Fear of death is so common that it has spurred multiple research projects and intrigued everyone from scholars to thanatologists to religious leaders around the world. Some interesting findings have emerged from studying the fear of death. For example, women have generally shown more fear of death than men, perhaps because women are more likely to admit to and discuss their fears.
There is conflicting research about fear of death in young people versus the elderly. While most researchers will argue that young people fear death more than the elderly, one study done with dying people in Taiwan and published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management showed that the fear of death actually didn't lessen with increased age. Interestingly, the same study showed that patient's fear of death decreased after they were admitted to hospice care - likely a result of the education and emotional/spiritual support patients receive from the hospice team.
So what is it about death that has us so scared?
Types of Death Fears
Fear of death is broken down into specific fears:
- Fear of Pain and Suffering - many people fear that they will meet death with excruciating pain and suffering. This fear is common in many healthy people and is seen often in patients dying of cancer or other painful diseases.
- Fear of the Unknown - death is the ultimate unknown--no one has survived it to tell us what happens afterward. It's in our human nature to want to understand and make sense of the world around us but death can never be fully understood while we are still alive.
- Fear of Non-Existence - many people fear that they will cease existing after death. This fear isn't confined only to the non-religious or atheists. Many people of faith worry that their belief in an afterlife isn't real after all.
- Fear of Eternal Punishment - again this belief isn't only for the most devout of faith. People from every religious sect and even those with no religion at all may fear that they will be punished for what they did - or did not do - here on earth.
- Fear of Loss of Control - our human nature seeks control over situations. Death is something that is out of our realm of control which is very scary for many of us. Some people will attempt hold some control over death with extremely careful behavior and rigorous health checks.
- Fear of What Will Become of Loved Ones - probably the most common fear of death among new parents, single parents, and caregivers is the fear of what will happen to those entrusted to our care if we die.
Unhealthy Fear of Death
The fear of death can be so severe that it interferes with daily life. It can consume one's thoughts and affect the decisions they make. If this is true for you, you might have a true phobia called thanatophobia or necrophobia. This is an unhealthy fear and should be addressed by a trained mental health professional.
Healthy Fear of Death
It's possible for the fear of death to actually be healthy. When we fear dying, we are more careful and take appropriate precautions like wearing seat belts and bike helmets. A healthy fear of death also reminds us to make the most of our time here and not to take our relationships for granted. It can push us to work hard to leave a lasting legacy and to stay current with those we love. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live."