The Fear of Death

Community Member

"Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive -- the risk to be alive and express what we really are." -Don Miguel Ruiz

Who is afraid of death? Raise your hand Well you would not be alone in this fear. Most of us feel some trepidation, anxiety, and/or fear about death. If the fear is extreme then it is called "Thantophobia" which means the morbid fear of death. We are going to be exploring the topic of death and dying here on Anxiety Connection in the weeks to come and I thought we would start off by discussing fear and anxiety about death.

I remember a nightmare I had when I was in college and learning about psychological theories. We were learning about Freud and his psychoanalytical theory that we have two basic instincts or drives. One is Eros (the sexual drive or creative life force) and the other is Thanatos (the death drive or destructiveness). Freud postulated that we are in a lifelong balancing act between these two drives of growth and destruction. In my dream I saw two doors and one was labeled Eros and the other Thanatos. I chose to open Thanatos and I peered into big black nothingness. That open door fell beneath my feet and I began to fall into the never ending darkness. In terror I startled awake, drenched with sweat. I can still recall the great looming fear that I could not quite shake for hours. I am sure any therapist would have a field day with that dream.

My fear of death began when I was a little girl. My father died when I was four and my mother told me that he fell asleep and could not wake up. I did not get to go to the funeral and so his death was always shrouded in mystery. I remember feeling frightened to go to sleep for fear that I too might not wake up.

The fear of death can begin when we are young due to our lack of experience with death. Death represents the great unknown. It seems incomprehensible. Seeing death represented on television or a video game is very different from experiencing the loss of a loved one. We often fear what we don't know. It was true for me that as a four year old, I had no comprehension of what death meant and my fear was that at any minute one's existence could just go poof. As I got older death was a concept I just could not wrap my mind around just like looking into the vast night sky and wondering about "infinity." What does it all mean?

Then too I think the fear of death can result from living in a world where we are removed from death as an essential part of life. It used to be that people died at home surrounded by family and even community. While this sometimes still happens it is more likely that we will die while under the care of a medical professional in a hospital or aide in a nursing home. In some cases we get to see the process of death unfold but in many cases it may be more likely that we get a phone call that someone has died.

Even the death of our pets is shrouded in mystery as when they are "put to sleep" which is an extremely merciful and appropriate action when a pet is suffering. Yet the first time you see an animal die naturally it seems anything but natural and can be quite unsettling. When I witnessed one of my beloved cats die before my eyes I was amazed by the process but frightened too. I still remember her pupils dilating, her body shaking, and her last breaths before becoming still. To see life leave always shakes one's very foundation. Yet it was also a very sacred time I spent with my pet to be with her at that last moment and beyond.

It may seem strange to say but I had more closure with the death of my cat than with my own father. I wish that I had been allowed any moments with my father before his death despite my young age. I believe it would have spared me of a lifetime of anxiety and fear about death to have been privy to some part of it early on. I don't think we do young children any favors by glossing over death or "protecting" them with words or not allowing some participation.

It has been my personal experience to fear death because I never understood it. I was sheltered from seeing death as a natural part of life. Growing up it seemed that death was like this faceless bogeyman who came to steal people away. Would it come for me next? My mother? My friends? I always felt groundless as though the world could change at any moment and I would be caught unaware. I felt I could disappear and who would know? Any trust I had that the world was safe and dependable was replaced by anxiety and fear.

When I analyze my fear now, as a mature adult, my fear of death seems understandable. I feared the lack of control over my small world. I learned fear as almost an adaptive response to living in a world I could not trust or comprehend. Over the years I have become far less anxious over the idea of death. When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis several years ago, I gained a new perspective on death and dying. Having this chronic disease has brought the issue of my mortality to the forefront. In so many ways, having an illness has taught me to live. Knowing that we only have so much time on the planet makes me appreciate the time I do have. If you spend all your time living in fear then you miss out on right now. I don't want to miss out on any more of my life.

The fear of death can mean so many things to different people. I have taken you on a journey through my personal thoughts and ideas about death as I have explored some of my childhood based fears. We would like to hear from you now. Do you have any fears or anxieties about death or dying that you would like to share? Your story could help someone else who is going through the same thing. Thank you to all who read and participate on Anxiety Connection.

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