Death and death anxiety

From the moment we are born into this world, we are already on the path to leaving it. A biologist once said, 'Doctors in Norway never save lives, except perhaps when a newborn is saved from dying during childbirth. Beyond this, we can only prolong life and postpone death.' Some claim that this fundamental aspect of life is the most basic source of our anxiety – the fear of ceasing to exist, of being annihilated, of losing oneself and the connection to the world. However, the fear of death seems to be a fear without an object in reality. As the Greek Stoic Epictetus put it, 'Where I am, death is not, and where death is, I am not.' Perhaps that's why psychologists seldom encounter patients who struggle directly with the fear of death; rather, death anxiety may be concealed by layers of psychological defenses that keep it out of conscious awareness.

As children, we gradually confront the idea of death and develop ways to cope with it. Awareness of death can come in fits and starts, and it's not uncommon for children to feel afraid. Our surroundings often try to provide the child with an illusion that the world is a safe place, despite death. However, sooner or later, the illusion will shatter, and we are forced to develop new ways, or defense mechanisms, to cope with death anxiety. Existential psychologist Irving Yalom points out two such mechanisms: 1. Uniqueness, the belief that one is special and different, that even though everyone else may die, it doesn't apply to me, that one is not part of all 'them.' And 2. the belief in being saved, that there is something or someone that will rescue one from death. Yalom argues that these mechanisms remain with us into adulthood but are usually hidden under other secondary defenses, such as denial or forms of superstition that trivialize death.

According to existential psychology, mental problems arise when we face more stress than our defense mechanisms can handle or when our defense mechanisms are dysfunctional and fail to alleviate anxiety. The combination of these factors can lead to mental difficulties. Yalom posits that because existential anxiety is so unbearable, we desperately turn to new, often ineffective defense mechanisms, which unfortunately can result in psychological difficulties as a side effect. According to Yalom, it is not necessarily a goal to eliminate death anxiety entirely. Depending on the defense mechanisms we use to avoid death anxiety, we may limit our personal growth and end up with an unsatisfactory life. One of Freud's students and one of the first existentially oriented psychologists, Otto Rank, described the avoidance of death anxiety as 'refusing to take out the loan (life) to avoid paying the debt (death).'

Although the physicality of death destroys the man, the idea of death saves him.  Irving Yalom, 1980

A wisdom tradition that I appreciate for contemplating death is the Zen tradition of Buddhism. It is said that Zen masters can predict their own death. One such master was Tanzan. On the last day of his life, he wrote sixty postcards and asked his assistant to mail them. Then, he passed away. On the card, it said:

I am leaving this world. This is my final announcement.
Tanzan, July 27, 1892