Coping with Death Anxiety

Could the Fear Be Worse Than the Thing Itself?

In his 2010 book, The Undying Soul, Stephen J. Iacoboni, an oncologist who has witnessed thousands of deaths over some three decades of medical practice, states that the real enemy facing terminal patients is not death, but the fear of death. He observed that many of his cancer patients had unrealistic expectations and didn’t want their hopes dashed. They pleaded for or demanded a cure. While trying not to extinguish what little hope there might have been, Iacoboni tried to be more honest with them than other doctors. Most of the terminal patients were, however, unable to accept the truth of their condition and lived their remaining days in a state of despair.

Neither Iacoboni nor his colleagues could offer any real comfort to those who had exhausted all medical treatment and were deemed terminal. He observed an “unspoken conspiracy of silence” relative to imminent death among his colleagues and patients. The medical approach to the spirit side of things was “not science, not our job.” As a result, many patients expired whimpering and with gnashing of teeth.

“Never did we look for or try to save the soul of our patients,” Iacoboni offers. “We were supposedly among the most brilliant medical investigators in the world, and yet we had no knowledge of or interest in that which mattered most.”

The fear of death, sometimes referred to as death anxiety, is not something that lends itself to a simple survey. In fact, one fairly recent survey of people’s fears indicated that fear of public speaking ranks ahead of the fear of death in the general population. However, there are too many variables involved in measuring fears to attach much meaning to the surveys. How many people in the prime of life, occupied with earning a living and raising a family, dwell regularly on death and would list it as their primary fear? It is only when a loved one is afflicted with a terminal condition or actually dies that the young person allows death and all of its ramifications to rise above the threshold of consciousness. Of course, death is a frequent theme in popular fiction, both in books and in films, but those deaths are too far removed from personal reality to instill fear in the person for any length of time.

As a person ages and approaches death’s door, he or she might dwell on it more often, but our materialistic society offers many distractions and escapes that aid in keeping it below the threshold of consciousness most of the time. It is only when a loved one faces imminent death that it really surfaces and affects our emotional well being, often throwing us into a state of hopelessness.

And then, one day, perhaps when it becomes apparent that our days are numbered, those repressed anxieties relating to death begin welling up into the consciousness. We proceed to live our final days under a dark and increasingly foreboding shadow, if not in depression, at least in a state of numb melancholy.

“The idea of death, the

fear of it, haunts the human mind like nothing else,” wrote anthropologist Ernest Becker in his 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death. Becker explained that to free oneself of death anxiety, nearly everyone chooses the path of repression. That is, we bury the idea of death deep in the subconscious and then busy ourselves with our jobs and families, partaking of certain pleasures as much as possible, and otherwise pursuing material wealth, while seeking a mundane security that we expect to continue indefinitely, all the while oblivious to the fact that in the great scheme of things, such activities are exceedingly short-term and, for the most part, meaningless.

Becker referred to this “secure” person as the “automatic cultural man.” He is “man confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premiums, that he has control of his life if he guns his sports car or works his electric toothbrush.” Becker’s automatic cultural man is a modern description of existentialist philosopher Søren

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Kierkegaard’s “Philistine.” For Kierkegaard, Philistinism was man fully concerned with the trivial without any regard for searching for ultimate meaning. As he saw it, many people are so tranquilized in the mundane or the trivial that they lack the awareness that they are in despair. Today, Kierkegaard might see a typical male Philistine as someone focused on “babes, booze, and ballgames,” all the while striving to be One with his powerful car.

Of course, if we are not completely selfish, we also involve ourselves in loving, caring for, and serving others. Those acts seem to at least partially give meaning to our lives and validate our existence, until we begin thinking too deeply and ask: If our loved ones are simply marching toward an abyss into nothingness with us, what is the point of it all?

Becker called repression of death the enemy of mankind. The theme of his book is that the unrepressed life can bring into birth a new man. Robert Jay Lifton, a distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology, said much the same thing in his book, The Broken Connection. He stated that we must “know death” in order to live with free imagination. The real key to living the unrepressed life, according to both Becker and Lifton, is having a sense of immortality, a firm belief that our earthly life is part of a much larger and eternal life.

There are two general approaches to this sense of immortality—that of the person who believes that consciousness survives physical death and lives on in some greater reality; and that of the person who denies the existence of a soul and, concomitantly, of a personal life after death but rather seeks immortality in what has been called a “collective afterlife”—one in which he or she has left his/her mark by contributing to the well-being of future generations.

For the most part, the muddled information provided by orthodox religion offers little relief, little comfort, little hope for those in the first group. They are given nothing to visualize beyond a very humdrum heaven—one in which we float around on clouds while strumming a harp and worshipping God 24/7. That is about as appealing to most people as Sunday school is to a young boy whose friends are outside playing baseball or swimming while he sits in church. It is hardly an inviting afterlife, one to quell our fear of death and provide a certain peace of mind. The nonbeliever argues that extinction is preferable to such a monotonous environment.

Fear is also instilled in believers by the idea of eternal punishment in a horrific hell, even temporary punishment in purgatory, which might last centuries, or just “sleeping in the grave” until some far-off Judgment Day.

Among those accepting personal survival, there is a more unorthodox belief system, one holding to an evolution of the soul through many realms or planes en route to the Godhead, religion’s heaven, at which point the soul becomes One with the “Creator,” whatever He, She, or It might be, while retaining its individuality. It emerges as a much more active and appealing afterlife, one that in some respects resembles the earth life in the lower realms but at some point on the evolutionary ascension becomes even more appealing than the most blissful earth life. This belief system seems to have begun with the experiences and writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century polymath, who claimed to have been able to clairvoyantly explore the afterlife realms. It unfolded with the Spiritualism and Theosophical movements of the late nineteenth century, which further explored the afterlife. Some people who now call themselves “spiritual but not religious” fall in this belief system and might be called ‘spiritual evolutionists.’ Many of them claim not to fear death, though they may fear the dying process.

While a number of distinguished scientists and scholars carried out research in the areas of mediumship, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, past-life studies, apparitions, and other psychic phenomena, and developed much evidence in support of such an afterlife, orthodox religion rejected it because some of it conflicted with established dogma and doctrine; while mainstream science rejected it because it could not reconcile it with the materialistic paradigm it had subscribed to in the Age of Reason. To accept any of it was seen as a return to the superstitions and follies of religion, not to mention a devastating blow to the ego of the “enlightened” man or woman who thought he or she had it all figured out.

Then and now, the attitude of much of the educated world toward psychic phenomena, which suggests that consciousness does survive death, may have been summed up by renowned poet Robert Browning. “They bring the whole world of spirits down amongst us, visibly and audibly,” Browning wrote. “They are absolutely proved to be sober facts by evidence that would satisfy us of any other alleged realities; and yet I cannot force my mind to interest itself in them. They are facts to my understanding, which it might have been anticipated would have been the last to acknowledge them, but they seem not to be facts to my intuitions and deep perceptions.”

With both orthodox religion and mainstream science dismissing the findings of psychical research, only a very small percentage of those believing in the survival of consciousness is able to visualize a meaningful afterlife. For the vast majority of believers, it is taken on blind faith, and things are no different than when Michel de Montaigne, a sixteenth century French statesman and philosopher, wrote: “They come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death. All well and good. Yet when death does come—to them, their wives, their children, their friends—catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair.”

Among those believing in the collective afterlife, there are some who derive satisfaction out of a biological sense of immortality, that there will be a “living on” through one’s progeny. There is also the creative mode, whereby one “lives on” through his or her contributions to art, music, literature, or science. Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D., founding faculty member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles, is among those who subscribe to such an afterlife. “I don’t think that a sense that one’s life is meaningfully embedded in the ongoingness of human history necessarily mitigates the fear of personal extinction,” he explains. “A multiplicity of factors can contribute to the presence or absence of a fear of death, the assumption of a collective afterlife being only one such factor. Having experienced a traumatic loss, for example, I am much less afraid of my own death than I am the death of loved ones.”

Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus wrote that the greatest offense one can commit against life is hoping for another life. His philosophy is expressed today by secular humanists who preach that we should “live in the moment” or “live in the present” and not concern ourselves with the past or future, especially with what comes after death. But this is easier said than done, especially in one’s declining years. As pioneering psychologist William James saw it, a person cannot effectively live in the moment without some regard for the future. “The luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with,” he wrote. “Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities pay their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in; and his days pass by with zest; they stir with prospects, they thrill with remoter values. Place around them on the contrary the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning which for pure naturalism and the popular-science evolutionism of our time are all that is visible ultimately, and the thrill stops short, or turns rather to an anxious trembling.”

Professor James was not suggesting that we live for the afterlife, only that we keep the larger picture in mind as we go about our daily activities. Otherwise, we risk succumbing to the Epicurean motto, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” while striving to be One with our toys.

In one sense, however, the nonbeliever’s afterlife approach may be more heroic than that of the believer, as he claims to concern himself with future generations and not his own future well-being. But how much of it is bravado in the face of doom and gloom rather than courage and an altruistic concern for future generations is impossible to gauge. Then again, the believer’s mindset is not necessarily nonheroic, since he expects future generations to join him in the greater reality.

As long as the nonbeliever remains in the Philistine mindset, he is somewhat safe and secure; but if he begins thinking too deeply, he might then ask, “to which generation full fruition?” or “to what end the legacy?” Such questions might pull the whole carpet out from under him. If scientific and technological advances result in a Utopian world for some future generation, what meaning will that generation find for generations to follow? Isn’t that where ancient Rome was when it burned as Nero fiddled?

Seemingly, the believer in a collective afterlife looks to the elimination of adversity for future generations, while the believer in a personal afterlife sees the material life as a school and adversity as necessary to learn and further advance in the greater reality.

If any credibility can be given to spirit communication, both adversity and uncertainty are part of the Divine plan. While supposedly communicating with the spirit of Martin Luther through a medium, the great author Victor Hugo asked Luther why God doesn’t better reveal himself, to which Luther replied, “Because doubt is the instrument which forges the human spirit. If the day were to come when the human spirit no longer doubted, the human soul would fly off and leave the plough behind, for it would have acquired wings. The earth would lie fallow. Now, God is the sower and man is the harvester. The celestial seed demands that the human ploughshare remain in the furrow of life.” In effect, absolute certainty about an afterlife would stifle the Divine plan.

“Death is indeed a fearful piece of brutality,” Carl Jung, another pioneering psychologist, offered. “There is no sense in pretending otherwise. It is brutal, not only as a physical event but also far more so psychically. [However] from another point of view, death appears a joyful event. In the light of eternity, it is a wedding, a mysterium conjunctionis. The soul attains, as it were, its missing half. It achieves wholeness.”

Discovering that ‘other point of view’ and that ‘missing half’ is the way, it would appear, to overcome the fear of death. Either that, or be a Philistine.

By Michael E. Tymn