Death is the essence of impermanence. Our fear of death is the source of our deepest insecurities. Every human life is permeated with the profound sense of uncertainty that originates in death. In an important sense, death is our constant companion in life; it is our most trusted advisor and the underlying ground of wisdom. Our fear of death is natural, normal, and necessary; an abnormal fear of death causes avoidance, constriction, and denial. An untamed fear of death maligns our experience of life. Dismissing death and dying as being too morbid and unpleasant to consider is a harsh dismissal of life itself.
Oblivion begins to pull on its long shroud.
He has one moment before panic.
His voice ready to pounce on death
unsheathes its secret claws. His hour.
His place. His voice with its new sound.
A bunched animal cornered by stealth.
Then someone gets up, closes the door,
begins to speak.
– David Whyte, Never Enough
Death anxiety, or thanatophobia, is an abnormal, persistent fear of death. To be anxious about death is to feel deep undercurrents of dread, apprehension, and terror. Aging tells us that death is inevitable, that every life must come to an end, but we are not sure about what waits for us after life. Death is the revelation of an astonishing truth that evades our comprehension with remarkable ease and finesse.
Fear is a mentor, not an enemy. It is a natural and normal element in the human experience. To feel fear is to experience a deep sense of reverential awe in the same moment as profound dread. Fear is an internal dynamic that offers a fierce reminder of the inherent fragility of life. When we are afraid we feel the mystery and intensity of life with startling sense of immediacy. Our fear of death is a threshold into the sacred mystery of life.
Anxiety is fear is search of a cause. It originates in wanting life to be something other than what it actually is. Our fear of death becomes virulent when we treat it with dismissal, avoidance and denial. The denial of death is the avoidance of life as it is. The dismissal of death as being too morbid only serves to fan the flames of our own neurosis.
To be fully alive is to possess an integral relationship with death. Avoidance and denial of the more severe and distressing elements of life is toxic to our wellbeing. Death anxiety often presents itself as an inability to hold a meaningful conversation about death. Instead of engaging with our fear of death, we hide from it in a sad attempt to depersonalize death and keep it at a safe distance.
Our fear of death originates deep within the womb of the truth.
Life is a terminal condition. We have gone to great lengths to distance ourselves from death, to outsource it, to mediate it, to become entertained by it, and to make it impersonal. Our untamed fear of death causes us to avoid that which cannot be avoided. When our lives are inevitably touched by the death of someone close to us, we find ourselves to be something less than we need to be in order to move be fully present for that person, and to help ourselves to fully embrace the ensuing grief and find our way back into the world.
Far too much of our effort and energy is given to the pursuit of economic ideology. It seems that our imagination for life has become confined by the underlying ground of senseless consumption. To some extent, we have commodified life and death. When death touches our lives, our hurried and worried ways of life encourage us to “get over it,” and “get on with it” as quickly as possible. We are required to grieve on the run; bereavement has become the fast food industry of the mind. The economic perspective on death and dying is largely one of inconvenience and unwanted expense, which in turn reveals a profound social immaturity.
Euphemisms often originate in our insecurities; they are sometimes used as a means to create a false sense of distance between ourselves and harsh reality of death. Euphemisms about death and dying are frequently an attempt to soften the underlying reality: kicked the bucket, croaked, bit the dust, checked out, and gave up the ghost are forms of avoidance.
Every human life experiences a process of dying and an eventual death.
We are living longer; we are dying longer. Science, it seems, largely views death as a kind of failure. Doctors often maintain “clinical distance” from the patient; they are woefully unprepared to help a patient die. In a positive sense, however, we are witnessing the expansion of palliative care, which is a way to bring a sense of humanity and grace to the end of life experience. Palliative care helps us to move directly through the heart of death and dying.
It may be that the experience of dying has become a deeper and more mercurial source of fear than death. More people are living longer and deeper into old age and one of the unfortunate by-products of this is that we spend increasing longer periods of time dying. In helping my mother to die, I stood by her through several “interventions” designed to bring her back, again and again, until finally she was just too weak to recover. I still wonder if her experience of dying was just too long.
Death is not a failure; it is the natural culmination of an entire lifetime relationship and belonging. The process of dying is the final threshold into death. It is inherently painful that is permeated with suffering. When we are dying we are already in conversation with death in order to discover the grace of release.
Death is the primal scream of our own humanity. One source of angst within our fear of death is the conundrum of not knowing what is to become of us after death. “Oblivion begins to pull its long shroud.” Each one of us is required to disappear, to become a memory, to morph into a ghost, and to become an echo in the hearts and minds of those we leave behind.
The children of death include loss, disappearance, absence, grief and bereavement. In this sense, death is a universal source of pain and suffering in life that is completely unavoidable. We cannot know the shape and texture of our own suffering that has yet to approach us. We do know with absolute certainty that the experience of suffering is a requirement in life, a prerequisite to being fully alive, and a necessity in becoming a compassionate and empathetic human being.
Narratives are a way we attempt to explain ourselves to ourselves. They are a means to help quiet our fears. To be human is to desire a sense of meaning, to have a sense that our life has some kind of purpose. We work tirelessly to construct safe harbours of meaning and purpose within the narratives of religion, spirituality, and cultural tradition. We envelope ourselves in vast narratives of stability in which we exchange certain agreed upon behaviours and ways of life for the promise of an ideal afterlife.
Death transfigures fear into the narratives of faith and hope.
Death clarifies the essence of life. It lays many of our more superficial priorities and efforts in life to waste. Nothing helps to clarify our sense of purpose like death; a sense of purpose cannot be adequately defined in the absence of death. To embrace death as a trusted advisor and gifted mentor is to inhabit the qualities of awe, wonder, amazement, curiosity, reverence, grace, and gratitude.
Truth often lies hidden in behind our deepest insecurities. In the end, we are no different than any other living creature. To embrace your own death is to reclaim your life. To be alive in the mystery and eventually die is to participate in cycles of life too broad and expansive for us to comprehend.
In the end, our fear of death is a call to adventure and a profoundly intimate journey into the wisdom of life.