When did you first realize that you were going to die?
I would have been around nine or ten. It was Christmastime, late at night when the rest of the family was asleep, and it was quiet and still. From where I lay on my pillow, I could see the light from the outdoor decorations that framed the windows. All was calm, all was bright, and suddenly, in that stillness, I realized that someday I would not be here anymore. The feeling slid into my body, that ice-cold liquid fear that filled me as if I was a hollow shell, and it took on my shape like gelatin in a mould. I remember staying awake for most of the night, as apprehension came with the comprehension that everyone I loved would also die. In the light of day, those feelings dissipated but would return every once in a while over the years. As it turned out, for me it was never a crippling fear. But it is for many.
It’s not unusual to fear death. It is the great unknown, after all. It brings the ultimate sadness and enormous loss. But to carry that fear always, obsessively, makes it a phobia. And that phobia has a name: Thanatophobia.
Thanatophobia is commonly referred to as the fear of death. More specifically, it can be a fear of death or a fear of the dying process. It can keep us from enjoying life because we are so afraid of losing it. Although it is named a “phobia,” thanatophobia is not recognized in psychiatric circles as a disorder. Instead, it is classed as anxiety. The most common symptoms can include frequent panic attacks, dizziness, sweating, heart palpitations, nausea, and stomach pain. When episodes worsen, they can be accompanied by emotional distress that causes avoidance of friends and family for long periods of time, and by anger, sadness, agitation, guilt, and constant worry.
When worry turns to panic, the most common suggestion is to seek help from a mental health professional who might suggest talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (i.e., treatment that focuses on creating practical solutions to problems to eventually change our pattern of thinking and put our mind at ease when facing talk of death or dying), or relaxation techniques. In some cases, a doctor may even prescribe medications for short-term use.
There is no concrete age at which someone can develop thanatophobia, but it is not uncommon for people entering their 50’s to start to think about their own mortality. Margaret Manning is the creator of Sixtyandme.com, “a lifestyle magazine for dynamic older women.” She notes that as we age, we begin to think about the fact that we have already lived more years than we have left. Some of us may even come to fear death, no matter how far off it may be. She has written an excellent article outlining some positive ways to overcome the fear of death.
But in short, don’t forget to be present. We can concentrate on the moment we’re in, not the ones that haven’t happened yet. We can celebrate every moment of our lives, not just the big events, we can make peace with the fact that someday we too will die. And, above all, don’t let it keep us from living.