dealing with death
Updated: Jul 11, 2021
Did you know that most peoples' fear of death peaks in their 20s? My sister, who is a mental health counselor, told me it is common for those in their 20s to experience frequent thoughts of death and general existential dread.
I was relieved to hear that, because for the majority of 2020, I have dealt with intrusive and frequent fears of death. It felt good to know maybe it isn't too worrisome that I, a perfectly healthy and vivacious 26 year old woman, have thought about death at least twice a day for the past few months. (Especially ironic considering the 18-20 year old depressive version of me placed minimal value on life).
Which raises a question: if it is a common experience to encounter fear of death in our 20s, why is almost nobody talking about it, or equipping us with tools to handle the experience? In the last ten or so months, I have embarked on a learning journey to process my own fears. My own relationship with death is ever-changing; at some moments, I have a deep, profound peace with death. At other moments my mind careens into a panicked void of metaphysical overwhelm. But things are definitely trending in a positive direction, and now I want to share some of the lessons I'm learning in dealing with death - and how I've found great meaning along the way. (My first and probably best tip would be to talk to an actual professional therapist who is trained to counsel you through your fear). My hope is that this blog post can serve as a tool added into the collective repository of material to assist in dealing with death anxiety, and that, more personally, it can help you find new hope on your own journey.
If you're afraid to die, you're afraid to really live.
The year was 2016, and I was a brand new baby teacher. One of my students wrote a reflection that said "if you are afraid to die, you are afraid to really live." I was completely floored for the rest of the day, and four years later, I still think about that comment frequently. Am I living a half-lived life? And if death is just a natural part of the cycle of life, what am I really afraid of?
Talk about it.
We do this weird thing in the US (and maybe some of my readers in other countries can relate) where we just don't talk about death, and we operate as if it isn't coming for us all. So when we have intrusive death thoughts and no framework with which to process them, the isolation we feel due to a lack of societal integration of death can compound our already fragile feelings. Breaking past the uncomfortableness - being bravely vulnerable - and talking about your worries with a friend can quickly reveal that they have similar worries, or at the very least understand why you feel the way you do. It can also be helpful to hear how they process the concept of death - their processing methods may help you form yours.
You aren't alone.
Death is the one activity that you will 100% certainly partake in along with every single person you've ever known or loved. When I freak out over the uncertainty of what comes after death (a byproduct of my religious deconversion), it comforts me to know that, if I am privileged enough to live a long life, so many people who I love will have already died, and I will be rejoining them wherever they are.
Tomorrow is a privilege.
On that note, it is a privilege and blessing to wake up tomorrow morning. If I was in another country, I might be dead by military bombing a hundred times over by now. If I was born with a terminal illness, or hit by a car, or brutally stabbed by a stranger, I could have already been dead by now. But none of those seemingly random things that can happen to anyone have happened to me - and that is a gift. Taking away my expectation of life and remembering how lucky I am to even be able to expect that I will wake up tomorrow reframes my lens to one of gratitude, and gratitude always makes us feel better.
Plants are medicine.
Plant medicine can help you process death. There are endless opportunities to work with plants with the intention of processing your death anxiety: you can raise them, ingest them, commune in nature with them, rub them into your skin in the form of a body oil. This article details how raising houseplants can lead to death acceptance. Herbs like mugwort and elderberry can assist in processing the reality of death. Psychedelics have also been widely researched as having positive effects on the mental state of terminal patients, and are known to generally help death anxiety. A Johns Hopkins researcher put it this way: "[T]he psilocybin experience enables a sense of deeper meaning, and an understanding that in the largest frame everything is fine and that there is nothing to be fearful of."
Similar to working with herbal medicines, stone medicine can also aid in your processing.
Connect with your ancestors.
While in some cultures ancestral reverence remains in tact, in modern Western cultures, we have largely lost connection to our ancestry. This loss may have occurred by colonization forcibly removing our connection to our lineages (i.e. through slavery, displacement), or due to our society simply not prioritizing the dead. Those of us with European ancestors may even avoid ancestry for fear of learning our ancestors were slave owners, etc. However, today many folks are waking up to a curiosity about their ancestors and a desire to reclaim their connection to their bloodline (there is a reason 23 & Me is so popular!).
By taking the time to learn of our lineages and then integrate that knowledge into our daily lives, we can have a better understanding of our own locality and temporality. We can understand our role as a future ancestor. In doing so, we may redefine our relationship with death. (Note: if you're interested in the idea of ancestry but have no idea where to even start, and want to be mindful of ensuring your journey into ancestry is a decolonized one, I cannot recommend certain episodes of the podcast Medicine Stories enough).
Death meditations are powerful.
I wouldn't recommend this one to anyone whose feelings about death are especially vulnerable, tender, and overwhelming. But once you have started working through your fear of death with some other methods, death meditations can act as powerful, emotional purges. They will bring your fears rushing up unavoidably and force you to face them intensely - and thus, transmute them into healing at a more intense level as well. I did this death meditation yesterday and bawled my eyes out the entire time. My fear was not magically removed, but I did feel better afterwards for having faced it, and I felt more at peace.
Media can help educate you and assure you.
Listening to podcast episodes that do not shy away from death - learning about the existence of death doulas, and death cafes, and conscious dying - and reading books on dying have helped me process my death anxiety. I am an information gatherer by nature; the more I know about something, the more I can come to an understanding of it, and I then benefit from the acceptance that comes with understanding. Watching shows like The Good Place helps lighten the heaviness of death and remind me it doesn't have to be so serious all the time. Watching the movie Avatar reminds me that we borrow energy from the earth that we return when we die, which is a comforting reminder of our interconnectedness.
Live in the present.
When I spend a lot of time thinking of my death, or the deaths of my loved ones, I remind myself this: how sad would it be if when I die, I realize I never truly lived because I spent my whole life in the fear of death? Death will come when it will, but life - life is here now. I don't want to miss it because I'm too in my own head. I've been practicing grounding exercises (meditation, yoga, dance, anything that brings me into the moment) to keep me present.
Recognize the benefits of your fear.
It is up to you whether you choose to understand your fears around death as bad, good, a mixture of both, or something else entirely. When I feel death fears, I feel uniquely vulnerable. I believe it is the moments of keen vulnerability that we are most alive. In seeing it this way, I can cultivate gratitude for my death fears, for they remind me of my own beautiful, messy, tempestuous, vivid, oceanic humanness.
I also recognize that by thinking of death, I am contemplating the meaning of life itself, and in doing so, cultivating a more meaningful life for myself. I can choose to focus on working towards what matters most for me, and not get so sucked into all the petty day to day dramas, because I am reminded that my time here is limited. That reminder is invaluable.
Question the roots of your fear.
A couple months ago, I confessed my death fears to a healer I saw, and she asked me whether I was sure my fears were actually mine. If you are the type of person who is sensitive to other peoples' energies (trauma survivors often develop this ability), consider the fact that 2020 has forced us to collectively consider the possibility of impending death and large-scale doom. For a culture that thrives on ignoring death, this is a massive shift. It is possible your overwhelming fears are a reflection of the collective, especially if they've developed only recently.
Are you a control freak? If so, consider that death is the ultimate manifestation of the uncontrollable. Nothing you can do will stop its coming - not all the green juices and exercise programs in the world. Consider that this is actually an opportunity for you to address your need to control. I have found that the #1 thing I can do to make my life better is to surrender. Work with surrender as a way to heal your mind, and in doing so, ease your fears.
Most important: Actually feel the fear.
We do not like to feel uncomfortable emotions. But as Brené Brown says, we cannot selectively numb. If you avoid feeling your fears of death (or any negative emotion!), you will also not be able to fully feel joy, love, peace, contentedness.
Also, to choose to ignore your fear does not get rid of it. Rather, that fear is stored in the body, which can be much more painful to process in the long term. The negative emotions we store in our bodies can even lead to physical manifestations of disease. And anytime I "ignore" a feeling, I end up feeling just generally off for the rest of the day, or the feeling will keep popping up again and again. So ignoring it doesn't even actually work for me.
So, when I have death thoughts, I am trying to let myself feel everything and process it in the moment. I put my hands over my heart. I breathe deeply, and truly feel the fear. I let myself cry if I need to, and tell myself it's okay. Then, the moment passes (usually in just a few minutes), and I find the rest of my day is so much better than if I hadn't just held that small space. It is a more true way of being, and I think in doing this, I am getting closer to embodied living.
I hope one or more of these ideas helps you expand. Sending love as we walk each other home. <3