5 Reasons We Have a Fear of Death… and What to Do About Them (#3 is Simpler Than it Sounds!)
Fear is one of the most useful feelings that we possess. Its entire purpose is to keep us safe by helping us to avoid danger.
For most of human history, our fears have related to direct threats to our lives – tigers hiding in bushes, poisonous plants and violent storms spring to mind. But, as civilization has developed, so too has the complexity with which we view the world. Our dreams and fears have become more abstract and our primitive brains have struggled to separate fact from fiction.
Our Fears Ain’t What They Used to Be
Think about the things that you are afraid of these days. If you are an older adult, perhaps you are afraid of losing your independence or having your money run out in retirement. If you are still a teenager or young adult, maybe you fear losing the love or your life or failing in school or at work.
What all of these fears have in common is that they are divorced from our physical reality. Rather than protecting us from the bears and the bees, the fear centers of our minds spend most of their time protecting us from imagined (and highly abstracted) dangers.
The sad truth is that most of the things that we fear will never exist anywhere but in our minds. As Mark Twain once famously said:
“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” – Mark Twain
Our Fear of Death is Unique
So, this brings us to the core topic of today’s article: why do we fear death and what can we do about it?
The truth is that our fear of death is unique; it is at once practical and theoretical, protective and counterproductive.
On the one hand, as biological beings, we are programmed to want to survive. So, it is completely logical that our brains want to help us to avoid dying.
On the other hand, as social and spiritual beings, our fears of death often relate not to the act of dying but to the questions of what happens after we die. Is there life after death? What will happen to the people we leave behind? Will we suffer during the transition from life to death?
In order to come to terms with our own mortality, we must first learn to understand our unique perspectives on death. In other words, what is it what we are really worried about?
Let’s take a look at a few of the reasons that we are afraid of dying… and explore some possible solutions.
Fear of Death Reason #1: We Are Biologically Programmed to Want to Survive
On some level, all of our more theoretical fears about dying come from our basic desire to survive. After all, the primary role of the fear center of your brain is to keep you safe.
This is perhaps the easiest fear of death to deal with. Why? Because it can be managed through practical steps that we can take in the real world.
For example, did you know that the leading causes of premature death in the United States are heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease and accidents?
The good news is that, while we can’t avoid these risks completely, we can reduce our risk of suffering from them.
For example, you probably already know that reducing your blood pressure and cholesterol can lower your chances of developing heart disease. So can exercise. You may also know that, according to the World Cancer Research Fund, approximately 33% of cancer cases are connected to lifestyle choices – how much we exercise, what we eat and how much we eat.
Even accidents, which seem so random, can be avoided through simple behaviors. For example, did you know that over 600,000 people die from falls each year? On average, people over the age of 65 are most at risk for this cause of death. How many falls could be avoided if we put more of an emphasis on activities like yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates? Even wearing the right footwear can reduce our risk of having a fatal fall.
The main point here is that our fear of death, on a practical level, is directly related to our sense of control. Because death seems random, we don’t take steps to protect ourselves from the most common risks we face in the modern world.
Trust me, if your fear of dying is practical rather than social or spiritual, you will feel so much better when you assess your risk factors and take steps to address them!
Fear of Death #2: What if There is No Life After Death?
The second reason that people are afraid of dying is that they can’t imagine not existing. They know that everyone will die eventually and they worry about losing their consciousness.
There are two ways to deal with this fear.
The first – and most obvious – solution to the question of whether there is life after death is to explore what the world’s religions and philosophers have to say on this issue.
For example, in this article, we argued that there are 3 main reasons to believe in life after death. First, we discussed the possibility that near-death experiences offer a glimpse of the afterlife. Second, we talked about the conservation of energy. Finally, we discussed the almost universal belief that humans have in the afterlife.
Of course, these 3 categories are just scratching the surface when it comes to proving that life after death is a real phenomenon. If you search for long enough, you will almost certainly find arguments that work for you.
The second way to deal with the question of whether life after death exists is to simply ignore it. I’m not being flippant here. I realize how difficult it is to avoid our deepest fears. I’m simply pointing out that our minds are limited. They can only focus on one thing at a time.
As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the more you focus on living, the less mental energy you will have to think about dying. If this approach sounds promising to you, take a few minutes to ask yourself the following questions.
What are you passionate about?
What dreams have you always wanted to pursue?
What would you do if you knew that you couldn’t possibly fail?
When do you feel the most alive?
Who are the most important people in your life?
The more you focus on living, the less you will worry about dying.
Fear of Death #3: What if there *IS* Life After Death?
Many people are not afraid of the possible absence of an afterlife. Instead, these people are concerned about what will happen in the afterlife. Will they be punished for their deeds on Earth? Will they see their loved ones? Will they continue to grow and learn?
On one level, this is the hardest death-related fear to address. Religious leaders and philosophers have been speculating about the afterlife since the beginning of time. If they haven’t solved the problem of life after death, we are unlikely to do so here.
That said, it occurs to me that we may be overthinking the problem. What we are really worried about here is how our actions on Earth influence our experience in the afterlife. And, while each religion has a different take on this question, they all share at least one common belief:
Treat others as you want to be treated.
Without going into all of the details here, the “Golden Rule” is found in most religions around the world, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism, Islam and Zoroastrianism.
So, while I can’t tell you what the best way is to get into heaven, I can tell you that treating others as you want to be treated is a great place to start. Seriously, imagine what kind of world we would live in if even 10% of the world really internalized this belief.
Fear of Death #4: What Will Happen to the People I Leave Behind?
Some people are not afraid of what will happen to them after they die; they are afraid of what will happen to the people they leave behind.
This is a perfectly rational fear, but, it is also one of the most controllable aspects of life after death. The key is to move from theoretical fears to practical actions. And, the first step to doing this is to be specific about your fears. For example:
Are you worried that your kids would not be able to survive financially without you?
Are you concerned about your partner’s mental health should you leave them?
Do you have pets that would lose their homes if you left them behind?
The practical steps that you could take to address each of these concerns are beyond the scope of this article. For example, providing for your family from a financial perspective is a question of having the right insurance, assets and paperwork.
All I can say at this point is that this particular fear of death is the easiest to solve because it is one over which we have significant control. So, don’t let this fear of dying hold you back. Get specific and they go searching for solutions.
Fear of Death #5: I’m Afraid of How I Will Die
Finally, some people worry not about death itself but about the transition from this world to the next. They wonder whether they will experience too much pain, both physical and mental, in the final days of their lives.
As Isaac Asimov once said:
Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome. – Isaac Asimov
While we don’t have complete control over this aspect of our lives, there are many things that we can do to increase our chances of having a peaceful death. For example, many of the guidelines that I provided in the “survival” section of this article also apply to our transition to the afterlife.
If we take practical steps to avoid cancer, heart disease and accidents, we are more likely to die peacefully in our beds, surrounded by our loved ones.
Finally, while I am taking a position on the question of the morality of assisted dying here, it is clear that many countries are liberalizing their policies towards this option. For example, according to this article, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Switzerland and some U.S. States allow some forms of voluntary euthanasia or doctor-assisted suicide.
So, it is likely that this will increasingly be an option for terminally ill patients in many countries in the future. Depending on your moral and religious beliefs, this may or may not give you comfort.
The Only Thing We Have to Fear…
At the end of the day, our fears about dying are varied and complex. This is exactly why, in order to solve them, we need to get specific with ourselves about exactly what we are concerned about.
Are we simply following our biological desire to survive? Are we worried about life after death? Do we want to increase our chances of getting into heaven? The answers to each of these questions are ours to seize!
Do you have a fear of death? Why or why not? Which of the fears mentioned in this article are you personally most worried about? Let’s have a conversation!