Embracing Fear

There are several ways we can become more comfortable with death, the dying and the dead. The first is to being open to talking about it. There needs to be an open dialogue and expression of the fears and concerns that we have about death or dying or the dead.
11/08/2012 12:04 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

In the past several years, there's been an increased infatuation with ghosts, ghouls, zombies, werewolves and other walking dead figures. It's only logical that our flourishing fascination with death is due to our curiosity of the phenomena, because we don't adequately address the topic in our daily lives. As a result, we are starved for more exposure.

Instead, it would benefit us to be more in touch with death, the dead and the process of dying. For reasons that are obvious to some and less obvious to others, this disconnect appears because we as a society are so worried about protecting people from pain and suffering, although it is actually all around us. We are so afraid of addressing death, both to the dying and to their loved ones, and we have even more reservations about seeing, touching and being in its presence. There was a time in history during the Black Plague of the Dark Ages that it was falsely believed that if you touched someone who became a casualty of it, you would too. And although Black Plague is no longer a consideration, the thought of that kind of contact with the dead still results in much discomfort and uncertainty. Indeed, in this regard we still live in the Dark Ages.

There are several ways we can become more comfortable with death, the dying and the dead. The first is to being open to talking about it. There needs to be an open dialogue and expression of the fears and concerns that we have about death or dying or the dead. Are they legitimate concerns? If we all know we are going to die, where does the fear come from? Is it necessary to preoccupy our minds with something that is out of our control? In order to confront our fears and dismiss the taboos, we must stop depriving ourselves from exploring the topic.

This is the first step in evaluation. Once we can entertain the notion that our fears may be unjustified, we can then explain and prepare ourselves and our children better for this difficult but necessary topic of conversation. They -- more than ever, with all of the media surrounding them -- need a sounding board to express their feelings around what is often an awkward and uncomfortable topic. It's important to disregard the assumption that your child is not capable of hearing about death, cannot bear to see a dead body or visit someone who is dying. We hear this often when parents broach the topic of the death of a family pet. They panic and don't want to tell their young children the truth, making up an elaborate story about how Lassie had to go away for a while and might come back some day. What is this teaching our children once they're old enough to find out the truth, that it's okay to be misleading or avoid the inevitable? In another context, most would agree that this is not the kind of lesson you would typically opt to teach your child. The problem is, your child intuitively knows better. Let's take, for example, a child growing up on a farm. They see the circle of life daily and are comfortable and familiar with the birth of new animals and the death of others. They are exposed to it naturally, and it is an unavoidable reality.

I recently spoke to a reporter at The Deseret News, sharing my insights about helicopter parenting. In the piece, the reporter points out that to avoid the inevitable is only going to hurt your child in the long run. There is no "dry run" in dealing with death, and no one can master it. It all has to come from real life experience and being true to all of the emotions that loss comes with.

And of course, as we as adults yearn to know the answers too, children desperately want to know what happens when Lassie is no longer breathing. It is not necessarily unreasonable to tell them that there is potentially another realm or world that we don't know about that Lassie is now a part of. There is no harm in leaving it at that and letting their intuition guide them to what they believe this means. It is possible that our ancestors are living in our midst and supporting us. It does not have to be uncommon to believe that there is something to be said about an afterlife, or to speak to those who have passed. In some ways, it can be comforting to know that you are not under the pressure of completing everything in this lifetime. Death doesn't always have to be seen as negative, and that's something that can reassure us of what's to come.

The natives believed that those who have passed to another realm, but still exist in a different form in our presence, are there to encourage us and to make us better. It was important for the Native Americans to have good relationships with their ancestors to ensure good karma and to reassure them that they will have a better experience on the other side.

So use this opportunity to get in touch with what death means to you, and in turn how you can continue the conversation with those around you. You may be able to play an active role in easing the unnecessary discomfort and uncertainty we so often feel around death, dying and the dead.

Finally, think about how much more alive you will be today by removing some of this fear. Indeed, the point of this exercise, and the wisdom of other cultures that preceded ours, is to celebrate life, always, and not allow even death to diminish its value and beauty. The common traditional Native American phrase "today is a good day to die" bespeaks this truth. Similarly, if you can find a way to cultivate the balance necessary to deal with death as in life in this manner, you will achieve that state of gracious being that is the point. Clearly, that is skillful living.

For more by Dr. Michael Finkelstein, click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.