Some of the fears about death recently shared in a group I attend that deals with aging, illness and death:
To suffer alone; experience pain; be dependent on others; lose control, identity, mental capacity and bodily functions; to be hooked up to machines in a sterile hospital setting; having unfinished business, a long and drawn-out death; the unknowingness and nothingness of it; and the decomposition of our bodies.
Wow! The fears are so different, some dealing with the process of death and some with death itself; some cognitive, some emotional, some physical.
All of them are real to people. And, the feelings surrounding the fears are also real – they are here right now, and we can identify and examine them, instead of pushing them away. I am trying to acknowledge the fears and their underlying feelings to learn something about myself and lessen them. The appreciation and joy of living now perhaps can be made richer by such recognition and acceptance.
Judith Lief, in Making Friends with Death, has identified five patterns of fears vs. hopes that many of us feel when we think about death:
1) The fear of non existence vs. grasping of life.
2) Fear of we can’t win vs. answers in the dying process.
3) Fear of loss of everything vs. hope for some kind of reward.
4) Fear of separation vs. we’ll be reunited with loved ones.
5) Fear of all plans ended, we can’t finish them vs. sense of completion.
I think it’s important not to try to “fix” the feelings and fears but to try to explore them. Take some time to sit quietly and see what comes up. You may want to do some writing about this – it helps to sort things out.
What is frightening for me about my dying and my death?
What personal images or experiences come to mind when I explore the fears?
What personal feelings underlie my fears?
How is my body reacting when I’m really being with the fear?
I discovered very old stories in myself from my family that lead me to specific fears of dependence, isolation, trust and control. I understand where they originated and thought I had worked through them. I did, but here they are rearing their ugly heads again, on a deeper level dictating my fears of death. It’s so fascinating to see the layers as we uncover more and more of ourselves, to achieve the complete openness I want as I lie dying.
This is a deep and quiet process; we can’t rush it. We may return to it repeatedly and discover new levels of our awareness surrounding death. Above all, we need to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. It is profound work.
I’m hoping our willingness to be open to fears, be with them and learn from them will lead us to an acceptance of this inevitable process called death, and hopefully, help us experience a peaceful one.
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.