Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.
The Fulfillment of Life
“… We are so convinced that death is simply the end of a process that it does not ordinarily occur to us to conceive of death as a goal and a fulfillment, ….”
“From the middle of life onward, only he remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life. For in the secret hour of life’s midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal. The negation of life’s fulfillment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. …” Jung (1934)
“… it would seem to be more in accord with the collective psyche of humanity to regard death as the fulfillment of life’s meaning and as its goal in the truest sense, instead of a mere meaningless cessation. Anyone who cherishes a rationalistic opinion on this score has isolated himself psychologically and stands opposed to his own basic human nature.” Jung (1934)
Mention “fulfillment of life” to most people and, given the materialism of our culture, they will think of having a fat bank account, a cushy job, lots of friends and the “toys” that clutter our modern lives. Few indeed would share Jung’s view that the fulfillment of life is—death! In this essay we will consider Jung’s definitions of death, his own near-death experience, his thoughts on the milieu, or conditions surrounding death, his ideas on immortality, and his advice for people who were grappling with imminent death or grieving the loss of loved ones.
Definitions of Death
The dictionary defines death as “the act or fact of dying; the ending of any form of life in people, animals or plants;…” Jung was far more elaborate in his definitions—plural, because in his many essays, books and letters, he offered multiple meanings for “death.” For example, in his letters he referred to death as “a faithful companion of life” that follows life “like its shadow” and “complete unconsciousness, i.e. a complete overcoming of pain and pleasure and ego,…”. In his alchemical works, death gets defined as the separation of soul and spirit from the body, a “growing beyond oneself,” “an integral part of life,” “the cessation of spiritual progress,” and “the moment when consciousness sinks back into the darkness from which it originally emerged.”
In some of his essays Jung speaks of death in terms that we might find odd, e.g. death as “an accomplishment, a ripe fruit on the tree of life,… a goal that has been unconsciously lived and worked for during half a lifetime.” Jung regarded death “as only a transition, as part of a life process whose extent and duration are beyond our knowledge,” and the “unproblematical ending of individual existence… the end.” But it is also, to Jung, “the great perfector, drawing his [i.e. death’s] inexorable line under the balance-sheet of human life.” As such, “the nearness of death forcibly brings about a perfection that no effort of will and no good intentions could achieve.” Jung hypothesizes that this might be why we see “so often in those who are dying” the urge “… to set to rights whatever is still wrong…”, e.g. a deathbed resolution of a family rift, or a confession of some crime, with a desire to make restitution in some way. “Death is the end of the empirical man and the goal of the spiritual man,…” That Jung understood the distinction between these two aspects of being human very personally was perhaps due to his own experiences with death.
Jung’s Experiences with Death
There were two types of these experiences: Jung’s own near-death experience, which (as is often the case with NDEs) left an indelible impression on him, and those experiences of loss, dealing with the passing of people close or important to him. We’ll consider his NDE first.
In January of 1944 Jung had a serious heart attack. For weeks his life hung in the balance, and his recovery took months. When he was able to return to work he set about replying to the stack of correspondence that had accumulated over his months of convalescence, and in several letters he gives descriptions of his experience, which had many of the classic features of the typical NDE, e.g. feelings of sublimity, ineffable joy, a sense of expansion beyond the limits of time and space, a fullness or awareness of eternity and infinity. Jung was most explicit in a letter he wrote to Kristine Mann, a Jungian analyst in New York, who was dying of cancer.
“… On the whole my illness proved to be a most valuable experience, which gave me the inestimable opportunity of a glimpse behind the veil…. I was free, completely free and whole, as I never felt before. I found myself 15,000 km. from the earth and I saw it as an immense globe resplendent in an inexpressibly beautiful blue light. I was on a point exactly above the southern end of India, which shone in a bluish silvery light with Ceylon like a shimmering opal in the deep blue sea. I was in the universe, where there was a big solitary rock containing a temple. I saw its entrance illuminated by a thousand small flames of coconut oil. I knew I was to enter the temple and I would reach full knowledge. But at this moment a messenger from the world (which by then was a very insignificant corner of the universe) arrived and said that I was not allowed to depart and at this moment the whole vision collapsed completely. But from then on for three weeks I slept, and was wakeful each night in the universe and experienced the complete vision. Not I was united with somebody or something—it was united, it was the hierosgamos, the mystic Angus. It was a silent invisible festival permeated by an incomparable, indescribable feeling of eternal bliss, such as I never could have imagined as being within reach of human experience….” 
Given the bliss, freedom and wholeness of the vision, Jung understandably did not want to leave that state. He told Kristine (whom he knew personally) that
“Death is the hardest thing from the outside and as long as we are outside of it. But once inside you taste of such completeness and peace and fulfillment that you don’t want to return. As a matter of fact, during the first month after my vision I suffered from black depressions because I felt that I was recovering. It was like dying. I did not want to live and to return into this fragmentary, restricted, narrow, almost mechanical life, where you were subject to the laws of gravity and cohesion, imprisoned in a system of 3 dimensions and whirled along with other bodies in the turbulent stream of time. There was fullness, meaning fulfillment, eternal movement (not movement in time).”
Being the empiricist that he was, Jung knew this was true for him. He was not about to assure Dr. Mann that she would experience the same thing, nor was there the widespread NDE literature available in 1945 as it is now. Jung was writing from his own experience, in the hope that his account might be some comfort to Dr. Mann. He concluded his letter to her with the words “Be patient and regard it as another difficult task, this time the last one.” She died 10 months later.
Jung lived a long life and such longevity often means lots of loss. Jung experienced the deaths of his father, mother, sister, mistress, wife, friends like Richard Wilhelm and Albert Oeri, and former students like Kristine Mann, as well as some of his patients. All these losses gave him multiple occasions to observe the passage from life into death, and the various features and conditions that surround the experience. This allowed Jung to describe the milieu of death.
The Milieu of Death
As both a medical doctor and a healer of souls, Jung was in a privileged position to observe the process of dying and death in the lives of many people. In an essay on “The Soul and Death,” Jung noted
“In my rather long psychological experience I have observed a great many people whose unconscious psychic activity I was able to follow into the immediate presence of death. As a rule the approaching end was indicated by those symbols which, in normal life also, proclaim changes of psychological condition—rebirth symbols such as changes of locality, journeys, and the like….”
Because his analyses with patients often extended over years, Jung was able to see how the psyche (which exists outside space and time) was making preparations for the end of life:
“I have frequently been able to trace back for over a year, in a dream-series, the indications of approaching death, even in cases where such thoughts were not prompted by the outward situation. Dying, therefore, has its onset long before actual death. Moreover, this often shows itself in peculiar changes of personality which may precede death by quite a long time….”
In these instances of working with patients who eventually died, Jung had some surprises, particularly in the fact of
“…how little ado the unconscious psyche makes of death. It would seem as though death were something relatively unimportant, or perhaps our psyche does not bother about what happens to the individual. But it seems that the unconscious is all the more interested in how one dies; that is, whether the attitude of consciousness is adjusted to dying or not….”
The fact seems of less consequence than the manner—how the individual responds to the reality of what is happening in terms of attitude. Kubler-Ross’s stages of dying come to mind here, suggesting the importance of the person coming to the stage of acceptance before the end comes.
Jung found that dreams can help in the process of adjusting to dying. Remarkable dreams (e.g. those full of archetypal images) “… occur at the gateway of death. They interpret the mystery of death. They don’t predict it but show you the right way to approach the end.” Jung’s experience with multiple patients taught him that “… the unknown approach of death casts an adumbration, an anticipatory shadow, over the life and dreams of the victim…”. This is not to say that dreaming of one’s own death means imminent demise. Jung noted that “It is notorious that one often dreams of one’s own death, but that is no serious matter. When it is really a question of death, the dream speaks another language.”—the language of symbols, as noted above: changes of locality, journeys, and rebirth. Archetypal images like these will often show up with another feature associated with death: synchronistic phenomena. Jung felt synchronicities were “relatively frequent” in the case of death.
The milieu of death includes not just the dying person but his/her family, friends and acquaintances, all of whom are affected by the experience, to a greater or lesser extent. Jung felt that the dead “are surely not to be pitied—they have so infinitely much more before them than we do—…” Rather Jung (having lost so many members of his family and many friends over his long life) felt the ones to be pitied are “… the living who are left behind, who must contemplate the fleetingness of existence and suffer parting, sorrow, and loneliness in time.”
At one point in a 1958 letter to Aniela Jaffé, Jung posed a rhetorical question: “Why the painful separation from the dead?” His wife Emma had died 3 years before, and Jung reported that “… on New Year’s Eve I had a great dream about my wife,…” and he promised Aniela that he would tell her about it.
As Jung approached 80 years of age, he found “the provisionalness of life” as “indescribable.”
“Everything you do, whether watching a cloud or cooking soup, is done on the edge of eternity and is followed by the suffix of infinity. It is meaningful and futile at once. And so is oneself, a wondrously living centre and at the same time an instant already sped. One is and is not. This frame of mind encompasses me and hems me in. Only with an effort can I look beyond into a semi-self-subsistent world I can barely reach, or which leaves me behind. Everything is right for I lack the power to alter it. This is the débâcle of old age: …”
Jung also noted something that I too have experienced, having buried multiple members of my family: the way one can be “drawn into the death,” or oppositely, the death can offer a liberation, propelling one to undertake a “task that has to be fulfilled in real life. One could say figuratively that a bit of life has passed over from the dead to the living and compels him towards its realization.” Several times, shortly after a family member died, I found myself experiencing a subtle “pull” toward death, even as I felt a liberation, along with a host of tasks and responsibilities that fell to me as the executor of these estates.
While I had executor duties after loved ones died, Jung had other tasks, especially writing letters of condolence. He also wrote many letters to people who asked him questions about death, including his thoughts on immortality.
Jung on Immortality
Jung was ever the empiricist, i.e. he based his ideas and opinions not on beliefs, but on personal experience—what he observed in his own life and the lives of his patients and students. While his near-death experience gave him certainty of the reality of something after death, he was not about to use his personal experience as justification for others to believe:
“At this point, just when it might be expected, I do not want suddenly to pull a belief out of my pocket and invite my reader to do what nobody can do—that is, believe something. I must confess that I myself could never do it either. Therefore I shall certainly not assert now that one must believe death to be a second birth leading to survival beyond the grave….”
Rather, as was his custom, Jung referred his correspondents to the facts of history, i.e. “that the consensus gentium has decided views about death, unmistakably expressed in all the great religions of the world.” That for millennia in all the cultures of human history people have created systems that speak of death, the immortality of the soul, reincarnation etc. was, to Jung, a cogent argument for why we should consider the possibility that something will carry on beyond our earthly existence. Jung had little regard for the modern attitude that assumes we can do without “ideas about a Supreme Being (one or several) and about the Land of the Hereafter.” The person mired in scientism,
“because he cannot discover God’s throne in heaven with a telescope or radar, … assumes that such ideas are not ‘true.’ I would rather say that they are not ‘true’ enough. They have accompanied human life since prehistoric times and are still ready to break through into consciousness at the slightest provocation.”
Jung offered another argument supporting immortality: “the recognition of the fact that the psyche is capable of extrasensory perceptions, namely of telepathy and of precognition, particularly the latter.” In Jung’s way of thinking
“This fact proves a relative independence of the psyche from time and space. This means that the two elements of time and space, indispensable for change, are relatively without importance for the psyche. In other words: the psyche is up to a certain point not subject to corruptibility. That’s all we know. Of course one can have experiences of a very convincing subjective nature which need no support through scientific possibilities. But for those people not possessing the gift of belief it may be helpful to remember that science itself points to the possibility of survival.”
Jung never asked others to accept things on faith. That violated his commitment to empiricism. But, at the same time, his empiricism led him to recommend that
“we should hold beliefs that we know can never be proved. [like belief in the immortality of the soul]. It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give a meaning to his life and enable him to find his place in the universe….”
The belief in life after life, that something of us continues after death, is such a useful belief, which helps us withstand “the most incredible hardships,” find meaning in life, and view death as the fulfillment of life.
To entertain the idea that life goes on after death was one piece of advice Jung gave on the subject of death and dying. He offers us many others in his letters, essays and books.
One repeated theme that occurs numerous times in Jung’s works is the value of living provisionally when one is ageing. Such provisional living is not for the young (it is one of the negative features of the puer, the young person, usually male, who fails to settle down, get a job, marry and raise a family), but for the person in the second half of life, and especially for those approaching death, Jung felt living day to day, relinquishing control, letting go of striving and forcing, “accepting life and death,” was most appropriate.
Another familiar refrain was Jung’s urging that “this limited life should be lived as fully as possible, because the attainment of maximum consciousness while still in this world is an essential condition for the coming life…”. When I have encountered passages like this in Jung I often think of Jesus’ statement that he came that we might “have life and have it abundantly.” Like Jesus, Jung wants us to have joy and satisfaction in life:
“… If your work now gives you some joy and satisfaction, you must cultivate it, just as you should cultivate everything that gives you some joy in being alive. … We live in order to attain the greatest possible amount of spiritual development and self-awareness. As long as life is possible, even if only in a minimal degree, you should hang on to it, in order to scoop it up for the purpose of conscious development. …”
Jung would have us work, play and undertake the task of individuation. He found that “It seems that individuation is a ruthlessly important task to which everything else should take second place.” In this work of individuating, we should “… listen to the quieter voices of our deeper nature,…” so as to “become aware of the fact that soon after the middle of our life the soul begins its secret work, getting ready for the departure.”
As a sailor, Jung knew how much easier it is to “go with the flow,” and not try to fight against a current. Life is like sailing, in that “… a life directed to an aim is in general better, richer, and healthier than an aimless one, and that it is better to go forwards with the stream of time than backwards against it….”. Jung drew on his role as a doctor to set us a prescription:
“…to discover in death a goal towards which one can strive, [since]… shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose…. From the standpoint of psychotherapy it would therefore be desirable to think of death as only a transition, as part of a life process whose extent and duration are beyond our knowledge.”
Failure to “go along with life,” to fail to press on to the goal, may result in rigidity, stiffness or getting “wooden in old age,” by clinging “to the past with a secret fear of death.” People like this, Jung felt were withdrawing “from the life-process, at least psychologically, and consequently remain fixed like nostalgic pillars of salt, with vivid recollections of youth but no living relation to the present. …” Jung concludes that “only he remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life.”
Jung also found that with ageing come
“a surprisingly large number of anticipations, including those of death. Thoughts of death pile up to an astonishing degree as the years increase. That is why I think that nature herself is already preparing for the end. Objectively it is a matter of indifference what the individual consciousness may think about it. But subjectively it makes an enormous difference whether consciousness keeps in step with the psyche or whether it clings to opinions of which the heart knows nothing. It is just as neurotic in old age not to focus upon the goal of death as it is in youth to repress fantasies which have to do with the future.”
Jung is warning us here to be true to ourselves. The heart’s knowledge is subjective, and regardless of what convention, or society collectively thinks, we must grow and develop in tune with our own inner nature.
A final type of advice Jung gave to those who might contemplate suicide. In the collected letters of Jung are several letters asking his opinion of suicide, apparently (judging from the content of his reply) from people who were contemplating ending their own lives. Jung’s advice was consistent:
“The idea of suicide, understandable as it is, does not seem commendable to me. We live in order to attain the greatest possible amount of spiritual development and self-awareness. As long as life is possible, even if only in a minimal degree, you should hang on to it, in order to scoop it up for the purpose of conscious development. To interrupt life before its time is to bring to a standstill an experiment which we have not set up. We have found ourselves in the midst of it and must carry it through to the end. That it is extraordinarily difficult for you,… is quite understandable, but I believe you will not regret it if you cling on even to such a life to the very last. If, aside from your work, you read a good book, as one reads the Bible, it can become a bridge for you leading inwards, along with good things may flow to you such as you perhaps cannot now imagine.”
To another correspondent who was making plans to take his own life, and trying to be rational about it, Jung wrote:
“… I would not plan a suicide ahead. I should rather hang on as long as I can stand my fate or until sheer despair forces my hand. The reason for such an ‘unreasonable’ attitude with me is that… I have good reasons to assume that things are not finished with death.”
Jung’s “reasons” may have been his own personal experience in his NDE, or his recognition that the psyche exists outside time and space. Whatever his reasons might have been, he urged his correspondent to reflect: “Be sure first, whether it is really the will of God to kill yourself or merely your reason. The latter is positively not good enough….” Interestingly Jung had a different opinion “If it should be the act of sheer despair,…” In that case, he felt, “it will not count against you,” while “a willfully planned act might weigh heavily against you.”
This reference to weighing calls to mind the image in the Egyptian Book of the Dead where the deeds of the recently deceased are put on a scale and weighted. The Egyptians are not the only culture to include a judgment process in their description of the afterlife. Many religions speak of a Judgment Day. Apparently Jung had some sense of this, but whether this was based on his own experience (his description of his near-death interval includes no mention of feeling judged) or on his exposure to Christianity in his youth, we can’t say.
Rare indeed is it to find a modern person who would associate the word “fulfillment” with the word “death.” To most modern sensibilities, “death” is obscene, something to be ignored, not spoken of, relegated to hospitals, nursing homes and hospices. Jung had a very different view, and we do well to take up his suggestions on how we might reperceive it and, in so doing, reorient our lives to live more fully and authentically.
Atwater, P.M.H. (2011), Near-Death Experiences. New York: MJF Books.
Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Carter, Chris (2010), Science and the Near-Death Experience. Rochester VT: Inner Traditions.
Eadie, Betty (1992), Embraced by the Light, with Curtis Taylor. Placerville CA: Gold Leaf Press.
Jung, C.G. (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kiernan, Stephen (2006), Last Rights: Rescuing the End of Life from the Medical System. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth (1960), On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan.
Moody, Raymond Jr. (1975), Life After Life. Carmel NY: Guideposts.
Morse, Melvin (1992), Transformed by the Light, with Paul Perry. New York: Villard Books.
Ritchie, George Jr. (1978), Return from Tomorrow, with Elizabeth Sherril. Carmel NY: Guideposts.
Seleem, Ramses (2001), The Egyptian Book of the Dead. New York: Sterling Pub. Co.
 Collected Works, 8, ¶297. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 Ibid., ¶800.
 Ibid., ¶807.
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 510.
 “Letter to Alphonse Maeder,” 26 February 1918; Letters I, 34.
 “Letter to V. Subrahamanya,” 9 January 1939; Letters I, 254.
 CW 12, ¶165.
 CW 5, ¶432.
 CW 13, ¶68.
 CW 14, ¶675.
 CW 9i, ¶256.
 CW 18, ¶1706.
 CW 8, ¶792.
 Ibid., ¶796.
 CW 10, ¶695.
 CW 8, ¶810.
 CW 10, ¶695.
 For features and accounts of near-death experiences, cf. Moody (1975), Ritchie (1978), Atwater (2011), Morse (1992), Eadie (1992), and Carter (2010).
 Fair (2003), 496-502.
 “Letter to Dr. Kristine Mann,” 1 February 1945; Letters I, 357-8.
 Ibid., 358.
 She died on November 12th, 1945; Letters I, 436, note 2.
 He died on January 28th, 1896.
 She died in February 1923.
 She died in 1935.
 She died on March 21st, 1953.
 She died on November 27th, 1955.
 He died in May of 1930.
 He died in December of 1950.
 CW 8, ¶809.
 “Letter to Hanna Oeri,” 23 December 1950; Letters I, 568-9.
 CW 8, ¶809.
 The five stages Kübler-Ross identified are: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance; Kübler-Ross (1969), 38-137.
 “Letter to E.L. Grant Watson,” 25 January 1954; Letters II, 146.
 CW 18, ¶537.
 CW 16, ¶349.
 CW 10, ¶849.
 “Letter to Hanna Oeri,” 23 December 1950; Letters I, 568.
 “Letter to Aniela Jaffé, 4 January 1958; Letters II, 408.
 “Letter to Aniela Jaffé, 16 September 1953; Letters II, 126.
 “Letter to J. Heider,” 1 December 1937; Letters I, 239.
 CW 8, ¶804.
 CW 18, ¶s 565-6.
 “Letter to Mrs. Otto Milbrand,” 6 June 1958; Letters II, 445.
 CW 18, ¶s 565-6.
 For a detailed description of the puer and the provisional life, see the essay “Jung on the Provisional Life,” archived on this blog site.
 “Letter to the Mother Prioress of a Contemplative Order,” 26 March 1960; Letters II, 547
 CW 18, ¶753.
 John 10:10.
 “Letter to Anonymous,” 10 July 1946; Letters I, 434.
 “Letter to Aniela Jaffé,” 4 January 1958; Letters II, 408.
 CW 18, ¶1707.
 CW 8, ¶792.
 Ibid., ¶800.
 Ibid., ¶808.
 “Letter to Anonymous,” 10 July 1946; Letters I, 434.
 “Letter to Anonymous,” 19 November 1955; Letters II, 279.
 Seleem (2001), 13.
 Kiernan (2006), 20.