The fear of death

There are few certainties in life, but death is one of them. We are all going to die. It is not something we can avoid. Death is our destiny and may come sooner than we think. Life is uncertain. It can be destroyed in a second.

Many people struggle with the fear of death.  They are anxious about the end. Death is not something that lends itself to scientific research. For the most part, it remains a mystery. People with religious beliefs speak with greater certainty but even they have unanswered questions, lingering doubts about their credentials or confusion about the nature of their existence in the next life.

The fear of death is a normal part of the human experience. People from every walk of life know this struggle.  It is also something that has persisted throughout the ages. During times of adversity, whether an epidemic or war, people are confronted with death. For example, during the Middle Ages, the Black Death spread throughout Europe killing at least a third of the population. People locked themselves in their houses in a vain attempt to protect themselves and their families. Some villages were completely wiped out.

The fear of death may be caused by the following –

  1. The solitary nature of death: It is a path we walk alone. Although family members may be nearby or nursing staff on hand, we are the one doing the dying. It is something we face alone. I was with my brother-in-law hours before he died. He appeared comfortable, but his demeanour was passive and his breathing laboured. I was an observer of his final striving. It was a moment by moment, breath by breath existence, until the final release.
  2. The diminished significance of a life that has ended: We have little or no control over how we will be remembered. Few if any of us get to be immortalised in story or film. Our legacy is questionable. It will fall to others to legitimise it. We become a fading memory, a picture in a photo album, a name on a memorial plaque. We fear death because we fear being forgotten.
  3. The separation from all that we value: We may be concerned about leaving loved ones to grieve, or having to contend with pressing economic realities. It might be that we have regrets about projects that remain unfinished or valued possessions we have to leave behind.

The fear of death can have a positive outcome. It may act as a strong motivation to live a fruitful and fulfilling life, a life that climbs the heights and reaches its potential.

The fear of death need not be a permanent state. It can be resolved. Let me share the experience of Niki Vasilakis, a celebrated Classical violinist. There was a time in her life when she had an irrational fear of dying. Vasilakis says,

“It would keep me up at night … the fear of taking my last breath, dying too young, getting sick or having an accident.”

This all changed a few years ago when she went to visit a WWII veteran and much-respected man at a hospice. She took her violin and played some well-known hymns for him while he lay in bed. Vasilakis says,

“In what is usually a time of sadness and imminent death, it was the complete and total opposite.  While I was playing a sense of wonder and intangible peace filled the room.”

It was seeing this elderly man so confident, assured and full of joy that enabled Vasilakis to overcome her fears. (for a more detailed explanation visit nikivasilakis.org)

It has been suggested that the fear of death is itself protective of life. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92) was England’s best-known preacher for most of the second half of the nineteenth century. He says,

“The fear of death has often been the means of preventing the taking of one’s life.” 

But, this is not always the case. We have come to understand that the suicidal mind is in a state of constant tension, knowing not whether to live or die. Roy Baumeister developed the ‘escape theory’ of suicide. He says,

“Suicide is the result of a chain of reasoning that ends in “escape” as the only viable alternative.”

What he is saying is that for many, the fear of life overpowers the fear of death. Life has become untenable. Death will put an end to the suffering. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer expressed it this way. He says,

“It will generally be found that, as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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