How to cope with a fear of death? I
February 12, 2011 8:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm terrified at the thought of dying and don't know what to do. I am not actually dying or sick in any way but sometimes I can't stop worrying about it. How can I stop, or feel better about it?

I'm young, in pretty good health, and probably not dying anytime soon. But sometimes the idea of dying--of not existing anymore--completely terrifies me. I get really panicky when I think about it. Weird things trigger it, like a scene from Robot Chicken where one of their little made-up clay guys is an astronaut who flies into the sun. I just saw that and now am nervous and shaky and on the verge of tears. How do people cope with this? I can't be the only one who feels this way--how do you handle it? How can I stop freaking out about this?

To preempt religious questions, I am committed to a religion, but it doesn't really address this in a way that makes me feel better in the moment.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (40 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
It happens to me sometimes too. The last episode of Six Feet Under fucked me up for a couple of months. I really do not mean to sound glib but the best advice I have is just don't think about it. When you have those intrusive thoughts just think "action figure astronauts can't die" (or whatever is making you think about it) and then distract yourself with something.

Or, you know, therapy, which I didn't do. It got better on its own for me.
posted by mckenney at 8:56 AM on February 12, 2011

As a terminal cancer patient, I've had a few years to consider what it would be like to die. I ruminated over it for two years, wasting valuable time I could have eaten chocolate, having wild monkey sex or enjoying the sunsets. I've come to the conclusion that you won't know you are dead, you will just cease to exist, hence you won't care. Being so young and having feelings as you do for no palpable reason, you should probably seek professional help to find out why you are so terrified. I wish you the very best, and feel free to email me if you want to talk.
posted by ~Sushma~ at 9:04 AM on February 12, 2011 [33 favorites]

The last few episodes of Six Feet Under also messed me up for a bit (in fact I'm just now getting over it, it's been a few weeks).

Two things have helped.

One: The Feeling Good Handbook has a section about how to deal with fear of death. It's CBT and it's fantastic.

Two: Making a plan for terminal illness. There is a lot of cancer in my family, and both my mom and I have always worried about what would happen when we got cancer. Then we came up with a plan. We would move to a specific small town by the ocean (where she grew up), rent a cottage there that had enough room for people to come stay and visit, and get a dog (I've gotten a dog since I made this plan, without having to get cancer, so that's great!). We would then spend our days cooking for the ill one or being tended on by the healthy one. Getting hair brushed and getting wheeled around outside with the dog. We haven't quite figured out what we'll do for money.

This plan makes the thought of slowly dying so much easier to bear, even if it is idealistic and maybe unfeasible.

I wouldn't recommend trying not to think about it, though. That sounds like a formula for unhealthy obsessions.
posted by whalebreath at 9:18 AM on February 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

This was a problem for me for years and years and years. Every so often, sometimes for no real reason, sometimes obviously triggered, I'd start thinking about death and be gripped by panic. I always wished there was a pill that would make it stop. It turned out, finally, that (for me) there was.

Intrusive ideation about death is symptomatic of some anxiety disorders, and is a way that panic attacks can manifest themselves. I urge you to talk to a mental health professional or your GP about this. If the idea of medical interventions make you nervous, start by talking to a therapist who can't prescribe things.

I wish I had more time right now to expand on this comment, please memail me if you want to follow up. Short version: you may not be having a mental health issue (not for some random person on the internet to diagnose obviously), but if you are, getting into the system is the most important step you can take to improve your quality of life.

seriously this sounds so disjointed and dismissive but I can't collect my thoughts right now I need to check out of this hotel room. You don't have to live with these thoughts, they are not some existential angst that you must persevere through in order to not be a quitter. I spent years thinking I was the only person my age who panicked about death while sitting around in school. Then with the panic came constant anxiety, with the anxiety came depression, and then I finally realized I was ill, and somehow started dealing with it and got on meds that helped me and it basically saved my life. Be well, take care of yourself, sorry this is so ridiculous.
posted by silby at 9:25 AM on February 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

Counselling is what helped me deal with the fear of death. Two people I was very close to died within a year of each other (They were both only 36) and it freaked me out. I had an amazing counsellor who helped me see death from another perspective. I also read sections of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying which was helpful.
posted by sadtomato at 9:25 AM on February 12, 2011

I tell myself it's not dying, it's graduating kindergarden, but a lot of success with this kind of thinking is based on a personal philosophy you might not share. Faith or self deceit, either way, you need to find thoughts that balance the thoughts you are terrifying youself with
posted by Redhush at 9:26 AM on February 12, 2011

Is it death itself or the process of dying that frightens you? If death itself, then think of it like this - you probably aren't concerned with what happened before you existed. Why, then, does it matter what happens after? You won't know. Or, if you believe in an afterlife, then you will be in a better place, right?

If it's the process of dying that scares you - one thought that has strangely comforted me is knowing that I can't do anything about dying. I'm going to die however I was meant to die. Worrying about it is not going to stave it off. It will only waste my time while alive.

For either case, I recommend reading Marry Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. It sounds morbid, but she actually takes a humorous and lightheartedly scientific approach to what happens when our bodies die. I felt much more comfortable with the idea of death after I read it, myself.
posted by katillathehun at 9:27 AM on February 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Intrusive thoughts about dying are one of the symptoms of several mental illnesses, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression (the thoughts can scare you - being depressed doesn't necessarily mean wanting to die.)

Therapy is a great thing. You might want to specifically look for CBT - and be sure to come in with an idea of what triggers these thoughts. For example, is it always seeing stuff on TV, or is it broader - a certain flower, beautiful sunsets, Twinkies, specific people, when you show up to work, etc.
posted by SMPA at 9:27 AM on February 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Reading the Trial and Death of Socrates repeatedly, where he talks about the two possibilities of death (either annihilation, which would be like totally peaceful sleep and therefore not to be feared, or transmigration, in which case you will go on existing and therefore should not fear), helped me. (Repeatedly because I teach it 2-3 times a semester.) Dude makes some good points.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:29 AM on February 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Knowing that I've already been dead and it didn't hurt (i.e. I was dead before I was born) was a great comfort to me.. The year 2200AD will be as meaningless to me as the year 2200BC was.
posted by MighstAllCruckingFighty at 9:39 AM on February 12, 2011 [8 favorites]

Me too. I almost asked this same question so many times. Last year at some point I started worrying about the fact that I was going to die, and the possibility of it happening at any point, on a daily basis, to the point where I thought it was odd that it didn't weigh on people's minds. It's considerably better now. Some of the following helped:

- Reminding myself that I am very unlikely to die in the near future. Buildings do not often collapse and trucks don't veer wildly off the road when I'm walking by, and even if they did it's unlikely that I would be hit. Hundreds of airplanes take off and land without incident every day. My relatives live long, and I see the doctor regularly and live a healthy lifestyle.

- It's likely that I will live long enough to change my mind about death when it's time to go gentle into that good night. My outlook on things is a lot different than it was ten or even five years ago, and it'll continue to evolve.

- Eternal life sounds even worse than death. I mean, how boring, and you're probably going to have to have a job for much of it.

- When you're dead, you won't remember how it happened. You won't be reliving it in your head. Whenever someone dies in a terrible accident, we're sad that their last experience is terror as they fly into the sun, but really, it's a mercy that it was the last thing that happened and they won't have nightmares about it. Fear of death is only for the living.

- Maybe there'll be some other stuff on the other side, and we'll all hang out and have a ghost party. In the case of nonexistence, we won't care. Sometimes I like to compare it to rocks or dirt: that rock don't care if you kick it, it's a rock. Maybe the matter that I'm made of will be a rock millions of years from now, and I'll just be around, not caring or thinking, maybe being thrown at car windows or something.

- Some of this may be general anxiety, using death as a sticking point. Recently I went through a smallish depressed trough, and one of the weird things about it was I stopped worrying so much about death. Consider how you've been feeling overall lately, and whether you'd benefit on the whole from therapy or reducing the amount of stress in your life.

My father died two years ago today, so your question is coincidentally poignant for me. I'm now half as old as he lived to be. I'm not really pleased to think it might be all downhill from here, but even though I'm still young another few decades seems like a crazy long time. Dad knew he was dying, and one of the last things he said was "today was a really good day." It's not all so bad.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:47 AM on February 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

By very definition, dead people aren't conscious.

Ergo, you will never consciously experience death.

So relax! You've got nothing to worry about.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:56 AM on February 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have moments of terror, too. Occasionally while drifting off to sleep I'll ruminate about death, and even though I "know" everyone dies one day, it can often seem like a half-remembered bad dream, until I stop and think to myself, oh my god, this is *really* going to happen to *me* one day! It's very upsetting and depressing, but eventually I'm too tired to stay awake.

Day-to-day, I think the routine chores and little emergencies in our lives keep us distracted from death-- we don't forget exactly, but we can't stay focused on it. It becomes that half-remembered bad dream again. Irvin Yalom is a pyschotherapist who's written a number of popular books that I admire, and death is one of the central ideas in his approach to therapy-- one of the great existential problems that every human faces. His recent book Staring at the Sun is all about coping with the idea of death, and the title hints that it's too intense a thought for us to stare at directly for long, even though it's an everyday presence in our lives. He presents some of the chief ideas that other people have found comforting, although I haven't found them greatly helpful. (For example, there's Epicurus' "Where death is, I am not; where I am, death is not," and the idea that our impact on people around us continues even when our bodies and minds are gone, like ripples in a pond.)

But I do find one of Yalom's ideas potentially helpful: Even though death destroys us, the idea of death can save us. Which is to say that really knowing we will die can spur us to make good use of our time here, and not to wait before we start living-- a lesson I'm still struggling to put into practice myself. I get a tiny little twinge of that death anxiety when I have to part with things-- saying goodbye to people who move away, having my hard drive crash and losing old pictures and emails, and even when I've had to clean house and throw out old clothes I used to love, or ticket stubs, or grocery receipts from my trip to Hawaii, for goodness' sake. So I think for me there's the pain of loss, of having to part with someone or something before I was ready to be done with it. And so I think the very best way to cope with death might be to live your life so that you are ready to part with it-- get your fill of the experiences you really want to have, see enough of the people you really want to see, and say the things that are really important for you to say.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 10:03 AM on February 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's a Japanese movie called Afterlife. It has a very odd view of what happens when you die. You go to a big building with lots of bureaucrats and you have one week to pick a memory from your life of a single moment in time. The staff there will try to recreate that moment for you and all your other memories are gone. You take that moment with you to eternity and nothing else.

I think that everyone who watches that movie comes away asking themselves what that moment would be for them.

I'm not happy about the prospect of dying, but I'm very happy that I have a couple of moments when I was at my most contented, my most me. They are pretty quiet moments and most people might find them rather boring, but they aren't that way for me.

Somehow this makes me feel better about the whole thing.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:17 AM on February 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

I do this, too. It's partially due to hitting middle age and partially due to having aging relatives and partially because I'm a worrier. I notice it shows up more acutely when I am worried about other things or feel disconnected from my kids (the worry is often some version of "How will me kids survive?") or loved ones. So, I do something to feel connected again - we play a game or I take them out for a drive, or we play catch. Whatever gets me back in the moment and involves some sort of interaction. Or, I take my dog for a walk or I go for a hike or I make bread - I try to get myself back into the present, where I am not actively dying and everything is okay. There's a certain amount of general denial you have to have make plans and let yourself love and develop attachments, because it will all end eventually, but it isn't all ending right now.

And if the thoughts are too intrusive for simple "get up and move around" advice, please do think about going to see a professional.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 10:19 AM on February 12, 2011

The following is my experience. It might help or it might make you more upset. I hope it's the former. I apologise if it's the latter.

I've had to stare death in the face several times over the years. I don't mean that to sound melodramatic. It's just a fact. There might come a time in the future when I will have to do it again, aside from the time that I do actually die. I don't want to go into detail about what happened, but suffice it to say there was little warning and no chance to prepare. Those experiences were great chances to learn. I've heard that some people found things like bunjee jumping to be helpful in finding a calmer attitude towards death.

I found that being that close to it changed me. I don't know enough medical jargon or whatever to speak about it, but I feel as though a specific part of my brain is "turned on", or something, to the fact that there's nothing that I can do about it, and that some day the molecules that make up me will stop performing their merry dance that holds me together and will go off and do something else. Part of me may become an apple. I quite like that thought.

Every time I had to deal with it, it got easier. Every time, I had to go through something similar to the grieving process - denial, fear, depression and finally acceptance. I have accepted that at some point, I will cease to be. And it's a purely rational thing. I'm not upset by that, or excited by it (though I would like to know what happens after, and what it is that that the molecules I'm borrowing for this little interlude become). I hesitate to use a Buddhist concept, but it's almost like the feeling of acceptance that Buddhists seem to get.

Fighting it just made it worse. Every time I thought "no, this can't happen to me", I just made myself more scared of it happening. It is the nature of the ego to protect itself, and I guess to the ego, death is the ultimate destroyer. Denial is just helping it fulfil its function. But every single "block" of denial that is added to the wall prevents you from getting to acceptance. And acceptance is where it's at. There's no fear or depression there. You're way to far down the path for things like that. I know that I'm going to die, and that has one of two effects on me; a] no effect at all, or b] I try to live life more fully, more interestingly, and maybe even more happily. I use death as an impetus to enjoy life more.

One other thing that helped me was a book: "YOU CAN'T AFFORD THE LUXURY OF A NEGATIVE THOUGHT; A Book for People with Any Life-Threatening Illness -- Including Life". Some of it is what some Mefites would refer to as "woo", but you can just skip those parts. It's available for free, in full, online.

The mods have access to my email address, and I'm happy for them to pass it on to you, should you want to chat. Good luck, and I hope you find some peace.
posted by Solomon at 10:25 AM on February 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're already dead. Meaning: there is no ultimate self, only a conventional bundle of habituated practices we call a self. The terror you have of death is merely the tendency we all have to cling to that which we mistake as real, when the only ultimate reality is unceasing change or flux. What I would recommend is to read Dōgen Zenji and other zen masters, and also Heraclitus and some of the great mystics. Also poetry helps; I'm a big fan of Kenneth Rexroth's longer poems, which often meditate in philosophical ways on the constant cycles of death and rebirth that are everywhere around us.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 10:26 AM on February 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Went through this in a massive way when I was young, and I think everyone (as evidenced above) goes through occasional bouts of it. I am religious, but not conventionally enough to believe that the traditional pearly gates view of the afterlife is necessarily gonna happen. I have moments of doubt in the whole thing, and when I get anxious about it, it manifests itself in various ways:

- fear of old age, physical limitations.
- fear of a long final illness (oddly, actually going through a period of severe injury helped - we fear what we don't know/understand)
- fear of nonexistence; i.e. I'll never know if I was wrong in my religious beliefs. Yes, guys, this is not logical. Logic has nothing to do with fear of nonexistence. As has been aptly pointed out, the problem is that it pollutes the present moment with fear. Denying that this should be so does not, of itself, make it go away.
- (I think the biggest fear): Fear that nothing I do, or will, matters, because of all the above. I think mainstream religion does a lousy job of dealing with this. It took me years of philosophical and religious pondering to get this under control. It's a complex subject, but it might help to ponder, in a nutshell, the idea that eternal life does not necessarily confer signficance (imagine eternity in a menial job, or doing nothing), and life ending does not confer meaninglessness (think about soldiers in WWII who died sometimes in their teens, but whose sacrifices secured our freedom, which persists to this day, long after they would have died naturally in many cases).

Yes, there is a "long view" idea that ultimately NOTHING in our existence matters. I disagree, on the grounds that if we only make one anothers existence more pleasant while it lasts, we've done something of significance. It's a bit circular either way you look at it; the idea tests the limits of logic, which is why the Eastern philosophers have had a bit better time of dealing with it.

And I've spent the most words on that last point because IMO, it's the key.

Finally, I will Nth the idea that an excessive, non-fleeting preoccupation with the subject in someone who is not staring it down in the near term is a sign you could use some help. I wish I had gotten more help sooner.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:33 AM on February 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I went through this a few years ago, in my early twenties, when I was smoking too much pot alone while watching Six Feet Under (seriously, I think that show destroys a lot of young adulthoods!). My grandfather had also recently died, and my mom was diagnosed with cancer. And suddenly I realized that I, too, would die.

(Funny thing is, my father died when I was young and I'd encountered death plenty. But it never sunk into me in quite the same way).

It was a difficult, frustrating experience for me. Part of it was anxiety, sure, and I thought of a lot of ways that should have logicked me out of fear or death, such as, "I didn't exist before, and that wasn't so bad. So it won't be so terrible," but when it came down to it, none of that helped when I was up at night, alone, and terrified. I mean, I had a minor in philosophy, had read the Tao and the Chuang-tzu and lots of metaphysical texts and even spoken to a counselor about it but none of the answers really helped the stark fact of it. None of the solutions that other people gave me helped because I knew, deep down, that they had no more assurances than I did.

What did help was time. I spent about two years thinking about it for an extended period at least once a day, if not more. And then something clicked inside of me--perhaps it was realizing how much time I was dedicated to thinking about it, and how all that angst didn't help solve the problem. I realized it was impacting my current life negatively, and that, to my knowledge, I only have one shot at life and so I don't want to squander it being terrified of what I was going to lose. And now, I hardly ever think about it. It used to be that I'd see a metafilter thread like this and feel dread for the angst it would cause me. But now I don't.

My standard advice for any deep-seated emotion like this is this: give yourself time to mourn, and then, when you're ready, you will move on. I think we each need to come to terms with the bone-deep truth of our mortality in our own way. And I know it probably sounds like hogwash right now, but it will happen. Promise.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:11 AM on February 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

It was mentioned above and I would really urge you to read Irvin Yalom's Staring At The Sun: Overcoming The Terror of Death. It's a great book that is a very practical, philosophical look at death and dying.

One other thing that I think about when the thought of my death comes to my mind for longer than a fleeting second: Do I remember the days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries before my birth? Do I "mourn" the fact that I missed all of that? Of course not. I see the days after my death as the same as the days before my birth.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 11:14 AM on February 12, 2011

This gets kind of psycho-babbly but... say we've got a conscious mind and a greater, unconscious awareness.

I think that the feeling of impending death is sometimes your conscious mind's way of viewing a nascent personal growth. You may be about to change in some way that your current consciousness doesn't yet have the tools to measure or understand. All it can see is it's own "ending", so you get all antsy about dying because it feels like a part of yourself is dying...the old way of experiencing things. It's sad and a bit terrifying because it's like not being able to see around the corner, over the horizon. You're understandably worried about stepping into the void.

Try to see it as a natural, cyclical process. Good luck! (ymmv)
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:17 AM on February 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

What do you care if you die? You'll be dead.
posted by cmoj at 11:22 AM on February 12, 2011

Some perspective:
As a certified Old Fart, I'm at an age when I could be Grimly Reaped any minute now, and I can't say I don't think about it. I think about it more than I did when I was younger, for sure. No choice, when a friend years younger than I (she was 57) recently died of cancer, and when another friend (about six years younger than I) has just been diagnosed with ALS. This will be happening more frequently as time goes on, of course. I don't think I'm going to get used to it.

For me, the two components that add up to fear of death are loneliness and waste. I very much fear dying alone and uncared-about, and I fear slipping away without having done much of value--without having justified my existence, as the cliche goes. For me, trying to avoid the lonely ending is a strain, because I'm an introvert and currently live alone. I do the best I can to stay in touch with old friends and make new ones. As for the waste thing, well, I've made some dumb-ass choices but overall I've accomplished a lot more than I had any right to expect of myself. I screwed around a lot, but overall did some good. You can probably reach similar conclusions about yourself.

I can't guess what contributes to your fear, but if you're like me, I'd suggest start working early on these two items. Build up solid, close relationships and do good things with the time of your life. It's kind of like saving for retirement--the earlier you start, the more you'll have at the end when you need it. And while you're doing them, you won't have as much time to brood about the inevitable.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:38 AM on February 12, 2011 [11 favorites]

I'd just like to say that I think this seems to get easier as you get older, for many people. It certainly has for me. I think it might be something to do with young people feeling so... full of the newness and freshness of life; the having of new experiences, the succession of firsts... the thought of this freshness disappearing forever seems so much worse, then.

After a certain age, this wanes, to a large extent. Things become familiar. You've seen this before. And that. And that. It's possible to become jaded because of this, although that isn't inevitable and can (and should) be avoided. But the point is, most of us seem to reach some level of acceptance of termination the nearer we get to it. Which is kinda nice of mother nature - for a change. :-)
posted by Decani at 11:48 AM on February 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't have any brilliant advice for you, but I did just want to chime in and Nth that you're not alone. Actually, one of the things that I think has helped me is realizing that I'm not alone in this fear. Everyone struggles with this to some extent, and has to come to some sort of understanding of death and what it means to their life in order to move on. That very fact has helped me -- sometimes I imagine everyone on earth as being in a common struggle, all facing that fear together (I think this has also increased my compassion and forgiveness for others). That gives me a sense of peace, knowing that I'm not alone. I have reached out to some of the people that I am closest to about it -- it definitely helps to hear about how others have come to terms with this and/or struggle with this. I know it can be scary to talk about because you don't want to be a downer and talking about it only makes it more real. But that is good -- it's better to get it outside of your head. And it good to make it real because it *is* real, and avoiding it just makes it worse. Some people may shy away but many people also want to talk about it but are afraid to bring it up.

I also suggest meditation and acceptance. Don't push away the fear -- embrace it exactly because that is what being alive is all about. Experience being alive to the fullest. I recommend the book Radical Acceptance, which has really helped me deal with a lot of these feelings and helped me shift my view of these fears. It has a Buddhist foundation but the techniques/meditations/lessons are good no matter what your religious background may be.
posted by imalaowai at 12:13 PM on February 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

You ask a reasonable question.

Sadly, this isn't a reason-based problem. It's emotional. And for you, it's an obsession. The topic is irrelevant. It's the obsession that's a problem, don't you agree?

I can add very little to what has been said above, but I can emphasize that that you are mortal, and nothing you can do will alter that. So far, no one (including the baby jesus) has escaped death. (Remember, even in that fairy tale, he actually died.) Other than willful ignorance, there's not a lot to be done to combat a fact.

You are basically in the same room with the rest of us (humans), and hearing the loud clock ticking that most of the rest of us are ignoring. Nature makes it fade for the most part, because fear is like any other emotion... it's hard to maintain it endlessly.

You can either cultivate your own customized workaround for the fact, or you can wither and die from a fear that's unlikely to manifest on any given day. Worrying about death is a pretty poor substitute for living a life.

"Heart must be braver, courage the bolder, mood the stouter as our strength grows less!" is my favorite literary quote (from a "Battle of Maldon" translation.)

Go and get rid of the obsession, however you need to, or be patient and it will pass or you will.
posted by FauxScot at 12:29 PM on February 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by Sys Rq at 1:52 PM on February 12, 2011

I always assumed it would go away, but it hasn't, not entirely. The idea that it's symptomatic of various disorders seems odd to me. Look at it this way, if you don't care particularly for your life then you're surely less likely to be concerned about its inevitable conclusion. I'm a happy-go-lucky sort but I've been troubled by these thoughts since I was six or seven. It's a blind panic which comes at night, mostly. I don't think I have any disorder and neither do you, necessarily. If you knew that someone or something was definitely going to come and take away the thing that is most precious to you, your house say, or your pony, no-one would diagnose a disorder if you fretted or panicked about it.

The philosophical difference, I suppose, is that you won't be conscious of what has been taken away. You won't know that your house, pony, life have disappeared. But you can't accommodate that thought when the panic comes, it's like your ego won't permit it. So, all this is just to reassure you that you're probably not nuts or anything.

Embracing the notion of death might not help you. I'm of the opinion that while living life in denial of death is inelegant and potentially unhealthy a certain amount of distractionary tactics can't hurt. Projects help. Projects which involve planning. Write a kid's book, learn judo, go back to school (if you've even left) become obsessed with something ongoing. I've found this decreases the frequency of the attacks. Falling in love is a very good idea particularly if you can make the moment when you finally kiss some years after the moment you realise that you must have him / her / it. Babies help too, perhaps because they necessarily take part of your ego with them, perhaps because they represent a very simple kind of immortality. Sometimes I think of that bit in Annie Hall when Alvy's mother barks that 'Brooklyn isn't expanding' or the end of Hannah and her Sisters with Duck Soup (Woody Allen is the laureate of death fear) and these calm me down. Breathing is good, focusing really hard on the most amazing thing in your life, the tree in your garden, trying to remember when you felt safest, or when you were most proud of yourself, these are good short term, when you're gripped by it.

I would absolutely recommend that you read On Transience by Freud, and The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode, a wonderful limpid essay and a rather more challenging book on themes broadly related to your, our problem.
posted by tigrefacile at 2:43 PM on February 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

As others have said, some professional counselling may help if this is interfering with everyday life.

Having said that, I used to have the same fears when I was in my teens and early twenties. I think it's perfectly normal. The panicky feeling is natural because you are thinking about dying and our brains are wired to run away from danger.

Some philosophical reflection does a world of good (as referred upthread). Also, the times I felt the least fear was when I felt most alive. To me that meant studying and learning and most important, connecting with other people. The latter was especially important. I think in many ways what triggered my anxiety was a general feeling of loneliness, which I was to thick to recognize at the time.

Finally I have a somewhat unusual coping mechanism which I'm still working through. I'm not sure how to express it. Since I'm a worst case scenario guy, I think it's reasonable to assume that when you die, you are gone, finito. But the instant you die, new consciousnesses are being created all around. These new consciousnesses are nothing to do with the old "you" but one of them will be a new "you". I.e. "you" are again conscious. This is not a belief in reincarnation, so much as a set of unrelated incarnations. Can someone else help me explain myself? :)

Anyhow, with this in mind there is no need to fear annihilation because as long as consciousness exists in the universe, you will be conscious. And if/when consciousness in the universe stops existing you won't notice it. And even then there might be parallel universes etc....
posted by storybored at 2:53 PM on February 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

The only thing that helps me with a concern about death is knowing God through Jesus Christ in the Bible. I know that is controversial here, but hey, for thousands of years that was the main view of things.
It didn't seem honest not to share what is really in my heart when everyone else does.
To me dying will be entering a different dimension where there are no more tears, sadness, people doing evil or telling lies. A time when the kindest Man who ever lived takes my hand and all is love. The Scriptures tell all about it and I believe they are true.
posted by srbrunson at 3:48 PM on February 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a young person who has had some severe health issues the last couple of years, I have had occasion to ponder the uncertainties of the future, also death. I never really used to think about death, it was just this thing that happened to old or unlucky people.

We are those old or unlucky people people.

Every single one of us.
Will die.

And that's ok. Death is not something to fear, because it's not something that can be avoided. It's not this horrible mugger from a dark alley waiting to strike. Death is more like the local paperboy you glimpse from behind the door as a child, occasionally greet and tip as an adult, and tell your life story to over cups of tea as an old person.

As for not existing anymore, every single human being from the dawn of humanity up to the latest stillborn babe doesn't exist. right? They exist, collectively, in our minds, in our history. They have all left their mark on this world, if just as source of nitrogen and phosphate for the grass on their graves.

I'm not the slightest bit religious or spiritual, and have never believed in any form of final judgement, afterlife or reincarnation. I do not believe in an eternal soul that will carry my 'essence' on to a new mode of existence. When I die, I will cease to be. The building blocks that were me shall move on to become new things, and I will eventually be forgotten. But I will leave my mark, however insignificant, just by having been. I do not fear death, nor do I welcome it.

To be honest, I still don't really think about it much.

If you freak out at the thought of death and cessation, to the point of severe distress, I would urge you to go talk to a counselor or a therapist or a good listener. You don't want to feel like this, and it might be a good idea to talk with/at somebody to figure out what exactly terrifies you so much. Then take a look at that thing and realize it's not really that frightening.
posted by HFSH at 4:53 PM on February 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Knowing that I've already been dead and it didn't hurt (i.e. I was dead before I was born) was a great comfort to me.. The year 2200AD will be as meaningless to me as the year 2200BC was.

Yes, this thought has been a great comfort to me too. Also, reading a bit about near-death experiences has helped me as well. Lots of people seem to have experiences which are very peaceful and joyous, of reuniting with loved ones and being welcomed by a benevolent deity. Religious people and others see this as a sign that the afterlife is real... and many of those who have "died" have found the experience so wonderful that they didn't want to return from it. I find this very reassuring.

Of course, many scientists believe that these experiences are simply illusions created by a dying brain... but so what? If, as I'm dying, I'm having a euphoric experience of entering into heaven, I expect it will be a comfort to me. And if at the end, my consciousness simply goes out, I'll never know or care.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:59 PM on February 12, 2011

Live! Find the things that make you feel great. The things that make you feel savagely joyfully alive. Or quietly, contentedly, securely present in the here and now. Try one or the other, or a mix of both.

Regardless of whether it involves illegal street racing, roaming the wilderness with minimalist gear, dancing till dawn, taking the dog for a run, good food and a few too many glasses of wine with close friends, taking the dog for a run, baking and icing a cake, knitting, or a quiet night in with a lover or a truly good book, the only way to beat death is to live, and to know you are living.

Additionally, as lots of people have said above, a little bit of therapy probably won't hurt in dealing with the internal emotional and psychological component of this.
posted by Ahab at 6:39 PM on February 12, 2011

Based on these responses, you're obviously not alone. That feels kind of nice, right?

I tell myself that the reason why I get so absolutely terrified at the thought of death is because my brain is not physically capable of imagining non-existence. It just can't. The fear is my brain crashing, and then trying to reboot. So I try to remind myself that not living may not be so scary; I just imagine it is because of a system error.

On top of that, I try to create stuff. I'm a photographer/writer. I have a lot of projects in the works. I am also the type who sends postcards and handwritten letters, in addition to leaving notes in books for loved ones. I often make complicated, crafty little things and give them to people. Strangers, even. The idea of having some physical item connecting me to another person, even after I'm dead and gone, is really comforting (and is also something that helps after a breakup, or when separated, or after having moved away from friends). The idea that somewhere, unbeknownst to me, someone could be reading what I wrote or holding paper I once folded is really nice. I like the idea of a mediated, tangibile connection. It's also why nothing makes me happier than when someone gives me something handmade for Christmas, because then I get to think of them whenever I hold the gift.

So...maybe write a note to someone you love telling them how much you love them? Just a suggestion. It couldn't hurt.
posted by vivid postcard at 9:29 PM on February 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to be terrified of death too. The movie "My Boyfriend's Back" - which was a comedy (about zombies), for pete's sake - scared me.

In nursing school, my advisor suggested I take her thanatology class. I refused. I was somewhat forced into dealing with it when my college's freshman anatomy class became the first freshman class in the state of Indiana to use a cadaver. Essentially I watched an autopsy over the course of the semester. How I got over it was basically by becoming very morbidly curious. I read Stiff, recommended to you above. I talked with people about death. I went to Body Worlds. I looked at pictures of dead people online. (Okay, so you shouldn't just jump right into that last one.) I think when you learn about something you're less likely to be afraid of it.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:35 PM on February 12, 2011

I asked a question that touched upon this a two and a half years ago. (And yes, it does freak me out two and a half years have passed since I asked it.)

What doesn't work for me: the idea that I won't care, I'll be dead! I won't be aware! or, I didn't exist before I was born, either! Those only scare me more. Always. Every time. Even the answers like that in this thread strum that deep-chest terror -- which is mostly dormant now. It hasn't gone away, but it has gotten better.
Mostly because of What does work: the assumption that I will make peace with death more and more the older I get. Assuring myself I won't be scared then makes me less scared now.

I think the following helped me embrace that second sentiment. In recent months, I had two family members pass away: my husband's 93-year-old grandmother, who, for the last few years, spoke often about how she was ready to go. It was startling and sad, but, now that she's gone, I take a strange comfort in it -- that not only did she not fear death, but welcomed it. The second was my mother's sister, who, at 59 years old, had spent half a century battling debilitating diabetes. In the last year, her transplanted organs failed her, and after facing months of exhausting dialysis, made the decision to stop going in. She did this with full awareness, completely in her head, and, as she knew she would, died just one week later, with her sisters beside her.

If they made peace with death, knowing it was right there, so can I when the time comes, I think.
And so can you. So will you.

Unless we live forever, which is still Plan A :)
posted by changeling at 11:00 PM on February 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

I've had this fear my whole life. I'm a non-believer. It'll hit and I'll run around and pace and scream. I went through a nervous breakdown a few years ago. Got treatment for depression, got meds, read Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death. The Fear subsided for a bit.
It's dormant now, but it'll be back. I focus on work and music. Try and find salvation in rock and roll and the Internet. So scared of not existing
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 2:47 AM on February 13, 2011

Imagine the time before you were born... you can't, because you weren't born. It will the same after you die: nothing.

The only bit that may be a concern is the way in which you transition between these the state of being alive to the state of not being alive. You'd like that to be as short and uneventful as possible.
posted by Harry at 3:01 AM on February 13, 2011

Sometimes when returning from abroad, I look around and think "Huh, the country really just carried on without me, then?" and realise this is what it'll be like when I'm dead. I find some comfort in the thought that everything I see around me every day will still be here after I die - just because I'm gone, the world won't end (unless I die in some kind of all-consuming armageddon, I suppose).

I'm also comforted by realising how often and how clearly I remember people who have died and knowing that after I'm gone I will remain just as real to people who know me.

And, as others have said, remembering that I didn't exist even as recently as the 1960s, and that's never bothered me at all.

Six Feet Under affected me quite profoundly too (that box set really should come with free membership to some kind of support group), but I'm pleased to say in a more positive way. I finished watching it before Christmas, and as a result, I still think every day that I'm lucky to be alive, to have this day and hopefully many more after it, and to bear in mind how short and intense this thing we call life is as a means to appreciating it while I have it.
posted by penguin pie at 4:46 AM on February 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing that the last episode of Six Feet Under scarred me for life as well. I can't even listen to that song without tearing up. (It left me with this feeling of ... seeing how everyone dies, what's the point of life?)

You say you are committed to a religion. I am not. But the only time I feel at peace with the idea that we all die is when I'm actively reading books on Buddhism, specifically books written by the Dalai Lama. He has such a calm, matter-of-fact air about him. All of his writings calm me. Somehow he is able to tell me that the point of life is to be happy, and then we die, and we have to accept it (indeed, we have to accept that suffering exists and we shouldn't worry about it because we can't do anything about it), and I eat it up. It doesn't work as well if I merely remind myself (though it's been a few years since I've read any of his books, and I keep telling myself I better do so pronto because I've had a hard time with death the past couple years as well), though it helps a little.
posted by iguanapolitico at 2:30 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

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