Can You Overcome Your Fear of Death?
The writer has been gripped by a lifelong terror of her own mortality—but her son may finally have shown her that's no way to live.
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At night, before I go to sleep, I say a little prayer. Please don’t let me die tonight, whoever’s up there. My toddler son is curled up beside me, my right arm wrapped around his tiny body. I play with his hair, a mullet of dirty blond strains I am twirling around my fingers. I close my eyes tight and kiss the top of his crowd. “I love you,” I tell him. I kiss him again. “I love you.” The words I speak are soft, effortless. But in my head, I’m begging the heavens to let me live another day. I can’t leave my son, I think. I can’t leave him behind. I’m not ready to die. I shouldn’t be afraid to die in my sleep, yet I am. Each night I worry that my journey to dreamland will be my last—that the images I conjure in my state of unconsciousness will fade forever to black. I won’t know if I cease to exist, but I’m scared of that not knowing. I don’t want this night to be the last time I hold my son close to me. I don’t want this to be the last time I whisper “I love you” in his ear. I’ve always carried this fear of death with me, ever since I was a little girl. It’s not a dark cloud hanging above my head; that’s where my depression hovers. No—this fear is a wool cloak I wear, blanketing every movement I make. It doesn’t protect me, like capes are meant to do. Instead, the cloak hangs heavy on my body. It’s a reminder that each moment I have lived is a moment where I’ve cheated death. People are scared of death—of dying. It’s normal, especially in times of sickness and grief. But for some of us, death anxiety is far more debilitating. It’s an overwhelming dread that swells in your chest. It steals your breath as you gasp for air, as you’re clawing at your neck.
The extreme fear of death is known unofficially as thanatophobia, as coined by Sigmund Freud in 1915. According to the physician-approved explainer at Verywell, children commonly experience this phobia around 6 or 7 years old — about the age I could first recall feeling this irrational fear of no longer being. I don’t remember the day or year. I don’t remember if it was cold outside or if I was wearing shorts. But I do remember sitting close to my father on a pew in our local Catholic church in South Brooklyn. I started to cry hysterically in the middle of the priest’s sermon. He spoke about Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, and how we are all not long for this world. My dad turned his head and looked down at me, this chubby ball of thick tears. “What’s wrong, Anna?” he asked. “I don’t want to die, Papa,” I say, my little voice cracking with every syllable. He tried to reassure me that it was OK, that I wouldn’t pass away—not for a long time. But I was too frightened to sit in that church pew any longer, with the crucifixion sculptures staring down at me from the walls, burning holes in my fragile body. My dad stood up to leave, and I followed. I almost rushed out of the place. Most children grow out of their fear of death. As they become older, their minds are better able to grasp the concepts of death and dying—which may seem “very large” as a kid—dispelling the mysticism of that fatal unknown, says Dr. Thea Gallagher, clinic coordinator at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety (CTSA) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. They may start to view death as a mere fact of life, she says, or view it through a positive lens—as this transition to heaven or some higher spiritual plane. Some of us don’t, though. Our fear of death becomes pathological, controlling every aspect of our lives. According to Chapman University’s 2016 Survey of American Fears, 19 percent of people in the United States are afraid or very afraid of dying. Dr. Gallagher says that most people get stuck in their fear if they avoid things that make them uncomfortable or if they haven’t learned to tolerate the unknown or uncertainty. Someone afraid of dying may avoid watching movies or reading books that show death, or refuse to think about death in any way. For nearly three decades, I have been scared of dying—of nothingness, of no longer being, of completely ceasing to exist, never to see the people I love again. That fear grew worse after my father passed away last February. My unhealthy obsession with my mortality was intensified by my grief. Before my dad died, I would shove my fear aside. I wouldn’t let it control my life, not completely at least. But after his death, I became so afraid of dying that I was afraid to exist.
Life sometimes has a funny way of blowing up everything you knew. It was two days after my father’s death when the editor-in-chief of the Austin Chronicle called to offer me a spot as a news intern. I had applied to the Chronicle the week before; an internship was required as part of my graduate studies, and my son’s father and I were ready to try a new town. So I stood in the foyer of my uncle’s house on Long Island, listening to the editor talk logistics. My family was in the other room, planning my father’s funeral. I should have been excited about this transition, but all I felt was dread. Not fear because moving halfway across the country is a big risk; to me, large gambles are conceptual, their shapes mutable. I always prefer to take the chance. What I feared was the physical act of traveling from New York to Austin, Texas. I knew that my son’s father and I would have to take a trip to the Live Music Capital of the World in order to secure an apartment before my internship start date. But I put off buying our plane tickets for that initial trip for three months, forcing us to shell out more cash than necessary. I couldn’t face what making that purchase meant, or could mean. What if the plane crashes? What if this is the last time I would ever see my son? What if I die and he grows up to never know who I am? What if this is the end for me? Those questions raced through my head every day from the moment I got the acceptance call in February of last year, to the minute we landed back in New York from our trip to Austin that April. I cried and cried and cried because of the story I wrote in my head. I couldn’t enjoy our trip. My mind was too occupied with whether or not I would end up another body buried underneath your feet—another soul lost to the passage of time. I’ve tried not let my fear of death and dying dictate my life or my role as a mother since my father’s death. But in a lot of ways, it has. And it extends to anxiety over my son’s life, too. When he plays in parks, I am always on edge, worried that he may be fatally hurt. I don’t stop him from exploring or discovering the world, but I am always hovering close by, ready to catch him before he might fall. I am so scared that there will be no tomorrow that I can’t live for today. In a way, I end up suffocating my son’s own freedom, too. Lately, though, I’ve wondered what it would be like if I dared to live. How the rush of adrenaline would feel in my bones, rippling underneath my skin. What if, for once, I didn’t think about the immediacy of death? What if, instead, I accepted every moment as they happened? What if, for once, I let go and be free? Who would I be then? More importantly, who would my son become?
The counselor I saw before I moved to Austin suggested I read On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. It was one of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s last books she worked on before passing away in 2004. My counselor thought that understanding grief and the ways in which it manifests would, in part, help me face my fear of dying. After all, although I’ve had this phobia for as long as I could remember, my father’s death magnified it tenfold. I haven’t even made it halfway through the book. It’s not a bad book; quite the opposite. On Grief and Grieving exposes many of my fragilities as a mourning daughter and mother. But there’s something to be said about being too real, too true. It’s so much easier to ignore the fear that’s eating you alive—to pretend it will disappear on its own rather than face the worst possible outcome. When you confront what’s hurting you, you still run the risk of your fear coming true, right? I haven’t taken any concrete steps to tackle my fear of dying once and for all. I’m not even sure what those steps would look like beyond visiting a therapist. Dr. Gallagher suggests exposure therapy, which is the most effective, evidence-based treatment for anxiety disorders such as the fear of death. In exposure therapy, a person living with a phobia would do the very thing they fear or is highlighting that fear. Afraid of heights? Head to the roof. Afraid of spiders? Hold a tarantula in your hand. If a phobia is less tangible, like the fear of death, a person would undergo imaginal exposure therapy, where they think about the worst thing happening and directly confront the images and thoughts that cause their fears, Dr. Gallagher says. “You get to see the thing that you’re afraid of doesn’t happen or you learn to tolerate this discomfort and uncertainty,” she continues, “and you get to see that [discomfort] doesn’t last forever.” When you face your fear head on, you’re either able to get over it or come to peace with it so the phobia no longer controls your life. Dr. Gallagher would have clients create a list of actions that feel risky, she says, then rank them based on level of difficulty. Once the items are put together, she would work the person to perform each task in a “gradual, systematic, supervised way” so that the fear becomes manageable and tolerable. “You also gain a sense of confidence that you can handle this,” she adds. So how do I manage my fear of dying? Do I ride roller coasters? Do I take more flights? Dr. Gallagher says yes. Oh, boy. The fear of death is not an officially recognized phobia, though. Instead, it would fall under the larger umbrella of anxiety disorders, according to Dr. Gallagher. So exposure therapy will work up to a point. I would also have to get to the core fear that’s driving my death anxiety. In other words, Dr. Gallagher says, “If you followed that thread down, what are you most afraid of?”
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