Fear of Death

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Extreme fear of death is affecting my life

Aug 2013

I've always had a fear of death, not a fear of actually dying, but of no longer existing. Even the thought of an after life or reincarnation is disturbing because in my mind nothing can be eternal. It's a fear that in my childhood and teens, I used to be able to push aside with the thought that I was far from the end of my life. But I no longer seem to be able to push this fear aside. It's a horrible phobia that is starting to make me feel crazy. When I try to talk to people around me about it most just say ''Everyone dies'' or '' You'll be ok with it when the time comes'' or ''it'll be just like before you were born, you won't know you're not alive.'' But none of that helps when I'm stuck with downright panic at the thought of no longer being alive. It's a phobia that I can't even begin to see how to get past. If only it was a fear of spiders...that I could see a shrink for, get past, or just avoid spiders. But this? How does someone get past this? I can't avoid this.

It feels as it is starting to really effect my life, joyous things don't feel good anymore, I feel like everywhere I look there are reminders of death, I have a constant stomach ache and my chest hurts. I have 2 young children and I find myself feeling bad I brought them into a world in which at some point they will no longer exist either. I'm at a loss as to how to handle this. Do I talk to a therapist, a psychic or a priest? Does anyone else feel this way? Any advice at all is appreciated!

Scared to death of death

A lot of people would feel as you do if they did not believe that we continue in some way after death.I would suggest reading books by the Dalai Lama or other books by respected authors on this subject.Yoga and meditation would probably help too. Ellen

I am so sorry to hear about this spirit-crushing fear you have and I'm sure the fact you haven't met/spoken with others with the same level of fear around it must make things feel that much worse. No one wants to feel alone in their phobia. I think that your assessment on therapy not being beneficial for your situation is misguided. That you have a such a debilitating phobia that is affecting your everyday life, no matter what the phobia, definitely necessitates help from a therapist and possibly even a psychiatrist who could prescribe medication. When a phobia becomes this severe, it is a form of anxiety. (I am very close to 3 people who have suffered from various kinda if anxiety.) therapy and other forms of help such as meditation and even yoga will probably be a helpful portion in getting through this so you can start enjoying life again without being crushed under your phobia. There are people on here who would advise strongly against any kind of medication, but please know and understand that even with therapy and lifestyle changes, medicine is sometimes the only thing that will truly work. You may not need to go that route, but I wanted to give you a heads up - that was ultimately the only thing that worked for a very close family member of mine. May I recommend seeing Dr. Steve Baskin? He specializes in anxiety disorders and knows which med therapies to avoid - there are habit-forming meds for anxiety that are over-prescribed, so just make sure you find a doc (if you seek one) who understands these meds inside and out. phobia familiar

I will be so interested in reading people's responses to this! I think a phobia about death is perfectly natural -- after all, it's Death, you know? not a spider or whatever. I have had the occasional experience of almost a panic attack when I think about my own death, the inevitability of it. My rational self knows it is natural, my feeling self finds the whole idea of not existing anymore grotesque and unbelievable. Mostly I deal with it by thinking: it's going to happen, it happens to everyone, there's nothing I can do about it, so I'm not going to think about it. Maybe it's a kind of self-protective denial? I think if we went around thinking about dying it would suck all the joy out of living. My feeling in reading your post, though, is that you may be depressed. I certainly think a sympathetic, thoughtful therapist could help with these issues -- maybe someone of a philosophical bent? Maybe someone responding will have some books to suggest that discuss these issues, or philosophers to recommend? or poets? It's the universal dilemma, after all, something humans have faced since we've been humans. Anon

I say this kindly as someone who also has anxiety issues: It is time for you to go to your doctor and get medication to help you. And you then need to find a psychologist who specializes in anxiety to help you with this. My thoughts are with you

Dear Scared,

I'm so sorry you are going through this. I have had similar feelings at various (usually stressful) points in my life and in my case it is definitely an anxiety issue. At my worst I was having panic attacks and the whole bit, other times it's been less paralyzing but still there in the back of my mind, seemingly waiting for a free moment to come up to the forefront. In my case I believe it had to do with the fact that my father died when I was relatively young and then my mother's cancer diagnosis. I highly, highly recommend seeing someone for anxiety (therapy, medications too) to help you learn how to move forward and stop obsessing. I wish I could recommend someone but it's been a long time since I saw someone and she is no longer in the area. I have had many anxiety-free years now and I have every confidence that you will too. Anon

I know this so well. I've spent days and nights cowering under the fear of ''ceasing to be.'' Things have gotten a little better....Maybe one of these notes will strike a cord with you.

1. ''You aren't afraid to die; you are afraid to LIVE!'' It has turned out to be true. My fear of death is a projection of a feeling of a lack of control over my own life. Whenever my generalized anxiety goes up, so does my thinking about death. The more I charge forward, face other fears, ''live honestly,'' the death worry decreases. Feeling in control is not always the same as outward success, and getting a grip on which is which is really challenging but deeply rooted in this fear.

2. My fear of my own death is wrapped up in my fear of other people dying, in the missed honesty with those people. ''Say what you need to say'' and all that. Similarly, In moments of worry, think hard about someone you really appreciate in your life, who they are and what they mean to you. This helps. The more I tackle 1 and 2, the better I feel.

3. I finally had to accept my own thoughts about death. I do not believe in an afterlife. For a long time I couldn't say that out loud, not because of any pressure but because of my own anxiety, as if saying it would kill me on the spot! The more I think about the biggest picture, though--the universe, the creation of the world, the fluke of creation and of our awareness of our own mortality--the better I feel. We are ants with brains. It's narcissistic to be all that worried about my own death. I had to face this down--hard, and for a long time--before I was okay with it. Once I was my daily fear decreased significantly.

4. I got the Anxiety Workbook. I'll be honest, I haven't made it past the introduction, but those pages have given me plenty to process. I don't just fear death; I have anxiety. Lots of it. I was born with it, probably, had it exacerbated by upbringing. There are things to do to help. The fear of death is just ''the thinking man's fear''--it's the only one that people can't tell me won't really happen! But in the end the roots are the same.

5. This last one will come out wrong, but I'll try anyway. I think I was wrong all those years that I was afraid to die, because really I'm not. Living is really hard. I'm not half way there (I hope!) and I'm already tired. Loving is hard, working is hard. Losing people is hard. The truth is, there may be some relief in death that all those years I never expected. As Whitman says, ''to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.'' This will sound depressive, but compared to the anxiety of being afraid to die, it is just the opposite.

I tend to rush to the end of things; I get there and I'm disappointed. What was the rush? Why rush to my own death, thinking about it all the time? The more I slow down, the more I live for *now* and not for later, not looking ahead to the next thing, good or bad, the better I feel, and the less afraid I feel. still afraid, just a little less so

I asked my wife if I could reply to your post using her account. I felt the need to tell you that you are definitely not alone with your thoughts. In fact, I don't think I could've written a better post about my thoughts and feelings on my fear of not existing one day, myself. You pretty much nailed it. Rather than sit here and waste my 3000 characters on telling you exactly how I feel about this subject, I'd rather make an attempt at easing your thoughts somehow - at least a little bit. The only things I have been able to think about that make me feel any better when I'm having an episode as you have described, is to try to surrender everything I think and am to the thoughts I am having at that moment. Let them take you over until you feel absolutely powerless to the fact that you will no longer be here one day and that everyone and everything around you will be subject to the same fate. It's in that moment where you are feeling that monolithic terror that the energy lays. THAT exact feeling is cosmic and completely enemy of your conscious mind. It is in that moment that your troubled thoughts escape and wreak havoc. A lot of it is probably adrenaline and other brain-related chemicals going ballistic.

ANYWAY - Just know that you're not alone and that whatever this is all about (life) I would just let it happen to you. Surrender. I don't think we are supposed to be in total control. In fact, I think the power lays in the polar opposite of your thoughts. ...and I am NOT saying you should dumb yourself down. I think your post is a great start. I love that you are searching, that you're on the hunt for connecting to others who feel as you do. I find a lot of my peace on this subject comes from learning as much as I can about the way the Universe works. Funny thing is, no one on this planet will ever know what really went down to get us here. I love listening to scientists talk about the big bang theory as much as I like listening to various religious folks talk about their faith. It's all minds trying to make sense of their surroundings. No one knows anything. They know what they think they know. Now this is getting existential.

Good luck, and just know, that the next time you have an anxiety attack when thinking about this, others are having them too. There is power in letting go. My wife just told me there is relief in the realization that it's not up to you. Wish I could tell you the full story that she just told me to make that point, but you'll just have to trust me on it. It was about her giving birth to our daughter. I have to hit the hay. Good night! Stardust

I would volunteer at a hospice agency! There are many hospice agencies in the area and volunteers are an integral part of the hospice team. As a hospice volunteer, you will in effect face your fear head on. As a volunteer talk to the patients you work with and ask them how they feel about death. Honestly as a hospice nurse I rarely encounter anyone who is afraid of death, people have made some sort of peace with it..it's pretty amazing and touching to hear their stories. Maybe by exploring your fears of death with people who are actually dying you might get a different perspective on death?

I do think it would helpful to also talk to an open religious or spiritual leader about this fear as well. The hospice team has spiritual care coordinators/chaplains available and I'm sure they would have a lot of counsel to give you regarding this subject.

If this doesn't appeal to you, I would read books and memoirs about peoples experience with hospice and dying. There are a lot of good ones out there, ''How we die'' ''And a time to die'' ''the tennis partner'' ''Final gifts'', etc. etc.

I would encourage you to face death head on and explore all things about it and see if can help. I wish you peace in your journey. Hospice nurse

It sounds like you are on-target about struggling with a phobia (similar, in many ways, to a fear of spiders). Most people have some fear of death, but you are describing this fear as significantly affecting your life, as phobias often do.

With phobias, reassurance doesn't work, which is why the words you hear from well-meaning friends hasn't helped. Trying to put it out of your mind or distract yourself doesn't tend to work so well either. However, counseling with a cognitive approach can be very effective, and in a fairly short time. You might try a short phone interview with a counselor (many will do this at no cost) to find out if she/he has worked with this type of phobia, and has an approach that might work for you. Pat

I understand your fear and have had a similar fear since early childhood -- not so much scared of dying but terrified of an eternity of being dead. I don't have great suggestions for relieving your anxiety but here are two things that did help me:

(1) My fear probably peaked about 10 years ago when my children were small too. It was pretty debilitating -- I would wake up nights not able to sleep because of it. At one point I talked to my mom about it, and she said that she knew what I meant, that she used to be scared too at a similar age, but she wasn't now. I asked her how she made that transformation and she said she didn't know, that she thought that it was something that just happened as you got older, and she truly had no fear of death. That conversation has helped me and in some ways I do feel less afraid now than I did when I was younger. (I'm 48.) I'm not there yet but I'm hopeful that I'll come to some new understanding.

(2) My sister pointed out once that there was an eternity before I was born too, and that helped more than just thinking that it will be ''just like before you were born''. Somehow it's easier to think of that eternity going backwards and it calms me down when I'm stuck on thinking about the eternity going forwards. Maybe this is just a mind game I play with myself, but it helps.

Finally, I'll just mention that I had to watch my mom through four unbelievably hellish years of Alzheimer's and breast cancer before she died. There's nothing quite like an experience like that to make you realize on a deep level that some things might be worse than an eternity of death. This may be obvious, but this is probably related to point (1) about changing attitudes as we age. I see my parents' friends, acquaintances, and celebrities their age all pass, and it's clear that the world gets to be a lonelier and lonelier place -- and death not so scary. Eager to read other responses

I went thru a highly anxious year, fearing death. It was brought on by a big shift in our family life, moving and not having the support I had previously. Also I was turning 50, and that brought up lots of issues as well. I paid a lot of attention to this fear, and tried to come to terms with it. I read and listened to audiobooks on death. The one that helped me shift my fear, is by Ram Das. He says dying is like taking off a too tight shoe. And ''you won't die one minute too soon or one minute too late''. I found these statements very reassuring. All that said, after about 9 months of struggling, I turned to medication, and that helped me shift out of depression and anxiety, and put in perspective all that I had learned about death that year. Made it thru that time.

I just want to second the advice that I'd recommend becoming a hospice or Meals on Wheels volunteer. I used to be afraid of death and dying, too, but spending time with people closer to their own deaths helped a lot. I saw people face death and greet it with readiness instead of fear or unhappiness.

I was diagnosed at 20 with a potentially fatal condition. In the end, they ran more tests and watched me for a few years and I am fine. But that sense of urgency and having to think a lot about dying helped me be a better person. When I found out I WASN'T dying, that was actually harder, because then my life seemed less intense and moments less vital. The idea of ''memento mori'' (focus on your own death to live a righteous life) or ''carpe diem'' (focus on your own death to live a pleasurable and meaningful life) are as old as history; you can use this fear to help you.

Here's what I learned:

1. It's easier to face death when you are living well - doing things you think are important (I'm a teacher and volunteer), treating people well, and making good choices that lead me to spending time on the things I value (being outdoors, one-to-one conversations, going to plays)

2. It's easier to face death when you have made peace with other people. Say everything you want to say. Ask for forgiveness. Give forgiveness. It helped here also to figure out that some people will never change, and I had to ''give up'' on trying to repair those relationships. In other words, you might not fix every relationship, but get to a place of peace with each one.

3. Focus on the living. As parents, that's actually not that hard to do. Get really invested in the present moment with your child or children.

4. Do some sort of creative expression. There's nothing the opposite of death like creation. Of any kind.

I don't know if those are going to help you, but that's what has worked for me! - Memento Mori Member