saying silver/white…for that image of going to the light that is so often referenced in near-death experiences.

    And BTW, I just figured out why I never see your posts in my feed. For some reason I wasn’t following you! How’d that happen?

    • I wonder if that’s why white is the color for death in some far eastern cultures? Hmm.

      And I’ve given up trying to figure out what’s happening with being able to comment or show up in readers or any of that. I don’t know whether it’s my laptop or what but it probably happened from my side. Sorry! The important thing is I still get your posts. 🙂

      • I don’t know. I suspect it happened on my end. I have too many people in my reader now and I sort of lose track. But there are certain ones I really look forward to, like yours, and when I don’t see anything from those people, I start to wonder…?

  5. I’ve had many friends and family members die in my lifetime. Out of my own grief and that of others, coupled with a long standing personal fear of death, I came to see death and dying mostly as a dark, a mostly “black” experience.

    But then, the dying and death of a close friend, Tom, 15 years ago altered that perception. His wife called to tell me he didn’t have long to live from the advanced melanoma that had spread throughout his body; that he was under hospice care, and wanted to see me. Although jolted with sadness and dread by the news, I said, “Of course.” The next day, with that dread in my body and mind, I drove in to see him. What happened after I walked into Tom’s room in his home has remained in my mind ever since. When he saw me, his face lit up with a joyful smile as he greeted me and then told me that he had no fear of death, that in fact, he was having the most glorious and joyful experience of his life. “I have to share this with you, Bob. I’m falling into the arms of God. and it’s beautiful. I’ve never known such love and want tell everybody about it.” Tears of joy that flowed from his eyes joined a rapturous glow that filled the room. He leaned forward with spread arms and we hugged for a long while. When I left Tom’s home I was transformed. The fear and dread I originally felt were replaced completely with the joy Tom shared with me. The colors surrounding and emanating from him were a mix of gold and purple and the colors of the rainbow. Lifelong conditioning, however, is difficult to change. A darkness usually falls over me when I initially learn of someone dying – until I recall the experience I shared with my friend Tom.

    • What a profound illustration of how an understanding of death as something bad and horrible and dark can be transformed by just one person dying a good death. Thanks Bob.

  6. Pingback: Holy Dying – Engaged | Choose A Good Life

  7. I enjoyed your post and immediately also thought of black the minute I read the title of your blog…but as I read further (even before you mentioned your alternate colour choices) my colour changed to faded hues of orange or yellow. More like pastels. Weird.

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