Fear of death: 3 strategies to manage it
The fear of death is one of the psychological phenomena that most concerns a good part of the people who attend psychotherapy.
The fear of physical pain and the idea itself of dying sometimes produces cases of anxiety crises (more or less intense) that are difficult to manage, and sometimes it becomes an obsessive thought.
Why does the fear of death appear?
The idea of death is associated with physical pain, something that occurs in some cases when that moment of life arrives. However, what produces most rejection is the existential anguish of thinking about the disappearance of oneself or one’s loved ones . Why does this happen?
Almost everything we know about what we are and about what exists is related to our autobiographical memory, which is the organized set of memories about what we have lived. The idea of death, on the other hand, forces us to think about reality as if it were something in which neither we nor our loved ones matter too much. That is, makes us think of a planet where everything that our life path has been denied .
The idea that our life paths are not one of the fundamental pillars of reality and that this lifestyle full of familiar elements will disappear at some point clashes with the way we have learned to interpret things. Time passes, whether we like it or not, and we get smaller and smaller.
Living in the present
All of the above may seem very sad, but it is only if we understand our existence as something that depends on the time to be there. Certainly, thinking about the future and the past when death is near can produce pain, but… what happens if we focus on the present?
If we focus our attention on the unique experiences we live in each moment, what we experience is no longer a degraded copy of our past or a beginning of the end that will come sooner or later. The trick to facing the fear of death is, then, to stop taking the past and the future as points of reference from which to appreciate things.
Anyway, we cannot know the future, and if we are sad or depressed, it is very likely that we imagine it worse than it will be, and we do not remember the past perfectly either; in fact, we constantly reinvent it. Focusing on the present is not self-deception , since that is the only time we can know directly and genuinely. In fact, what is self-deception is believing that what we know about who we are and what we have done is pure and perfectly true.
Mindfulness is one of the tools used to prevent relapses in phases of depression, something frequent when the fear of death becomes an inseparable companion of our lives.
Interestingly, this simple form of meditation is based among other things on omitting hasty judgments about the past and the future ; it is about experiencing the moment. It promotes a type of attentional management that leads us to live memories as what they are, something we experience through the present. This means that, in some way, we take away the drama of the idea of death, since the more we are able to distance ourselves from our life path, the less emotional impact the idea of the end of it has.
Acceptance in the face of death
Another factor that can be used to address the fear of death is to work on acceptance. Stopping thinking from unrealistic expectations helps experiences linked to death to be lived in a much better way.
Many times, much of the psychological pain we experience is the result of comparing our interpretation of what happens to us with what we would expect to happen to us in an ideal life. In that sense, death should be part of our plans.
In fact, this is something that the author Atul Gawande already points out in his book Ser Mortal: many times, accepting death and renouncing very aggressive medical measures that prolong life a little is the best option in terms of patient welfare. The last moments of life are spent with greater serenity and wellbeing when death is accepted and one stops thinking that fighting for the preservation of one’s life is the priority. To believe that everything is a battle and that we are to blame for our own death is something that can make us suffer much more.
The question, then, is to learn not to take responsibility for impossible tasks (such as living forever) and to get used to experiencing each moment as something valuable in itself by the fact of passing in the present as well as counting on the company of loved ones and enjoying relationships that go beyond words.