FAQ's on a Subject
with More Questions than Answers
Question: Since I am somewhat afraid of dying, as hard as I try not to be, is there a way to ease the anxiety that I and many others have? I am not aware of any discussion groups that I could participate in. --N.W.
The Life Awareness Center: Dear N.W. Thank you for your valuable question. First off, you write of an "anxiety that I and many others have." It is good that you know that you are not alone in having fears of dying. The difference between the people that come to The Life Awareness Center site and many others is that you already want to face the issue of your mortality, your fear of it, and to make progress to diminish your fear. That is an enormously important first step and you will find that when you come to terms with aging and dying, it changes your life in the most wonderful, joyful ways. To give you a taste of this, here, for example, is a quote we discovered just this week that says this so well:
"Death is horribly sad, but it is not simply a dark hole, and ugly pit into which we fall. Death is also a light, a brilliant light that shines on all the life that comes before, and all those days, those precious days, we have." Virginia Morris, Talking About Death.
OK. But let's get practical. How can you ease the anxiety you are feeling? Doing so is a process and it takes time and work. But the rewards for your effort are amazing.
Lets outline the process:
1. The first step is to realize that fear of dying stems from our denial of it--from our attempts to hold on to our immortality--which is of course an illusion. We will all suffer biological death and that is painful but is reality.
2. But by accepting rather than denying this reality--really accepting it at the deepest levels of your consciousness--you will start to reduce the pain associated with it. Our book talks about the "Scrooge Effect". Remember what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge when he faced his mortality. He became a changed, joyful man. Think about why?
3. Next, look at how you characterize death--in fact how we have all been taught to see it. Is it the enemy? Is it the grim reaper? Is it the "dark hole" referred to in the quote above? Is there anything you can think of that is positive about that fact that we die? Does death change our existence in any positive way?
4. One thing that will help diminish your anxiety is to change your characterization--the way you think of death. When that starts to change, so will your fear. Know that your characterization is something you get from your culture, and many other cultures don't teach the fear death the way ours does. Think about your picture of it. Is there anything positive about it? Suppose you would never die. How would that change your life right now? How would the removal of death impact how you spend your time--how precious time is to you? How would it change your life goals if you know you had an eternity to accomplish them? Aren't there things about death that make life more precious?
This space allows only the briefest answer, but here are a few other practical suggestions that may help. Listen to and do the free meditations at this link. Allow about twenty minutes per meditation. There are five and it is worth repeating them--say doing one a week. They will absolutely help you come to terms with your mortality and they will help you accept constant change--which is at the core of our fear about aging.
Next, read some of the quotes offered by the finest minds who have tackled this difficult, age-old subject. Find quotes here and also see the list of suggested readings. See the links page: some of the organizations listed have workshops and/or discussion groups on this subject. We also offer brief workshops and welcome your particiaption.
Finally, you might get a copy of our own book, Coming To Terms with Aging, which will be out by the end of July, 2007. It outlines the process of diminishing our fear and does so in steps and in detail. It also includes a great deal of practical suggestions and a new way to think about mortality: to see it is the engine that actually drives the joyful life. Read interviews of people who successfully faced this issue and see how it changed their lives. Sorry to advocate for our own book--but we believe it truly is a great tool.
Thanks again for your excellent question. If you have others, please contact us again so we can help.
We wish you every success.
The Life Awareness Center.
Question: I fear losing my wife, whom I love deeply. It is the fear of outliving her, and being left alone to deeply grieve for many more years, that scares me. That sounds selfish, doesn't it, when the same thing could happen to her instead of me?
I am 55 and she is 54, and we are in reasonably good health. I am more scared of her dying than me dying.
Also, the fact that either of us could live for three more years or 45 more years scares me a lot, especially as respects my wife. The unknown number of years before the 'day' drives me nuts. Will we be here in five years? How about ten? What about twenty?, etc.
I am seeing a therapist, who tells me to "live in the moment," but I can't seem to do that.
Help, I am ruining the precious present by worrying about us dying in the future! N.W.
The Life Awareness Center: Dear N.W. Thank you for your thoughtful note.
Clearly you deeply love your wife. Understandably you are afraid of losing her someday when one of you passes, and of being left alone. I don’t think these are selfish feelings. They are honest, human concerns and most of us have them.
Your note suggests you have two profound fears. The first is your fear of being all alone. The second is man’s ultimate fear – that of dying. These two fears powerfully coalesce in you. And as you and your therapist properly note, they distract your focus from the present and rob you of happiness.
You will want to deal with both of these fears. So let’s take them one at a time.
While we are powerfully connected to others by our caring for them, at the same time each of us is ultimately alone – especially insofar as our personal mortality is concerned. To quote the book on this subject, Coming to Terms with Aging:
“Each of us faces death alone. Family and friends may surround us when we die, but at the actual moment of death we can’t look to anyone to lead the way. Facing the unknown alone may frighten us, but it can also encourage self-reliance and that strengthens us. This ultimate aloneness is life’s way of telling us that ultimately we are responsible for our own growth; that it is our job to determine who we really are. It’s one more way life tells us to define for ourselves; to process internally ……..”
That relates to your first fear. You describe your second fear this way:
“Also, the fact that either of us could live for three more years or 45 more years scares me a lot,” The unknown number of years before the 'day' drives me nuts. Will we be here in five years? How about ten? What about twenty?, etc.”
Another way to to talk of this fear is to say that while we know our birth date, our death date is life’s mystery, one that powerfully impacts our psyche.
The key to getting through both fears is not a decision to deny them. Rather it is an intent to process them. That is, it does little good to say, “OK, today, no matter what, I will not be afraid.” Doing that would actually intensify your fear.
Instead, try focusing on your fears so that you watch them operate. Take them in, and feel them, looking at them absolutely without judgment. Do this a little each day or whenever they come up. Quietly note your thoughts about being alone or your fear that you have no control over the timing of your mortality. Watching them this way - as an observer and without judgment - causes them to lose energy and they gradually dissipate.
Your therapist is helping you.
And I believe you will find our exercises and meditations helpful. They can help you observe your fears because they promote an comfortable atmosphere so you won't feel you have to push them from consciousness. Repeat the meditations over time and expect ups and downs with your progress, of course. Some days the old fears will return. But over time you will be less fearful and freer to live increasingly in the present as your therapist wisely suggests.
I hope it motivates you to know that in our society, the denial of fear about aging and mortality is pervasive. The fact that you are bravely dealing with these issues suggests you are already on the right path.
We wish you every success.
The Life Awareness Center.
Question: Hi, I have been experiencing similar symptoms to those who have asked questions in this forum. I get intense anxiety when I think about death and what the afterlife may be. This usually only happens however when I'm trying to go to sleep, effectively keeping me up for most of the night until I can distract myself enough to get it off my mind. I believe that my fear stems from the thought of not existing beyond this life, as though our consciousness may simply be erased. I try very hard and do believe (sometimes) that there is a higher power that did put us here, and I find the thought of any kind of afterlife frightening because of not knowing what IT is, but again the thought of never existing beyond this point becomes at times overwhelming as it is the worst possible scenario for me. I try to tell myself it is silly to worry about any of this because it is inevitable and whatever happens, happens. I try to tell myself that there must be something, otherwise why do we want to do the things we do, have memories, want to enjoy life, etc.? It doesn't work all the time because there is a part of me that fights all those answers and will remind me that those other possibilities may not be true. D. T.
The Life Awareness Center: Dear D. T. Thanks for your letter and thoughtful comments. You are struggling with profound issues and I have a few suggestions I hope you find helpful.
The fears you describe come up a lot in our research – the fear of not knowing what there is after death, and the fear of the loss of personal identity at death, and the fear of the unknown after death. We list ten most common fears related to mortality. As you say, there are no simple answers here since no mortal really knows what happens after we die – or even if there is continued consciousness.
Rather than try to stop your fears, let yourself feel them – ideally in a relaxed, comfortable environment like a quiet room. Just note them. Doing so helps to dissipate them over time. You might try the free meditations posted at our web site also – as a way to condition the mind to be more comfortable the realities behind your fear.
As you become more comfortable with your fear, you will find that your focus starts to shift from worries about something that will happen in the future, to a stronger desire to relish your time in the present. In time your thought process will change along these lines ...
“What do I really want to do with my time today?” Rather than, “I am very worried about what will happen to me sometime in the future.” The shift lets you be more present and live life more consciously. You facilitate this shift each time you acknowledge your fears rather than take the all-too-common path of trying to repress them.
When I say “go through” your fears, I should be clearer. This is a process - a cycle - not something accomplished quickly. As you try to see your fears - to watch them - typically they will diminish for a while – then return – then go away again and so forth. Your goal is to simply note them, watch them without judgment, and to do so in a comfortable, soothing atmosphere. Perhaps put on some gentle music that you like. In time that roller coaster loop starts to level out.
Finally, may I applaud you. What you are working on is difficult. But people like you who bravely face aging and mortality issues find that doing so leads them to a richer life. So Bravo to you!
Question: I've felt the fear of dying for years now (about 12)...It came to me as a mom. My biggest fear is not to be here to raise my children. This fear is gaining control over my life. I think about it all the time. It is waking me up at night in the form of panic attacks. It affects my decisions in life. It changes the way I live. How do I conquer this feelings? How do I modify them, so I can be happier, and enjoy my life more? Name and city not provided.
The Life Awareness Center: Dear questioner: The Center for Life Awareness classifies ten common dying fears. The seventh category is:
7. The fear of not being there for those we love. Mates, partners and parents may fear that they won’t be able to care of loved ones. Parents fear their inability to look after and guide children. A mate may worry about his or her partner’s ability to compensate for the loss of the skills they provide.
In addition, the second category is relevant:
2. The fear of loss of control. We get strength from our ability to make choices and direct our actions. But death revokes our control. We fall to a powerful force whose nature and temperament is unknown.
As is usually the case, the categories overlap and you are experiencing both.
Part of coming to terms with our mortality, is accepting that with our death, our ability to support those we love ends too. But is that really bad? If you did not die and were immortal, you would have none of the pleasure you now have seeing your children mature and develop as they age. Experiencing your children's growth has to take place in the context of diminishing time and constant change. If you were immortal, imagine how dull child rearing would be. Your children would stay the same; flat cardboard cut-outs like our images of mythological Greek or Roman Gods. Dying is the price we pay to make time precious. Like Adam and Eve, we fall from Paradise. We lose eternal life. But mortal life is enriched. We can debate if that’s a fair trade, but it's reality and we need to face it.
Just as you were born to learn and evolve in your lifetime, your children are here for the same reason. While you love them and want to care for them eternally, the fact is they have their own missions to complete and their own lessons to learn. Theirs are not the same as yours and they alone can complete them. You can start them off with a solid foundation, but as much as you may want to, parents can’t grow for their children psychologically anymore than you can take over their physical growth.
Your focus, to find some comfort, is to think about coming to terms with your own mortality. Begin working through your fears by thinking about your own mortality intellectually. Then let yourself feel what it means emotionally. Other people's questions posted below may help you with the intellectual part of this work.
The meditations posted at the web site may help with the emotional part of the job. Two of five are presently posted and we will be posting more soon. They can help you be a little less terrified by the fears that torment you. It takes time and repetition and obviously there are no instant solutions or magic bullets. But I promise you this. If you work on getting through your fears of dying, on really feeling them and not denying them, in time you will get past them and feel increasingly joyful about being alive.
I also have two quotes you may find relevant:
“... in some way one must pay with life and consent daily to die, to give oneself up to the risks and dangers of the world, allow oneself to be engulfed and used up. Otherwise one ends up as though dead in trying to avoid life and death.” Denial of Death, Ernest Becker
“I was surprised by what happened when I accepted that I might die. Acknowledging death didn't become a morbid undertaking, as I had expected. Instead, it became an opportunity to discover a renewed sense of purpose in my life, get closer to my family and friends, and deepen my spirituality. For the first time, I actually set out to create balance in my life. My priorities clearly fell into place, and allocating my time became easy. I found myself becoming happier and more relaxed and began living a healthier life that, I believed, could very well extend my life expectancy. I actually attained a sense of my own well-being." Living with the end in mind, Erin Tierney Kramp.
Question: I have a question to ask: I have been having anxiety over questions about my death and exactly how long I have left. I know there are no answers to this question but in my mind that is not good enough. I have a 7 year old daughter and all I want to do is watch her grow. It is becoming increasingly hard for me to deal with the inevitable. I saw my physician and he of course prescribed me an anti depressant which made the phobia and anxiety worse. I am also about to see a therapist with the hopes of somehow changing my mind frame. I ask you this, Is this a good choice of action? I feel as if honestly I'll never feel normal again. Can I? Any helpful knowledge of advice would be greatly appreciated. I have already printed out the Q&A on you website and will try to use them to focus my mind. Thanks! K. B. NYC
The Life Awareness Center: Dear K. B.: Yours is a wonderful question. What I like most about it is that clearly you are not running from the reality of ageing, as many do, but rather you are trying to get ahead of the issue; trying to understand the process and what it takes to be more comfortable with our mortality. For you, the issue is not so much facing mortality as using the power of death to enrich your life.
A good place to start is to consider the trade offs we make, even though we don't get a choice. Either we would get a life of eternal dullness, endless immortality in which time does not matter and choices are meaningless. Or we accept that our time is limited but in doing so, our life becomes important and our choices really matter. The Dalai Lama puts it this way:
A practitioner who, early on, thinks about impermanence is much more courageous and happy while dying. Reflecting on the uncertainty of the time of death develops a mind that is peaceful, disciplined, and virtuous, because it is dwelling on more than the superficial stuff of this short lifetime.
From His Holiness the Dalai Lama Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life
"Death has the power to pull us away from the inconsequential and to bring us closer to what really matters. Since you are a New Yorker, 9/11 probably has a special significance for you. The horrible events of that day doubtless caused you think of what is really precious to you."
You have a daughter, 7, who you obviously love deeply. But as a parent you also know that children also bring us difficult moments. We worry about them and know someday we must be apart from them. Yet if we could choose all over again, would still choose to be a parent because the trade-off is worth it. We could avoid pain and not to have kids, but look at what we would miss. Isn't it the same with our anxieties about being mortal? We can choose to see death only as a negative, only as termination. Or we can accept that a limited life span is the cost of a meaningful life. Then death is more than THE END. It is the engine that drives life.
On the issue of therapy. as long as you find a therapist you are comfortable with, and you may find a session with more than one helps you choose, why not get the added help? Coming to terms with mortality is not a "Yes" or "No" choice, but a process of acceptance and preparation you work at over a lifetime. We don't think about death every minute, of course. That would be unhealthy. But we use its reality as a background consciousness that helps us appreciate our time alive. Getting calmer about being mortal is part of a healthy maturation. It flows from a respect for man's capacity to grow himself. Since therapy is helpful here, and often reduces our anxiety, a good therapist is a powerful support.
May I also suggest you do the meditations at this web site. They are created to help you gain comfort with the inevitability of change, aging and dying. You can play them on any Windows computer with speakers. Perhaps do one a week. The missing meditations will be posted soon. And when our book, Why We Die, is posted for free on-line reading, it will further support to your brave and important effort.
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