Let’s talk today about our second most popular thing to fear! (Number one is speaking in public; most people would rather die than talk in front of other humans.)
Death is apparently a pretty unpopular topic for everyone other than me (and the Grim Reaper). Being annihilated from the surface of the earth isn’t a comforting thought, and we can get a bit angsty about not being here in the future. Before we talk about the three main kinds of death fears, let’s take a quick quiz to warm you up. Which fear is of death and the dying process?
If you guessed A, you’re right! Thanatophobia is the fear of death. (You will not be getting a prize.) If you guessed B, coulrophobia is what’s known as the fear of clowns and depending on the clown’s motives, it might be worth it to die instead of spending time with Bozo. If you guessed C, that’s the fear of balloons. My mom had this so there will be no joking around here. (But it is freaking funny.) If you guessed D, turophobia is the fear of cheese and I can’t think of a fate worse than death to go without a good cheese board every month or so. Anti-turophobia might be a thing for us cheese lovers?
Alright, back to the business of shitting our pants at the idea of death.
What are the three fears of death?
Researchers have categorized this fear into three distinct buckets, and while our fears might spill over into multiple buckets, most of us have a clear winner as to where our fears originate. The point of reviewing this information isn’t so much to walk away super-smart about said buckets, but to laser in on What to Do About Our Fears . . . so we can live better until we do, in fact, perish.
Deathly Fear #1: Intrapersonal: Fears related to whether we’ve achieved our goals, whether we’ve felt that sense of fulfillment and meaning in life. Questions asked of ourselves at 3am might sound like, “Am I doing life right?”, “What is my purpose again?”, and “Have I accomplished any of the things that matter to me?”. These are the things that midlife crises are made of.
Deathly Fear #2: Interpersonal: Concerns relating to humans and relationships—like whether we’re going to leave the people we care about in squalor if we die first, or if they’ll even remember us after we’re dead and buried. Midnight musings include, “Is there enough life insurance to cover the mortgage?”, “Who’s going to make the kids’ rainbow birthday cakes with the special sprinkles?”, and “Will they visit my grave or dance over it?”. Again, fabulous existential crisis fodder!
Deathly Fear #3:Transpersonal: This fear relates to what awaits us—if anything—after death. Have we adhered to our beliefs/ doctrines well enough to either be favored or punished? Questions include, “Have I been a good enough person to get to go to heaven?”, “Do I deserve to be reincarnated in the ways I’ve always hoped?”, and “Am I going to burn in the flaming embers of hell for the rest of eternity?”.
So now what? Practical things to do with your fear.
Diagnosing your particular brand of fear is the first step towards driving a stake into the heart of it. Pick your poison and see what ideas click for you:
Intrapersonal: If you’re troubled by whether you’ve “really lived” your life, this is going to sound basic &/or snarky, but you’ll want to get on with the business of living your life. With intention. Like you mean it. There is a direct correlation between the degree to which we feel like we’ve led a full life and the amount of fear we feel about death. If we near the end and think, “I’ve nailed it!”, we tend not to fear the Reaper. If we feel like we’ve left a lot of life on the table, we tend to be afraid of its ending because it signals our lack of participation in it. How can you get more deliberate with your goals and dreams and plans? What’s one way to redirect a regret-in-the-works? LIVING is the best antidote to an intrapersonal fear of death.
Interpersonal: Worried about the other people you’ll be leaving in your (literal) dust? That’s sweet, but we’ve got business to take care of. You’re going to want to buckle down and get super practical here, because this fear can be well-managed through some good old-fashioned Boring Administration. Get your death-related act in gear: your living will, real will, plots, obit draft, insurance set up, financial plan in place . . . dot your I’s and cross your T’s. You can’t make more money magically appear after you die (other than maybe through a hefty life insurance policy), but you can sleep at night knowing your ducks are in a death-inspired row. Worried about being forgotten? Well. Accept that you’ll be remembered whether you’re an angel or an asshole, so all you can really do with this little conundrum is to live less like an asshole. Let this drive you to leave a meaningful legacy of values, behaviors, and anecdotes that make your partner/ kids/ colleagues think fondly of you after you’ve left them with a well-organized pile of “When I Die: Steps 1 – 100.”
Transpersonal: Concerned that karma might really end up being a bitch? Researchers are clear that “efforts in seeking redemption and forgiveness may diminish transpersonal fear.” What might this mean for you? Perhaps a visit with a leader in your faith to discuss your fears? Seek forgiveness from whomever needs to forgive you? One of my clients was experiencing anxiety about her dire afterlife situation because she had stopped going to church. Her solution was to start going back after a 20-year hiatus, even if 100% of her views didn’t align with their teachings. She felt almost instant relief, as though she had ripped up her entry ticket to hell. Might you want to start living a life that’s becoming of a person well looked after “into the beyond” according to your faith? Even if you don’t adhere to a faith, and if you’re not sure what happens after you die (because who is?), it might not be a bad idea to live a moral, good life—because if you’re not being judged at some kind of pearly gate after you’ve gone, you’re totally being judged while you’re here on the planet.
You’re all set! Have your fears evaporated? No? Of course not. Fear of death is real, and while I can (and always will) poke fun at the absurdity of our mere 4,000 weeks on this ride, I get that we can’t alleviate all of our concerns. All we can do is tune into our fears and take action to mitigate them. The crappy news is that we’re temporary, but the great news is that we can do so very much to assuage our concerns by making peace with our maker (whatever that means to us), get our affairs in order, and LOOK ALIVE out there. Living it up remains the best fear-buster of all.