Fear of death, called Thanatophobia, is a common fear, especially in younger people, who under normal circumstances have their entire lives ahead of them and don’t have to worry about the inevitable event happening any time soon.
Of course, the grim reaper can claim anyone at any time. There are no guarantees in life, and even if you’re a gleaming example of perfect health in your prime and never take dumb risks, a concrete block could crash down on your head while leaving your house tomorrow morning. But the likelihood of sudden (or even protracted) death when you’re young is small, so the young can afford to fear death, as long as their fear isn’t so overpowering it makes it impossible for them to enjoy their time being alive.
It’s been said that the older we get, the less we fear death. In the very old (and those who have been suffering with chronic illness for a long time, including terminally ill children), death is even welcomed and looked forward to. That’s understandable, especially if you believe, as most people do, that the afterlife will be better than this world. Unless you fear going to Hell, you probably shouldn’t be afraid of passing on to the “other side,” whatever it may be. Even if the atheists are right and there’s nothing at all after this life, well, what’s so terrible about that? It’s like an eternal sleep and you won’t be aware of anything so not being able to wake up won’t bother you.
I think people fear death for three reasons:
1. Fear of the unknown.
Humans have an instinctive fear of the unknown, and no matter how much faith you have that you are going to heaven when you die, the bottom line is, no one really knows what happens. And that’s scary. I think that on a deep level, even the most religious people with the strongest faith still struggle with the knowledge that one day–a day that could be tomorrow or in 50 years–they will pass into something that’s a complete unknown.
Not only that, dying is an act that is always experienced alone. No matter how supportive a family or friends you have, no matter how many people surround you with their love as you prepare to die, no matter how much comfort is given by loved ones to the dying person, they are not going to be joining you on that journey. Other than God and the angels (if you are a believer), you are going to be taking that journey into the unknown all by yourself. Even if you die with others, such as in an accident, your journey to the other side is yours alone. Their journeys may be very different from yours.
2. Fear of the process of dying.
I think for many, it’s not so much death they fear, but the way they are going to die. Are they going to get cancer, be hit by a truck, be murdered by a burglar on meth, or suffer a sudden massive heart attack? There really is no pleasant way to die. It’s almost always either quick and terrifying; or long and incredibly painful. If you spend too much time thinking about the fact that one of these two things is going to happen to you before you die and it is not going to be pleasant, you can drive yourself crazy. That’s why it’s much better to focus on living a good, fulfilling life and not think too much about the way you might be leaving earth someday.
Some people think that by choosing the method in which they die, they have some control over the dying process and thereby make it less scary. That’s why right-to-die organizations and assisted suicide exists. If you have terminal cancer and know your death is going to be protracted and painful, why not just take some pills or hang yourself instead? Sure, it won’t be pleasant, but at least it might be quick. While this reasoning is understandable, many religions object to this because suicide, even suicide when you are going to die anyway, is considered a grave sin and God will make you accountable after death. But other people don’t believe this and think that God, if he exists, wouldn’t want them to suffer needlessly. Again, there’s really no sure way to know. I doubt I’d ever do it though, since I’m one of those who thinks God would make me accountable.
3. Fear of Hell.
Most Christians (and people who follow other Abrahamic religions like traditional Judaism and Islam) believe in some form of Hell and that some of us are going there after we die. Some Christians believe that all you need to do is accept Jesus as your personal savior and you are automatically saved and admitted to heaven. Others believe works on earth as well as grace are important. A few liberal Protestant denominations believe Hell is a state of mind (a separation from God) rather than an actual place, or they don’t believe in it at all. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists believe if we are not pleasing to God, we will simply be annihilated after we die (much more palatable, imo, than the concept of eternal torment). I’ve always had problems with the concept of Hell and simply find the idea that God will be sending good Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Unitarians, and liberal Christians (the kind who don’t believe in Hell) to be tortured for all eternity extremely disagreeable. Not everyone, especially skeptical types like me who tend to need concrete evidence before they believe anything, is able to blindly embrace the idea of a savior or the words of the Bible (which can and have been interpreted in different ways) and even if they are willing to believe, some simply can’t. Should they be consigned to eternal torment for not being able to believe something because they think about everything too much?
Let me stop here before this turns into a religious post. That’s not my intent. My point here is that many people are afraid of going to Hell, even those who don’t really believe in in it. But there’s really no way to know if there is one, is there? There’s really no way to know what will happen after we die, or if anything will happen at all.
As I stated earlier, as people age, they tend to come to terms with the inevitability of death, even the inevitability of the process of dying, as they become aware they have many more years behind them than they have in front of them.
But what happens if, like me, you’re in your fifties and are still afraid of death? I’m well aware I probably have, at best, another 30 or so years left to live. Forty or fifty more years is highly unlikely though possible. Twenty years isn’t a lot, but for someone my age, that’s far more likely than living another forty or fifty years.
When I think about how short a time 20 or 30 years really is, it fills me with terror. I know I think about death way too much and should be focusing more on living a fulfilling life. It’s a waste of life to dwell on the unpleasant fact that one day I will die and may suffer a horrible, painful death too. How does one come to terms with the fact they are going to die and it isn’t even that long a time away? How does one get to the point of actually looking forward to death? I know some Christians reading this are going to be thinking, “well, if you were really saved [I consider myself to be], you would have no doubt you are going to heaven.” But no matter how much I pray about it, I still have doubts. I don’t think that’s likely to change either, because I’m the type of person who questions everything. Even my faith. The bottom line is, I simply don’t know what’s going to happen when I die, or when it’s going to happen, except that it’s going to happen. As the saying goes, none of us get out of here alive.