Coming to terms with one's own mortality for dummies
November 2, 2005 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm unable to come to terms with my mortality.

The thought of my eventual death consumes me. Every night when it gets late and I have no distractions my mind inevitably drifts to my certain death. I find no comfort in religion or that everyone else goes through the same thing. I concoct ridiculous theories of aliens using me as a test subject to save me, or stupid unsound ideas that in an infinite universe over an infinite timeframe my exact mind will at some point be reconstitued. I know that it is stupid and so I dismiss it, but not to the point that I don't hold on to it at least one tiny bit. I cannot stop thinking about the diseases which I think I have but surely don't. I keep thinking forward and imagining the moment of my death in my mind's eye, seeing myself dying as a weeping old fool who can't control himself because he is so utterly depressed by his imminent death. Discussions of death and what it entails bring me to tears. I simply cannot come to terms with the fact that the one thing I have absolutely no control over whatsoever is the thing that will inevitably strike me down forever and I will never be again and I will simply rot away into the ground, most likely to be forever forgotten -- not that it matters because, from what I'm told, I won't be around to see it.

Everyone knows this to be true. But obviously, not everyone worries about it, at least not like I do. How do you people do it? How do you simply come to accept that this will all come to an end, you don't know what the hell is going to happen, and that to be realistic it's a good chance that you're just going to be what you were before being conceived: absolutely nothing? I just don't get it. And the worst part is that really, my life's probably only about 1/4 complete. I don't dare try to guess the state I'll be in when I hit 50.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (44 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Might find some answers in This Question
posted by willnot at 1:42 PM on November 2, 2005

Everyone knows this to be true. But obviously, not everyone worries about it, at least not like I do. How do you people do it?

Well, as you point out, some people take comfort in religion. Others in the thought of genetic immortality via their progeny. Others devote themselves to their occupation. Other people just don't think about it. Some take a hedonistic approach.

Freud (and this is my extremely vague understanding of it) thought that everyone had to come up with something to keep their mind off the issue or else we'd go crazy. So in that sense, you seem to lack the mental self-defense against nihilistic existentialism that most people seem to develop one way or another.

Not that any of that necessarily helps you, of course. You may or may not even want to develop such a defense mechanism. I would counsel you, in the mean time, to consider seeing a therapist as a precaution against developing suicidal tendencies.
posted by jedicus at 1:49 PM on November 2, 2005

Every night when it gets late and I have no distractions my mind inevitably drifts to my certain death.

It's late at night, when I am tired, that I tend to get consumed by irrational fears or overwhelmed by matters. I have found that if I realize this is the situation (late, tired), I should simply hit the sack and deal with it in the morning.

Things never, ever, look as bad after a good night's sleep.

Dealing with your own mortality is difficult - on a mental level, accepting this is one of the hardest things for someone to do. There's no shortcut. There's not a lot of good answers. I certainly don't have any.
posted by unixrat at 1:52 PM on November 2, 2005

I feel pretty confident that when I die my brain will stop functioning and I will be nothing but a corpse and the effects I've had on other people.

Even if you do manage to affect every single person in the world (as Thomas Edison did), that just means that your effects will ripple around further before being forgotten (who invented the butter churn?) or obliterated (no more humans).

However the fact that your life is finite in scope doesn't make it worthless, nor does it make the endpoints more important than the middle! Don't spend your present obsessed with the future, or with the past. That's all your life is - one chunk of the present after another.
posted by aubilenon at 1:53 PM on November 2, 2005

Is there anything that you really want to accomplish? If not, set some goals for yourself and work towards them.

Life isn't a game that you win at the end, it's how you play the game that matters. Perhaps looking at it that way might help you deal with mortality?

I'm about 2/5ths of the way through my life and have contemplated suicide and mortality many times in the past - the thing that keeps me going is that I know that there's more for me to accomplish (and more women to bed, damnit).
posted by PurplePorpoise at 1:58 PM on November 2, 2005

Ditto the last poster. If you've got nothing else to look forward to in life - nothing to work toward, no purpose other than to keep on living - then death's all you're going to see.

Life is finite, versatile, but essentially meaningless stuff. Define yours, and put it to good use.
posted by ToasT at 2:05 PM on November 2, 2005

Don't read White Noise by Don DeLillo unless you're looking for characters just as obsessed with it as you are.

Counselling? Anti-anxiety medication? Exercise? This is normal, but not to that extent. For some reason, your brain/body isn't coping with it the way most people do. That's worth looking into.

I think the only thing worse than death is the thought of wasting all of your non-dead time obsessing over it. Don't waste your time being embarrassed about that -- do something about it.
posted by heatherann at 2:08 PM on November 2, 2005

I figure, dying is like sleeping. When you're asleep you're nothing. Unless you're dreaming, there's no sensation, no thought. You don't worry about the eight hours of laying there doing nothing, you don't get bored, you're not ecstatic, you're not happy, you're not longing to wake up.

You feel rested/tired when you wake up, but when you're asleep you feel neither.

Who's afraid of sleeping? Sleeping isn't good, it isn't bad, it isn't blackness, it isn't eternal emptiness, it isn't despair, it isn't boredom. It's a short period of non-existence, of true nothingness. It's just zilcho.

Dying is like sleeping.

So, that's why I'm neither looking forward to nor dreading death. It's just a neutral kind of thing.
posted by Khalad at 2:16 PM on November 2, 2005

Don't worry about being dead. When you are dead, you wholly cease to be in all regards knowable by the human mind.

Now the actual process of dying, that's a scary thought. Best you can do is hope it is quick and painless.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:22 PM on November 2, 2005

You don't know where to go in your life, do you? Find someone or something to hold on to, something to distract you and occupy you. Keep it immediate and you will not worry so much about the future; you won't have time. There will still be times when you think about your inevitiable death but you will at least have something or someone to comfort you.

I have/had your exact same problem. I have yet to resolve it; I've merely tried to find ways to distract myself. It's a huge cop-out, but then so is all this attempt-at-comforting nonsense. You will die, and so will I. We have no idea what, if anything, is going to happen, and it's the fucking scariest thing we will ever face. It's a shit deal, and it's impossible to completely accept it. The reason so many people don't have the issues you and I do/did with it is because they're distracted. So get to it, find something shiny to draw your mind away from this most uncomfortable subject.
posted by punishinglemur at 2:37 PM on November 2, 2005

Khalad's got it right. Apologies, but I'm going to have to quote some Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Rosencrantz: Did you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?
Guildenstern: No.
Rosencrantz: Nor do I, really. It's silly to be depressed by it. I mean, one thinks of it like being alive in a box. One keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead, which should make all the difference, shouldn't it? I mean, you'd never *know* you were in a box, would you?

To think about it another way, have you ever been under full anesthesia? Coming out of that experience was a revelation for me. I knew that, only moments before, there had been no consciousness -- not even the irrational semi-unconsciousness of sleep. And no consciousness means no pain, no worries, no regrets, no chafing against restrictions such as being trapped in a body or a box.

Death is also a merciful alternative to living forever. Mefites could probably point you to a wealth of literature depicting characters suffering their way through infinity, dealing with everything from rampant physical infirmities to madness or devastating cases of ennui.

Lest all this sound like an argument for suicide, bear in mind that the process of dying itself is a common root of worry. Others fret about being forced to depart a life full of people and pursuits that they love. This is normal! However, if these thoughts begin to oppress your daily existence, you should probably consider contacting a therapist to help you work on building your coping skills and redirecting your late-night thought patterns.
posted by clever sheep at 2:40 PM on November 2, 2005

I get into that kind of mood from time to time as well. There are three bits of wisdom from literature that I sometimes find comforting (and sometimes not).

1. The words of Bokonon, in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (from memory here, so I'm probably way off from the actual quote):
"Some of the mud sat up and looked around. 'How much luckier I am,' said the mud to itself, 'than all the mud which never even got to sit up and look around.'"
That is, instead of dwelling on how unfortunate it is that your existence will end, consider how fortunate you are to exist at all.

2. From Neil Gaiman's short story Murder Mysteries (later adapted as a graphic novel): God's angels are working on the details of creation. Two of the angels are working on the concept of death, and how it will play into the universe. (Note that although the story involves some religious elements, it does not show or imply that there is life after death.) When one angel asks why humans should have to die at all, the other replies that death will provide life with meaning--without death, humans would never feel any pressure to get anything done.

3. "To suspect your own mortality is to know the beginning of terror; to learn irrefutably that you are mortal is to know the end of terror." -- Frank Herbert, Children of Dune
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:48 PM on November 2, 2005

This isn't the forum to solve this. Really, truly, find a competent psychologist and get to the root of why this is such an issue.

I will tell you of two things that eliminated my existential angst:

1)My first daughter's birth.
2)Living with the possibility of a fatal neuromuscular disease and finding out months later I would live to eat solid food. Since that, death doesn't alarm me, and every day I suck in air is a gift.

You, sir, must get to the core of what is driving your fears. It's the Undertoad in all of us.
posted by docpops at 3:02 PM on November 2, 2005

I deal with it by doing my best not to worry about things I can't control.
posted by dame at 3:03 PM on November 2, 2005

This was written by Cary Tennis on in answer to someone who was suffocating with ennui. I think fear-of-death is similar to ennui - both have to do with the meaning we attach to life.

Actually, I was thinking about your letter all week,
because your self-description brought to mind Robert
Musil's great modern novel "The Man Without

Ulrich, the man without qualities, is not a dull man;
he is a mathematician, and he is accomplished. But he
feels the equivalency of one action with another, and
can muster no overriding sense of belonging or
meaning. He suffers acute European modernist despair;
he is caught in that intellectual labyrinth of magical
futility that excludes, as by a magician's practiced
misdirection, the easy cure of simply accepting
radical chaos. (If Joseph K had only stopped and said,
"Hey, shit happens!" If only. Like, in your dreams.)

In revolt against modernist despair, I take as a motto
those words of the great American modernist poet
Wallace Stevens: "The final belief is to believe in a
fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being
nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it
is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly."

That is, divide like Jehovah the light from the dark
and say this, this here, this is the unfathomable shit
and I am going to let it be because I have no clue
what it could possibly mean. It might mean hoo-ha or
hee-hee. And, for the rest, I am going to stick to the
stuff I can understand, which isn't much, but it's

Because I am busy enough constructing fictions that
allow me to function. I am busy enough constructing
the fiction of my next footfall. I am busy enough,
moment by moment, constructing the world, without
which constant work the air hisses out of our dream
and we asphyxiate like fish. And who would choose
that? So we work hard at our comforting fictions; we
pretend as hard as we can that we are actually alive.
Having murdered all our gods, we work hard on our home
brew of mercy.

Live a life of engagement and wonder and your fear of death will shrink. Not go away, but shrink to a point of managability.....
posted by lalochezia at 3:03 PM on November 2, 2005

wow, five fresh fish, i'm sure that really helped...

look, I'm 24. My mum was 46 this year when she died of cancer. I think I have a fairly good understanding of how death sucks. And also (I don't think that you're going to understand this) how beautiful death can be. I can't really explain that properly, and I hope you never have to help look after a terminally ill loved one, but if you do you'll understand what I can't put into words properly.

I can't tell you how it will be for you, or for me, or whoever. But for her it was very peaceful. She *chose* the way that it happened. I don't mean that she chose to have cancer, all she could do was accept that. But accept it she did, and she chose not to hang around and fight it out, she chose to go peacefully and quietly. That choice isn't acceptable for others (and it should hold some measure of comfort that you do have a choice), other people need to try everything they can to hold on to life, and if that is *your* choice that's fine too. I think one of the most important things is to be true to yourself, and the choice that I'm talking about is one of the biggest ways that you can do that, so what the choice is doesn't matter, just that it's yours. But I think if you're lucky, like she was, when it comes to the end you'll realise that regardless of what is waiting for you after death, death isn't scary. It's a lot of other things, especially for those left behind, but not scary.

That's my five cents, I hope it means something.
posted by ancamp at 3:06 PM on November 2, 2005

This might not be a viable option for you, but most meditation is, in many ways, designed exactly to allay these sorts of fears, to help you differentiate between your thinking mind and your self, and to help you stop identifying so much with your thinking mind that you define your existence by being able to think, or the end of your existence by not being able to think.

(Sorry if this sounds convoluted -- it's one of those things that makes sense to me in my head, and I've yet to be able to explain it to anyone else properly. See the anesthesia comment above -- that's probably closer to what I mean than what I wrote.)

In any event, if meditation is something that's ever interested you, I would highly recommend it.

Yoga, too, gets into this a bit -- every class ends with what's called "corpse pose" (cheery, no?) in which your mind is blank as your body rests and integrates all the knowledge it's gained during the yoga class. As one instructor said, "You're practicing death." And you find that it's not scary, but instead a logical end to a lifetime (or class-time) of work.

Here ends my New Age-iest post ever.
posted by occhiblu at 3:11 PM on November 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

For anyone who’s curious, I am not anonymous. It sounds to me like the poster is just now pondering existential issues, which can be more than a bit overwhelming when taken all at once.

I do agree with willnot in looking to the other thread for advice. As for the Situationist fantasies considering alternate options, I would advise spending more time in the world–perhaps finding someone willing to lend a sympathethic ear–rather than detach yourself further from reality through retreat.
posted by Smart Dalek at 3:13 PM on November 2, 2005

This sounds very simplistic, but consider your concerns the day before you were born. Did you have them? Of course not. You'll probably be just as concerned the day after you die.

posted by Independent Scholarship at 3:31 PM on November 2, 2005

This is a tough question to answer on AskMe. The most helpful comment I can offer, I think, is to tell you I went through a similar period. I don't know how old you are; I was about 9 or 10, I think. I lay in bed for hours, staring out the windows, as the realization of my own mortality consumed me. I felt obsessed with it -- which made sense, 'cause it seemed pretty damn important.

I grew out of it. I don't know how, or why, or what happened. But I grew out of it to such extent that, in my teenage years, I did some truly reckless things that should have killed me many times over. When I was 9, I was acutely aware of my own mortality; and at 17, I was stupidly ignorant about it. Now I lead a safe life, but I don't think much about that future.

I wish I knew how I got there, so I could tell you the secret key...but however it happened, I did get there, so have hope.
posted by cribcage at 3:36 PM on November 2, 2005

I don't find comfort in religion or anything like that, but I figure there's no point in worrying about the inevitable. And death is the one absolute inevitable for all of us. Nobody is special when it comes to death - and it's a natural and normal thing to happen. Much better to enjoy life while you have it than anguish over the fact that one day it won't be there.

I had a moment some years ago when I realised that the world would quite happily go on without me, just as it goes on without every person who dies. At first I found it horrible, but in the long run realising that made it easier for me to come to terms with the fact that I'll die one day. And I think Khalad has it; dying is like sleeping.

In practical terms, it might help you to spend some more time outside your own head. Try to find something which will give you a sense of achievement - some craft or hobby where you can make something, or getting involved with writing or making music as a hobby. Even finding some interesting puzzles or conundrums to work on which you can jump up and work on when you can't sleep and you're anguishing over your own mortality.

It might get easier as you get older, too. Seeing family and others close to you die - and people your own age, too - seems to make the propsect of your own death easier, not harder.
posted by andraste at 3:37 PM on November 2, 2005

Psychoanalyst and concentration-camp survivor Viktor Frankl advises thinking about your past, not just your diminishing future. Your past is something that cannot be altered (even when you're imprisoned in a concentration camp).

The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? 'No, thank you,' he will think. 'Instead of possibilities, I will have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.'

How do you people do it? How do you simply come to accept that this will all come to an end, you don't know what the hell is going to happen, and that to be realistic it's a good chance that you're just going to be what you were before being conceived: absolutely nothing?

Personally, I don't have much fear of death. I see life as mostly being about the responsibilities that I carry--work, family, myself, society--which I can handle, most of the time, but which can also be burdensome and sometimes downright painful. To me, death is about finally being able to put down that burden. If I knew I was going to die a short time in the future, having successfully carried out my responsibilities up to that point, I don't think it'd bother me that much.

I'm not sure exactly where this attitude comes from. The way I was raised, probably, but I also found M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled to be helpful. (The book's first sentence: "Life is difficult.")

On a lighter note:

Navarth sat drinking wine with an aged acquaintance who bemoaned the brevity of existence. "I have left to me at the most ten years of life!"

"That is sheer pessimism," declared Navarth. "Think optimistically, rather, of the ten hundred billion years of death that await you!"

(From The Book of Dreams, by Jack Vance.)
posted by russilwvong at 3:45 PM on November 2, 2005

My suggestions:

1 - Get a therapist. They really do help.

2 - I have the same problem in certain situations. I found that it was a result of knowing it was something I had no control over, and that sounds like it's the case with you: "I simply cannot come to terms with the fact that the one thing I have absolutely no control over whatsoever is the thing that will inevitably strike me down forever". I'm a big control freak, but death is inevitable and I sometimes freak out because of it. The thing that helped me was knowing that I can control many things in my life, and, to some extent, how I die (eg: by not smoking, I probably won't die of lung cancer). Is it possible that you are afraid of dying because you regret something - or not doing something - in your life? I find comfort in knowing that I can experience as much as I want in life, and do what I want with my life. And that makes me feel better about the eventual experience of death. Which brings me to 3....

3 - I look at death as the final experience. You will never experience death until it happens. In fact, you probably have not met, nor will you ever meet, anyone who has been dead (unless you know someone who was resuscitated). I can only imagine how that would feel and there is a part of me that looks forward to that. I'm curious.

4 - And, finally, another comfort I have is that many old people I know have at least at one point before their deaths expressed a desire to die. For some people , there comes a point where you just don't want to deal with life anymore and the prospect of death is appealing in it's relaxation and peacefulness. I hope that when my time comes, I feel the same way. And that's something that also comforts me. That as much as I LOVE living right now (and get anxiety attacks sometimes when I think about dying), as I age that feeling might change. And I hope it changes, because I never want to feel like I was forced into death.

And on preview - I love Frankl. Read "Man's Search for Meaning".
posted by Moral Animal at 3:55 PM on November 2, 2005

I died once. It isn't so bad.
posted by sfenders at 4:14 PM on November 2, 2005

did I post this? are you sure?

how about this: if you make it long enough to be incredibly old, you'll be too senile to grasp what's happening to you.
posted by mcsweetie at 4:34 PM on November 2, 2005

My dad's dying helped me come to terms with my own mortalilty. He was in the hospital for a month or so before he died. I was visiting him one day, and one of the guys in his room had died a little while earlier. This seriously wigged me out, and I thought my dad would've been really upset in his condition (we pretty much knew he was dying at that point), but the guy had died peacefully and my dad was comforted, almost serene, by it.

A little while after that they called to say we had to come to the hospital because he wouldn't last the day. When I got there, he joked, "Well, we're hoping for a miracle!" He was in an astoningly good mood considering the circumstances. That was the last thing I remember him saying; he went into a coma and died two days later.

He had plenty of time to think about what was coming, and he never seemed afraid, which makes me less afraid. I hope when my day comes I can be as brave and strong.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:55 PM on November 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

I watched an episode of Penn and Teller's Bullshit (why do I feel like half my posts start with this) on near-death experiences. It was actually really interesting, a case where the scientific explanation is about as cool as any other, at least to me: basically, whenever your brain thinks you're really gonna die, you enter into a weird dreamlike state, maybe even somewhat less lucid than dreams. That seems comforting to me in terms of the actual process of dying; you're not going to be lying there completely conscious going "Yup. Well. Dying."

As for being dead, well, if you're not religious, there's no reason to worry about that, because it's just nothin.

The only really scary bit is if you die slowly of some disease, that sucks, because being sick sucks. All you can really do about that, apart from hope they don't outlaw assisted suicide, I guess, is to try and make your life as meaningful as possible so you have something to look back on at that point.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:49 PM on November 2, 2005

Welcome to the club. Are you working? Are you in any relationship? Do you have some interests? Things that excite you and move you? Thinking about death is not morose, but liberating and you are on the right path. Do you enjoy sexual pleasure, reading, music, running, movies, whatever. This is the way of the world and man since time began. Have you ever read Heidegger's Being and Time (sections on death and authentic existence)? Read some Buddhist writings. Look out your window at the falling leaves, the dark night, the beautiful sky in the morning. The greatest pains in life are not fears of dying one day but of engagement in one's own life. If you feel the aliens type of stuff is taking hold of you then it is important probably to see a therapist to discuss and gain some realistic perspective on things. You're right, life is brief, we are going to die. So what? How do you want to live your life in this opportunity you have to be alive and enjoy or experience your time alive? What is the death fear stopping you from doing with your life fear?
posted by madstop1 at 7:22 PM on November 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm the same. I'm 25, my father is the same, he's 53, my grandfather died this year at 95, and he was the same.

Frankly, I don't think any philosophies is going to help you, this stuff is real, it's just that most people don't think about that much. I think you're probably depressed, maybe a little bit, maybe a lot. My therapist has a theory that one of the reasons some kinds of depression are so hard to treat by talking-therapies is that what many depressed people dwell on is real, it's just that it isn't bearable to think about.

This might sound callous compared to all the thoughtful answers above, but I've thought about this stuff too. I think you should consider giving an antidepressant a try. Welbutrin has been the only thing that made me stop thinking about this stuff -not in an artificial way, just in an 'oh, that... what's for dinner?' kind of way. Prozac helped my dad a lot, unfortunately, my grandad seems to have spent his whole life thinking about his own death, and I think was always pretty scared and angry about it.
posted by crabintheocean at 7:23 PM on November 2, 2005

posted by brandz at 7:40 PM on November 2, 2005

There's some sugar-coating going on in this thread. There is no way to feel good about the fact that you and everyone you love has to die at some point. Any method of "overcoming" your fear of death is really just a method for forgetting about it more effectively, or a comforting lie about what it will be like from people who have no idea what they're talking about. It's not coincidental that a lot these sorts of solutions cost money.

Coming to terms with mortality? I don't know what that even means. It's fundamentally hateful and destructive, arbitrary and unsympathetic. It's okay to dread it. It should be dreaded. It's dreadful.

It's like someone saying "It bothers me that bad things happen to good people, but I can't convince myself that Heaven or karma exists... what should I do?" The answer is basically the same: there's nothing you can do, it's just the way it is. Life's a bitch...
posted by Hildago at 8:08 PM on November 2, 2005

I am told that as I approached the final run before the chairlift, on my first day of real snowboarding, that I was observed making a very macho straightline, highspeed launch into the final bit of glade terrain.

Were I an experienced snowboarder, and were the glade not rather more like a very thick bit of forest, this might be a different story.

Anyway, I regained full and continuous consciousness a few days later.

The lesson I took away from it1 was this: it is entirely possible to slip the coils of life without even knowing it's happening.

I have fragments of memory of the rescue, the ambulance, the emergency ward, the private ward, the IV drip, the CAT scan, all that jazz. And at any point during the roughly 36 hours it took to fully stabilize me, I could have checked out of this life and not even known it was happening.

Death is not scary. Dying isn't even necessarily scary. We're meant to do it, and we seem to be meant to do it pretty well.

A near-death experience pretty much eliminates fear of death...

1. the other lesson: Helmets Are Good. Shame I wasn't wearing one.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:16 PM on November 2, 2005

Each time you think of death, stand up and do something. Do push-ups. Sit-ups. Read. Write. Sing. Go for a walk. Stretch. When you think of death tell yourself "my time is coming, so I better enjoy it while it lasts."

This isn't a mature response but it does work for many people. The act of doing something is usually enough to shake off the funk. You can train yourself to quickly push off such dark thoughts and eventually they just stop coming.

But the only way to really overcome the fear of death is to accept it and embrace it. Don't try to soften the truth with illusions. Stop running from it with silly fantasies. Don't let it control you, take control of it. Accept it. Then embrace it. To an extent, this means deciding when and how you want to die. The clearest conception of this line of thinking is the Nietzschean concept of the "Voluntary Death" and "dying right at the right time." In practice this means fully envisioning your own death. Knowing the time and the place. Being in the audience at your funeral and listening to your own eulogy. If you're really brave, it means writing your own obituary. And at the end of your obituary put the words, "...and this was a fitting end for our hero." Think of your death as the finale of a story. Not just any finale, but your finale. In the plainest words: imagine the type of death you want and then you start actually wanting that death.

Personally, I found this approach to be fantastically life-affirming. Perhaps the second most liberating and exhilirating moment of my life--after admitting that God doesn't exist--was putting myself in a very dangerous situation and looking forward to my own death. When I found myself thinking "this would be a good death," I knew, with the utmost certainty, that I would never again fear death.

But this way is very hard and it's not for everybody. The other option is just to find some way, whether it's a stressful job or a kid or drugs, to habitualize yourself against these dark thoughts.
posted by nixerman at 8:21 PM on November 2, 2005

To an extent, this means deciding when and how you want to die.

I find it far more relaxing to decide when and how I want my enemies to die.


posted by five fresh fish at 10:59 PM on November 2, 2005

In the vein of what FFF said about a near-death experience, though more of a "try-this-at-home" idea:

Take a psychedelic with the goal of experiencing "ego death". If all you see are shifting patterns and colors, you haven't taken enough. If everything you consider to be "you" -- your thoughts, feelings, memories, perceptions-- are annihilated from your mind to the point you no longer have an idea who "you" are, or even that "you" are a something that "is" at all, and you find yourself in a blank-slate state that is most likely very similar to the day you were born... that's ego death.

After that experience, I was much, much less afraid of death and much, much more amazed and thankful that my consciousness exists at all. I can't recommend it enough.
posted by 4easypayments at 11:12 PM on November 2, 2005

I know your pain. For about 15 years this was a constant thought on my mind, and got to the point where it happened every day.

My problem was attempting to use faith as an answer to death. No proof of that meant that I couldn't get comfortable with it.

Finally it clicked to me. When you die you're dead. Period. And here's the kicker, you won't know it. lol

To me this understanding went a long way. Realizing that death stops everything, including the worry about death, made it clear to me. You can't worry about it, because when it happens you won't know. You'll have no idea you're dead. You cease to exist.

Now, I am not above thinking that this isn't it for us. But I consider that a bonus round. If it happenes, super, but I won't know about it.

Good luck with your struggle.
posted by zymurgy at 1:05 AM on November 3, 2005

The only thing to be feared in death is the people you love.
How theirs affects you, and how yours affects them.
Your own death will be one of the very least important things in your own life.
posted by NinjaPirate at 3:28 AM on November 3, 2005 [3 favorites]

Wow. Am I the only MeFite who looks at death, as Dumbledore put it, 'as the next great adventure'? I am so convinced that what comes after life is going to be great, that I can't wait to die. Well, I should rephrase that. I can wait - and live a fun, fulfilling life in the meantime - and then death will be the icing on the cake.

I can understand fearing the end of your current existence as you know it, because you're going to lose what you have. But I can't understand this incredible fear of what comes after. It happens to every single one of us, and I just see it as something completely natural. I also believe in reincarnation, so to me, this is just once of many times I'll get to be here and be alive and create my own reality. What an incredible game!

That doesn't mean I don't sometimes fear the process of dying. I hope it will be quick and painless. And of course I'm sad when someone around me dies. Not because they're going somewhere horrible, but because I will miss them and so will the rest of their family and friends.

My attitude and beliefs might be a bit too out there to make you feel any better. But - maybe if you can look at death and what comes after as something that doesn't have to be bad, maybe that would help. Either way, don't let fear of death get in the way of living.
posted by widdershins at 6:03 AM on November 3, 2005

How you feel about death has nothing to do with this question.

Fundamentally, thinking about any problem too much is a self control issue.

Your problem is that you can't control your mind, not that you can't control death. If you could control your mind then, when you wanted to stop thinking about death, you would. And when you felt like thinking about it, you would.

I suggested spot meditation. Pick a spot on the wall, and stare at it. Whenever you think of something besides the spot, stop, go back to thinking about the spot.

This is a form of exercise. It strengthens your mind control muscle. If you do this for a couple of months, you'll be able to think on purpose rather than because of glands or anxieties...
posted by ewkpates at 6:40 AM on November 3, 2005

It's interesting that a common response to people who fear death is, "Well, you should just enjoy life." I don't know about Anonymous, but the reason I fear death is precisely because I enjoy life. I mean, I'm the kind of guy who feels a little sad when he takes the last bite of a really good desert. Shouldn't I feel even sadder when I contemplate never enjoying the company of my loved ones again?

The three best non-religious answers I know of are these:

First--and I wish I could remember who said this first--death is the price of admission to life, in several ways. Huge numbers of biological beings had to die to create your body, and to sustain it. And looked at even more broadly, without death as a vital driving force behind Darwinian evolution, your genetic code would never have existed in the first place. Saying "I love life and hate death" is like saying "I love movies but I hate seeing images projected on a screen." Death is the price of admission.

Second, this answer by veronitron from the thread willnot linked to strikes me as being truly wise:
I just figure that by the time I die, assuming I die of old age, I will be ready to go. This is based on my past experience with my age: I was ready to leave my teens, and definitely ready to leave my 20s. I think at each stage I will be ready to go on to the next, and when I reach death, I have confidence that I will once again be ready then. Thinking about it now is hard only because I am not ready now, but why should I be ready to die at age 33? I will be ready when the time comes.
And finally... since no amount of philosophy will ever truly cure you of your fear of death... you might think about how to channel that fear into action. In my case, it's been a major factor in my becoming a writer. I channel my fear of death into a desire to leave something behind. I've certainly done my share of lightweight, pay-the-bills writing, but I've tried to stay focus on my end goal of one day writing something that will be worth reading after I've gone. If you don't have an artistic skill, you can still take actions that will reshape the world long after you've gone--by volunteering for good causes that will shape the outside world in accordance with your inner vision of justice, or by teaching children, or trying to shape the world in some other way...

Woody Allen once said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying." I agree, but the work seems like the most realistic alternative, all things considered.
posted by yankeefog at 7:22 AM on November 3, 2005 [1 favorite]

The reason so many people don't have the issues you and I do/did with it is because they're distracted.

This is not true, and don't assume everybody is just like you. I spend a lot of time not focused on anything immediate like work or dinner, and I never obsess about death. I think it may have to do with what Moral Animal was saying about being a control freak. I'm the opposite—I learned early on that I couldn't control basic things about my life (my father was in the foreign service, and I got uprooted a lot)—and I think to me death is just one of those many, many things about the future I have no control over. I enjoy the present, I've always been eager to see what's around the corner, and I'll deal with death when it gets here. To me it makes no sense letting an unknowable future poison the present I have right now. I'm not saying you should just snap out of it and think like I do; I'm saying it's a matter of personality, and you should listen to those people who seem to have similar personalities and problems and try whatever worked for them. Those of us who don't have the problem are probably not going to be of much help. Just don't assume we're superficial or easily distracted, OK?
posted by languagehat at 7:37 AM on November 3, 2005

Personally, I found this approach to be fantastically life-affirming.

That's great if you die saving a village from banditos, but how would you convince yourself that your inoperable colon cancer is all part of a totally awesome narrative? What's heroic about a colectomy? How about childhood leukemia? You mention being an atheist, but it sounds like you've just replaced one self-delusion with another.
posted by Hildago at 8:33 AM on November 3, 2005

Anonymous: How do you people do it?

Most people don't. That's what religion is for. I don't recommend it, but that's what most people do.

Anonymous: How do you simply come to accept that this will all come to an end,...

As a born-again atheist, I had to come to terms with my own mortality a little later in life -- something I could worship away in my youth as a Christian.

As an engineer, though, it was pretty easy -- I took the pragmatic approach: Don't worry about things you can't control. It's pointless to expend energy on a patently futile endeavor, like flapping your arms because you wish you could fly like a bird. Sure, take reasonable steps to minimize risks -- wear your seatbelt, wear a helmet when you snowboard, etc., -- but go enjoy your life!

Anonymous: don't know what the hell is going to happen,...

Yeah, I do -- I'm gonna be worm food. I hope I'm tasty.

Anonymous: ...and that to be realistic it's a good chance that you're just going to be what you were before being conceived: absolutely nothing?

"Nothing" isn't bad -- it's just nothing. It won't hurt a bit, I promise. If I'm wrong, you can come back as an Anonymous zombie and eat my big, juicy brain.
posted by LordSludge at 10:34 AM on November 3, 2005

I used to worry about this a lot.

When I found a life that made me happy, though - that was fulfilling and left me feeling that I was "self-actualized," as the psych boys say - the feeling went away. If you are doing what is your highest and best puprose, and death then happens to supervene willy-nilly, well then, that's how to live, isn't it?

Most folks who worry about death are really worried that they're not getting what they want out of life, in my opinion.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:41 AM on November 3, 2005 [1 favorite]

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