Winston Churchill once said: “Any man who says he is not afraid of death is a liar.”
But while it’s natural for all of us to be afraid of death, particularly right now with the backdrop of a global pandemic, for some, death anxiety – or thanatophobia – can become a real problem.
“Most people will experience death anxiety at some time in their lives,” says clinical psychologist Dr Anna Janssen (drannajanssen.co.uk), who specialises in the care of people with cancer and terminal illness. “Some have a way of dealing with it which causes them less anxiety, perhaps through their culture or religion or their own ideas about death.
“There’s nothing unusual about being apprehensive about death, and worrying about it a bit, but those worries become more clinically concerning if the anxiety starts to have an impact on day-to-day functioning. When it starts to dictate much of how you live, and is to the detriment of other meaningful things or your wellbeing, it’s more concerning.”
Grief counsellor and funeral director Lianna Champ (champfunerals.com), author of How To Grieve Like A Champ (RedDoor Publishing, £9.99), adds: “The current pandemic has made us think of death – having deaths reported daily in the news can make our anxiety external, giving us a sense of panic.
“Having a fear of death is quite normal and stems from our natural instinct for survival. But what happens when an irrational fear of death begins to seep into our thoughts and takes over our rational thinking? Death anxiety is a very real concern for some, affecting their day-to-day functioning, and while we can’t change what is, we can change how we feel about it.”
Here, Janssen and Champ suggest seven ways to manage death anxiety…
1. Acknowledge your feelings
Don’t try to ignore your feelings about death – talk, think and reflect on them in a safe space, maybe even in therapy, suggests Janssen. “You can look at what your thoughts and feelings really are and get some coherence, so you feel less overwhelmed by how you feel,” she says. “Understanding what you’re thinking and feeling is sometimes a direct route to coping.”
Champ says: “Acknowledge the effect the anxiety has on your life physically and emotionally. Once we acknowledge that we may be engaging in habits or thoughts that aren’t good for us, we can begin to take steps to change them.”
She suggests writing down honestly what you’re feeling, and thinking about events in your past that may be linked to the anxiety. By doing this, you might be able to identify what was emotionally unfinished about the linked event, which might help.
2. Identify the trigger
Champ suggests asking yourself about all the things that make you anxious about death. Is it missing out on being with your loved ones – even though they’ll eventually all die too? Being in a black nothingness (which you probably won’t be aware of)? Or just the not knowing what happens? “If we understand why we’re feeling the way we do, we can take back control,” she says.
3. Limit your news consumption
Champ advises people who have death anxiety not to read or listen to the news too much. “Keep in mind that the media can hold a tragic event in the news for ages,” she says. “Yes, we see disasters, but we can also see many good and great things happening. Everything needs balance.”
Janssen adds: “The fear of death fluctuates in different people’s lives and may be triggered by an experience of a difficult death, or things people may see or hear about death that add uncertainty, or make the potential of death less deniable.”
4. Share your thoughts
Giving a voice to your feelings can help put worries into perspective, says Champ, who suggests: “Find someone who won’t try to ‘fix’ you or change how you feel, but can give you the tools to work it out yourself. If you can’t think of someone you can trust, reach out to a professional.”
Janssen adds: “It can just be about being heard and feeling less stigmatised. Very often, we don’t talk about death or how worried we are about it, so sometimes just having a relationship where someone can bear witness to your feelings about death can be enough. Sometimes knowing you’re not the only one who feels like this can be helpful.”
5. Remember some anxiety about death can be good
“Our survival instinct is driven by the fear of what might end our lives, so we’ll all have an undercurrent of fear of death, and that’s no bad thing because it’s how we survive,” Janssen stresses.
Champ adds: “A ‘healthy’ fear of death can make us change our beliefs and behaviours for the better. An awareness that we aren’t immortal can make us better people too, as it can make us think about how we’d like to be remembered.”
6. Learn to accept it
Through her work, Janssen says she sees people facing death, or who’ve lost someone to illness, and they readily talk about it. “I also see people who speak about their acceptance of death,” she says. “Some people are very much able to accept their life is ending and they feel ready for that ending, and that’s often linked to what they think death is and what they think will happen next.
“Some are very clear this is not the end of everything, so the meaning attached to death isn’t one of threat. They’re comfortable with it, and think they’re going to a safe place and to meet people that have already passed away. It’s really about the meaning we attach to death.”
Champ adds: “By really grasping that dying is an inescapable truth, we can live a better life. We really can live each day as if it’s our last.”
7. Seek help if necessary
If, after trying to tackle your anxiety, you’re still feeling overwhelmed and thinking excessively about death, seek professional help, advises Champ.
Janssen suggests: “If you have trauma that reminds you of how unsafe we are in this world, you can come through it with specialist therapy.”