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How to Confront and Overcome the Fear of Death: A Guide to Finding Peace and Acceptance

There is a hamster dying in my hands. She is soft and brown and curled like a comma.

 

I’ve always been nervous holding her small, kinetic body, fearful she might scurry up my arm and down my shirt. But here, at the doorway to death, we have reached a truce. My hands are calm, and her body is still, save for the double time pump of her chest as she searches for air.

 

Death has been everywhere lately. Another phone call, another swift cut. Old and young, humans and dogs, expected and tragically unforeseen. Straightforward grief and unbelievably complicated grief.

 

All of it, painful.

 

Fear of the Unknown

 

I don't get it. How is everyone walking around like everything is normal when we are perched on a time bomb of certain loss?

 

Apparently, I'm not great at being human. I don’t agree with the basic design of life. Death feels like a breach, an injustice, the fine print left off the contract. I feel blindsided, irrationally stunned.

 

My relationship to death is one of denial. I relegate death to a far-away thing, something that happens to other people, like an IRS tax audit or a chimney fire.

 

I choose the delusion of believing what is here now will always remain. That we will all show up for family dinners. That I will always be able to open the door to my mother’s house and hear her sing-song “Hellllo!” That we will all be here next Christmas, too.

 

I mistake longevity for permanence. I pretend death only comes at the end of a long life, clenched in a wrinkled fist.

 

I need this deception. I rest in this pretend certainty. It’s what allows me to fall asleep at night and let my kids and wife pull out of the driveway each morning.

 

But death keeps asking me to remember. It taps me on the shoulder, raises its eyebrows knowingly.

 

Nope. All good here, thanks. Move along.

 

Still, the hard truth finds its way through. I lay my head on the downy softness of my dog’s chest, feeling her breath summon itself over and over, the cadence of life thumping against my ear. Its steady, electrical rhythm is both a comfort and a wild vulnerability. In a single moment they could stop. For each of us, just few missed breaths, a few missed heartbeats, separate us from death.


It could be now or years from now. How are we supposed to live with this kind of fragility?

 

Fear – It’s Scary, Right?

 

I’m scared to death of death.

 

(Not actually. Thanatophobia is type of anxiety disorder marked by an intense fear of death that disrupts the daily life and mental health of sufferers.)

 

I’m scared of the process of dying, of long sickness, of unexpected tragedy, of what happens when the mind is lost. I’m terrified by the uncertainty of it all. Will you go first, or will I? Will I have to learn to live without you or you without me?

 

I don’t know how to live without my loved ones, and I don’t want to learn.

 

Regarding my own death, I fear not living up to my potential, of my own life passing me by because I was too distracted, too determined, too focused on improvement. I’m scared of running out of time before I learn to be the fullest, truest version of myself.


I know it’s normal to fear death, but that doesn’t make it any less debilitating.

 

There are thousands of things I have choice about, but death is outside my jurisdiction. Death can just come along, ruthless and unapologetic, and sweep its muscled forearm across our shelves and knock everything to the floor.


My denial offers me no actual protection. I grasp for sure footing and find none.

 

Maybe it’s my age, my stage or just this recent line up of losses, but it’s getting harder to pretend that everything I love won’t someday be gone. Including myself. And in an order and timing I don’t get to choose.

 

Fear of death owns me. It keeps me guarded and closed, legs spinning, arms pumping to outrun this unnegotiable reality.


This fear is perhaps my most embedded mind conditioning, the largest unexamined part of my operating system. It causes me to live life in my mind, always trying to prevent disaster or manipulate life for my comfort. It means I live a half-life - thinking about life rather than actually living it.

 

Is any greater bondage than fear?

 

 

What Fearing Death Costs Us


I have an octogenarian friend who has a peaceful relationship with death. Maybe it’s practice – she has already lost so many people she cares about – or it could be her presumed proximity to it, but she is just, well, chill about death.

 

What it would be like to stop fighting and fearing, to stop feigning control, to stop clenching and closing to the very nature of life? To stop walking, as the Jewish Sabbath prayer says, “sightless among miracles.”

 

Because that’s the problem with all this fear. The miracles - I miss them.

 

I’m so busy trying not to feel pain, guarding myself against loss, that I don’t notice how I cut myself off from the bigness of life.

 

Death anxiety robs me of my life. I invest my energy in fear and protection. I close my heart. I get distracted with performance and perfection, am driven to play it safe, to get it right. Much of my life is still defined by productivity and accomplishment, by reaching and striving.

 

When we close to one thing, we unintentionally close to all things.

 

We can’t have control and connection. We can’t close down and be open. We can’t pretend and live a real life.

 

Fear of death is really a fear of loss, a fear of what will happen and if I can handle it. Which means fear of death is really a fear of life - of the raw, dynamic process of living that I can never fully understand and certainly can't control.

 

It's a vicious cycle: fearing death to prevent pain which causes more fear and more pain.

 

Death fear is the foundational fear from which all my other fears sprout. It’s the mothership where all my fears are born.

 

So how do we do get out from under this fear? Can we rationalize, negotiate with or outsmart it? Can we just get over it?

 

To play whack-a-mole with our fear is a fruitless pursuit. There is no end to our fear. Our mind will always conjure new threats and new terrible outcomes for us. For every soothed worry, ten more appear.

 

And to try to tame fear would be to miss the gift it offers us.

 


Jack Canfield quote: "Everything you want is on the other side of fear."


 

How to Overcome the Fear of Death (and Fear In General)


If we could completely control our lives (and our deaths) would we want to? Would we accept the enormity of that responsibility? I doubt it.

 

We seek control, seek protection from uncertainty, but that isn’t actually what we want.

 

What we want is to be free – free of pain, of fear, of uncertainty. And we think control will give us that, but it won’t. It can’t.

 

Fear is a symptom of a greater unrest, a larger disconnect from ourselves, and our lives. It’s the mental expression of an existential problem.

 

Author Stephen Levine, who worked extensively with people at the end of life, offered a possibility I have never considered: that true freedom comes by opening to our fear.

 

Levine’s approach runs contrary to everything I know - to open to fear and pain, to welcome them into our hearts and experience them fully.

 

For someone who has spent her life trying to avoid pain and discomfort, this was a hard no.


Yet perhaps this avoidance had been my problem all along. What if the solution to fear isn’t control but surrender?

 

“One day we will realize how much of our life is a compulsive attempt to escape discomfort. We are motivated more by an aversion to the unpleasant than by a will toward truth, freedom, or healing. We are constantly attempting to escape our life, to avoid rather than enter our pain, and we wonder why it is so difficult to be fully alive.”

 

– Stephen Levine, A Year to Live

 

 

I tried it. Instead of throwing fear from a moving train, propping it up before a firing squad or burying it in a deep-water cave, I breathed into it. I opened my heart and welcomed it in. I softened around it.

 

The fear crested, a wave pulling me under. I was right – it was going to take me. But then something surprising happened. The fear retreated and there was a tiny space. Then it returned, a wall of water readying to slam down on me. But again, it curled and rolled over me again. Over and over it surged and rolled and I simply allowed it.



a wave breaking


Fear is an energetic wave, an energy moving through us. Not a fixed truth or reality. By itself, it has no real power.

 

It was intense and frightening and also temporary and relieving, like a summer thunderstorm that rattles the windows and then departs, cooling the world outside.

 

I felt the fear dissolve.


Nothing lasts forever.

 

 

The Other Side of Fear

 

This is my new practice. When fear or pain pins itself behind my ribcage, rather than flee from it or numb it, I simply breathe into it with love and compassion.


I'm not talking about tolerating. I'm doing about reverence and profound allowing, about opening our hearts and welcoming it in with great love.


This feeling is allowed. This experience is allowed. No good or bad. All of it allowed.


Even my regret. Even my closing down, my anxiety, my anger.


Even when life is pissing me off.


Even death.

 

It is all allowed. This is life.


I am no longer fighting. And when I do fight, I allow that, too. When I fail or avoid, that is also welcomed in.


Life is allowed as it is.


This is a radical, reverent allowing of all things as they are. (Levine taught this as the soft-belly meditation.)

 

What a freedom to no longer need to avoid pain. What freedom to no longer assess myself and life by the polarity of good and bad.


This is the open-heartedness waiting for us if we walk through the doorway of our fear.

 

This is why I’ve chosen to work with this fear of death as a path to liberation.

 

Standing in my kitchen with a hamster dying in my hands, somehow death does not feel scary or wrong. This little animal has exceeded her life expectancy by several months. Her course seems natural, part of the bargain when we brought her home from the pet store in a box that looked like it should hold a dozen Munchkins.

 

We tuck the hamster in a bowl and soon her breath settles and leaves. She stills.

 

I feel myself want to close around my daughter’s pain. Instead, I take a breath and gently ask myself to open.

 

It’s getting easier, knowing I can trust myself to hold this, knowing my heart is the medicine for my fear. I soften to even death itself.

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