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Death Anxiety

Death and grief have been on my mind lately, perhaps because I recently attended a funeral to pay my respects and to support my husband and his family in their grief. Funerals are always uncomfortable, and yet they are a very normal part of our culture. The great psychotherapist Irvin Yalom writes in his book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death that events such as funerals and deaths of loved ones serve as "awakening experiences," or moments in time in which we are reminded of our own mortality and inevitable death. Our own death anxiety manifests in a variety of awakening experiences. Such experiences could be as obvious as having a near death experience, or as subtle as attending a high school reunion and seeing how your classmates have aged. Awakening experiences can be jarring. They arrive rather suddenly, and shake us out of our blissful distraction, bringing us back to the awareness of our own eventual demise. 

This can leave us feeling utterly terrified as we ponder our own mortality. Indeed, I've struggled with my own death anxiety, often manifesting in preoccupation with my health and wellness. And indeed, I've worked with many clients over the years who grapple with and suffer from the manifestations of the intense anxiety of knowing that death is inescapable. 

Many find comfort in their faith, the idea of an afterlife, or the concept of a legacy. Yalom calls our legacies "ripples," the ways in which we live on in other people that we've touched, or differences we've made in our communities. 

I would like to share with you today a concept that has offered me a perspective shift on the idea of death, and has given me a bit of relief when I have my own awakening experiences. Back in my undergrad days, I was a philosophy major. I was drawn to philosophy not for the great job market (ha), but because the study stirred an excitement within me, and a path to examine my life in a way that I never had before. Eventually, I found myself in a 300 level class completely dedicated to Martin Heidegger's work, Being and Time. I look back now at that course and realize that I still don't completely understand the vastness of this text, though it certainly altered my brain chemistry and forever changed my perspective on life and death. 

Heidegger writes that we have two beings within us. The everyday being, the part of us that goes on about our business, goes to work and comes home to make dinner, hangs out with friends, and engages in hobbies and interests. And a second being, one that has a conscious awareness of what it means to exist in the world. The part of us that grapples with existence, of personhood, and of our mortality. Heidegger asserts that this mode of being, which he calls "Dasein" (a German word which translates to "being there"), is unique to humans, and is part of what sets us apart from other animals. 

Still with me? I know, it's a weird thing to ponder. But here's the clincher: It is this awareness of our being, of our eventual deaths, that allows us to have meaning in our lives. Yalom writes, " Though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death may save us." Save us from what, exactly? The idea of death can save us from living a mundane life. Of being stuck in the mode of being that is blissful ignorance. Of living in a cycle of "the grind" day in and day out. It is this awareness of our temporal being, this consciousness of our own deaths, that allows us to slow down and savor the beauty of the world and to live fully and without restraint. That is a gift. 

Death anxiety is normal. Awakening experiences, while jarring and uncomfortable, are necessary. While it may be difficult to ponder our own deaths, I encourage us to do just that. Not to focus on the fear or the inevitability of every living thing returning to nothingness, but to remind us that we are, indeed, finite. And it is in that temporality that we find a drive to live, and to live fully. Living a fulfilled life does not mean living a life without suffering or sorrow. Living a fulfilled life, in my opinion, means to let go of the external factors that we have no control over (other people's thoughts about us, circumstances, death, etc), and refocusing that control over our own inner thoughts, choices, and attitudes. Living a fulfilled life means making choices that leave us with as few regrets as possible. I encourage you to consider how you can operate in the world today in such a way that will leave you feeling fulfilled when you lay your head on your pillow tonight to fall asleep. Then, do the same again tomorrow. And every day. Until your last. 

May we all live a fulfilled life, with the awareness that our life is temporal, and that it is beautiful. 


Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Irvin Yalom

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger


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