Strategies for Alleviating the Terror of Death: How to Accept That You’re Going to Die (Updated Text and Link)

I recently presented my blog, My Best Friend, Death, at a meetup of professional writers, and received a bunch of questions on it. There were things about it that were clear to me, but not so clear to my audience; and, they were only clear to me because I understood the specifics of its vague parts. So, I decided to write a followup post, detailing how any individual can begin to accept and come to terms with their own inevitable death. Before I begin, I want to say that, in terms of death anxiety, a fair amount of it is a good thing, as with any other form of anxiety; thus, I would never advocate for the elimination of our collective existential dread. With respect to our species’ evolution, we’ve survived only because we were careful, cautious, and alert: all thanks to our fears of dying. Although being beneficial in moderation, when death anxiety devolves into terror, it can hinder someone from living a fulfilling life, preventing you from taking even minor risks. So this is my followup on how to accept, and befriend, death.

Remind Yourself that Without Death, Life Would Not, and Could Not, Be as Beautiful and Important as it is

As I’m sure you’ve heard many times before, the aspect of life which contributes most to its beauty, and enchantment, is its brevity. Consider it as though it were eternal, and ask yourself if you’d want take part in that. Would you really want to wake up, every single day, and go through your daily routine, eternally, eventually running out of new possibilities, or at least significantly diminishing the probability of experiencing something new; although your life may be infinite, our planet, and its resources, still aren’t, which goes into the notion of living eternally while still creating babies (other eternal beings): how can that ever work?! The point is that life becomes boring because it becomes ordinary; you simply get used to it. But the antidote to boredom, and partially to the terror of death, is the awareness of  life’s transience; if you don’t take all of it in now, you’ll have missed the opportunity to enjoy its offerings. In the film, Troy, Achilles says to Briseis, “I’ll tell you a secret. Something they don’t teach you in your temple. The Gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”

Ask Yourself What’s So Frightening about Death

When I work with clients who experience an inordinate amount of death anxiety, I help them explore their fears in a way that helps them question what about it is so terrifying. For those who believe in hell, and consider themselves as being bad people, the fear is of a painful afterlife; fortunately, that isn’t a major fear for most people. Usually, the fear is of leaving loved ones behind to care for themselves; so, in this case, we would work toward creating a strategy for making it more likely that children, or even parents, are taken care of and looked after. But, it often doesn’t end there. Then, the next fear is one of non-existence, which is my absolute favorite, only because of how irrational and evolutionarily beneficial it is and was. Here is where I would ask, what about it is so scary? A client might say, well, it’s like being in eternal darkness, with the lights being perpetually off. I would remind them that that isn’t so; eternal darkness requires one to be aware of the darkness, yet there’s no you to be aware of being in it. It isn’t as though you’re suspended in a realm of non-existence; it isn’t like anything! It’s nothing. Epicurus once remarked, “Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which can only exist when I do not?”

Remind Yourself that You Were Once Already Dead

Vladimir Nabokov said, “Life is just one small piece of light between two eternal darknesses.” Before you were born, the universe had a vast history of which you weren’t conscious of, not in an experiential form, and you don’t seem to be bothered by that fact. Yep; before you, so, so many events occurred, and you weren’t a part of them, since there was no you to begin with. All death is is a return to a state, which isn’t a state because there’s no you to experience it, of pre-birth. If you can tolerate not existing in the past, you can tolerate not existing in the future.

Remind Yourself that Everything Dies

The great Alan Watts once said, “What’s it gonna be like, dying?… I tell you what — it’s going to be as if you never had existed at all. Not only you, but everything else as well. That just there was never anything, there’s no one to regret it — and there’s no problem… This thing is a cycle.” Since the beginning of time, every thing that has ever lived has died, so you aren’t alone in experiencing death. The idea that I won’t die alone, in the sense that each other living thing will die as well, brings great comfort to me. One of our biggest fears is of dying alone, and having to go through the great transition by ourselves; but, it can be soothing to know that, in actuality, we all die together, as we live together: all is existentially equal. It won’t be as though some will receive the joy of immortality while others won’t; none of us will, as we’re all bonded through life and through death. There can be serenity in knowing that.

Live a Fulfilling Life!

Research shows this again and again: to reduce death terror, one has to feel that their life has meaning and fulfillment, as there’s a negative correlation between life satisfaction and death anxiety. And, I would argue that in order to live a fulfilling life, you have to first become aware of your death. Without death, we tend to become complacent, putting things off, with the erroneous belief that we’ll always have time to do them; we won’t! Not only does death make life more beautiful; it also makes it more it more meaningful. We stop living in suspended animation, just going through the motions of existence, and begin to really live! When we become aware of, and accept (befriend) our deaths, we use the limited amount of time we have left wisely, in ways that make us feel happier and more important, thereby alleviating our sense of existential dread. In the words of the great Frank Sinatra, we begin to live life our way; and, what can be sweeter?

I’ve undoubtedly covered only a portion of the ways in which we can make peace with dying. How do you guys perceive death? Does the idea of it help you live a better life or does it stop you from being as happy as you could be?

Alan Watts on Death

 

 

 

 

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