04/21/2011 09:13 am ET | Updated Jan 14, 2012

Overcoming Our Fear of Death

American society carries a profound taboo against thinking about or talking about death. This is evident in our obsession with being youthful. It is also apparent in the way the funeral industry and our customary behavior around death focus on sanitizing the physical evidence of death and suppressing public emotional reactions to death. We know that we will all die, but we have yet to learn to accept this reality and to normalize the conversations needed to comfort ourselves and each other around the issues surrounding dying and death.

Here are some thought-provoking quotations about the fear of death:

"The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time."
--Mark Twain

"The fear of death is the most unjustified of all fears, for there's no risk of accident for someone who's dead."
--Albert Einstein

"Fear of death increases in exact proportion to increase in wealth."
--Ernest Hemingway

"Fear of death makes us devoid both of valor and religion. For want of valor is want of religious faith."
--Mohandas Gandhi

"Men fear death as children fear to go in the dark."
--Francis Bacon

"But to die is extremely simple. You breathe out, and you don't breathe in."
--Sogyal Rinpoche

"I'm not afraid of death. It's the stake one puts up in order to play the game of life."
--Jean Giraudoux

"We cannot banish dangers, but we can banish fears. We must not demean life by standing in awe of death."
--David Sarnoff

"He who doesn't fear death dies only once."
--Giovanni Falcone

"Fear" can be viewed as an acronym for "fantasy expectations appearing real." The fear of death prevents us from exploring its reality and meaning. Not knowing what to expect, we create fantasy expectations about death that scare us because they seem real to us. As living beings, we can't know what death will be but must face the challenge of accepting its reality.

The fear of death is known as thanatophobia and encompasses many of the following specific concerns surrounding the process of dying and the reality of death itself:

  • Being dead

  • Losing control
  • Leaving loved ones behind
  • Loss of dignity, independence and autonomy
  • Experiencing illness, pain and suffering
  • The unknown
  • When and how death will occur
  • Looking at the list above, it is interesting to note that most of us think we are afraid of death when in fact our greater fear is the process of dying, and that is something we can do something about. When asked whether they would prefer to die suddenly or as the result of illness, 80 percent of people quickly affirm a preference for sudden death. In reality, however, 90 percent of us will die from illness and only 10 percent from sudden death. Given these facts, it behooves us to make peace with dying and death.

    Rather than expending our precious energy in patterns of fear regarding death, an alternative is to develop a healthy respect for death. We can make peace with death by simultaneously taking control over how we live our lives while preparing for our death. Here's how to do that:

    1. Explore your thoughts, feelings and deepest beliefs about life's big questions. Your deepest beliefs serve as the foundation for how you live your life and how you will live your dying. Ask yourself things like whether or not you believe that God or some higher power exists, and if so, take a look to see if you are actually living your life as an expression of that belief. Consider what you think is the meaning and purpose of human life and death and whether or not your life reflects these beliefs.

  • Value life. Remember that everything, including your body, will be left behind when you die. Place a greater amount of attention on those things in life that are beyond the material level. Notice how you spend your time and expend your energy. They are precious, limited resources. Invest them wisely. Cultivate patience, compassion and loving kindness in relationship to yourself and others.
  • Prepare in advance of need for dying and death. Taking the time to put your affairs in order is one of the smartest things you can do as well as a great act of lovingkindness toward yourself and those you will eventually leave behind. It maximizes your chances of a peaceful and dignified death that reflects your deepest beliefs and honors your personal wishes regarding such matters as your end-of-life healthcare, the disposition of your money and possessions and the sharing of your life's wisdom with others.
  • Develop your spiritual inner awareness. If you sense or know that there is more to life than what you can accumulate and how much fun you can have, explore that deeply and let it inform how you live your life.
  • When we accept the reality of our mortality and put our ducks in a row before we go, life takes on a richness beyond what we have previously known, and we are blessed with a renewed zest for life.

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