The Fear of Death is Worse than Death

My wife and I often take a 15 minute walk from our house to a coffee shop. We enjoy the walk along a beautiful tree-lined road and smile at those we pass along the way. Just a few days before writing this article, we were stopped on our way home by a Filipino gentleman named Tony.

“You are always smiling,” he said to me, “can you teach me how to be happy? I’m 83 tears old and afraid of death. I may die at any moment!”

“Yes, it’s true,” I said, “you may die at any moment. But that is equally true for me and my wife. None of us know when we will die.” Since he wanted to speak more about death, I made an appointment to meet him the following day.

I empathized with Tony because I believe as Robert Burton (1577 ~ 1640) did that “The fear of death is worse than death.” After all, death kills you but once, yet it was obvious from the expression in Tony’s eyes that the fear of death was killing him many times a day.

How can we reduce the negative impact of the fear of death? The best way I know of is to live with no regrets. I’ll let Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1926 ~ 2004) explain what I mean, “It is those who have not really lived — who have left issues unsettled, dreams unfulfilled, hopes shattered, and who have let the real things in life (loving and being loved by others, contributing in a positive way to other people’s happiness and welfare, finding out what things are REALLY you) pass them by — who are most reluctant to die.” (Sorry for the complexity of the sentence, but it’s worthwhile struggling through it.)

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross was a pioneer in Thanatology (the study of the effects of death and dying), and she taught us the stages we go through as we face our own death. She originally gave five stages, which were later increased to seven. Not everyone goes through all the stages, nor do we necessarily go through the stages in the order shown below.


Shock Stage: “Oh, my God!”
Denial Stage: “It can’t be true!”
Anger Stage: “Why me?”
Bargaining Stage: “Spare me, God, and I will do something for You.”
Depression Stage: “It’s all over. I have nothing to look forward to.”
Testing Stage: “What can I do to make my remaining days worthwhile?”
Acceptance Stage: “It doesn’t make sense to fight the inevitable.”

Of course, we don’t want to become like Tony, immobilized by the fear of death. But neither should we want to remove the thought of our own death from our consciousness. On the contrary, if we wish to get the most out of life, we should heighten our Personal Death Awareness (PDA). The classic reference on this subject is “PDA — Personal Death Awareness” by J. William Worden, Ph.D., Prentice-Hall, 1976 (ISBN: 0136572138). Another excellent book is FACING DEATH, EMBRACING LIFE; Understanding What Dying People Want, David Kuhl, M.D., Doubleday Canada, 2006. Although this book was written for terminal illness patients, we can all benefit from it because we are all dying of a terminal illness. (In our case, the name of the illness is LIFE.)

Although we are aware that others will die, we seldom think about our own death. That’s what PDA refers to. It is about the awareness and contemplation of our own death. Here are some ways that a higher PDA can improve our lives:

1. It is foremost an opportunity to live courageously. The higher our PDA, the more exhilaration, zest, and aliveness we experience. For it is in its contrast to death that life becomes infused with excitement, adventure, and pleasure. By remaining aware of our mortality, we stay connected to life.

2. The awareness of our own demise also serves as a reminder to enjoy the banquet of life. For as Omar Khayyam (1048 ~ 1123) wrote in The Rubaiyat:

“Ah, fill the cup: what boots it repeat (drink and be merry) / How time is slipping underneath our feet: / Unborn tomorrow and dead yesterday, / Why fret about them if today be sweet!” (Translation by Edward Fitzgerald, 1809 ~ 1883)

3. An awareness of our own end also spurs us to ask the big questions, such as “Why are we here?” Not that we’ll arrive at conclusive answers, but at least it will open the gateway to a life filled with mystery and exploration.

4. It also forces us to think about what is important and reminds us to get our house in order. That is, the time to think about securing our family’s future by freeing them from debt is now, while we are still alive and can do something about it.

5. It’s a great way to kick start our goals, for if you slack off too much, it’s like having the Grim Reaper kick you in the butt, saying, “If you want to get something done, you’d better do it now because I’m close behind!”

6. Focusing on our own death is an opportunity to become painfully aware that everyone around us is also dying. We don’t know how long they will be with us. So, the time to apologize, make amends, express our affection, offer our respect and forgiveness is now. Our tears are no consolation to the dead. It is the living that needs our kindness.

7. Awareness of our own death also opens our eyes to the pain others are feeling. Do you want to become a volunteer? What greater service can you offer than helping others cope with their death? You can make a valuable contribution by volunteering in a hospice or MTC (Make Today Count) Support Group (support group for patients with terminal illnesses).

Here is a useful exercise you can perform: What if you knew you would die in three months? What would you do differently? Well, start doing that today, for the time remaining is briefer than a wisp of smoke.

The subject of death may appear to be morbid or unnecessarily negative to some. But it need not be when viewed in the right light. For as Elizabeth Arden (1878 ~ 1966) wrote, “Death not merely ends life, it also bestows upon it a silent completeness,…” If that needs further explanation, here is Morris B. Abram (1918 ~ 2000) to fill in the details, “A painting on a canvas of infinite size, worked on eternally, would be without focus, meaning and probably without beauty. A painting, as life, needs limits.” So, as we go about creating our lives, it is like creating a storybook, and like all other books, our story cannot go on forever because it needs to end with a point.

A. Sachs wrote, “Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives.” Why doesn’t everyone live? Because they are trying to vanquish the fear of death, instead of use it in a positive way. We want to be aware of our mortality; nevertheless, our focus should remain on life.
For like everything else, it’s a matter of balance. That is, we don’t want to ignore death, but neither do we want to be obsessed with it.