(This “ask me anything” answer is in response to a class of young college students’ questions.)
What are you most afraid of in dying?
This question came up a lot and in many different ways, and it’s been the hardest one for me to answer. I’m actually not afraid of death or dying. I wasn’t even sure what I’m supposed to be afraid of or why until a friend shared this poem, Aubade by Philip Larkin, which I wrote about a few weeks ago in on the fear of death. I said that I think what most people are actually experiencing is not so much a fear as a dread of death, which to me is different. I can understand dreading death, though I don’t. If you’re suffering from that dread, I want you to know that it is very much possible to overcome it and make peace with death, and I encourage you to start now. Your life will be better for it!
I have found comfort in thinking that so many have gone before me. I always want to add, And they survived! when I say that. Of course they didn’t survive, but I somehow can’t imagine that they aren’t all okay. Everyone of them passed through that gateway at the end of life successfully. I don’t believe there’s a chorus of howling, suffering souls on the other side. So if everyone before me –and that’s a lot of people when you think how many have lived and died on this planet since the beginning, how many are dying even just today– has managed to face death, I’m sure I can be brave enough to do so too. It’s important to note that many, if not most people do reach a state of peace before death.
I also think about how we have all been there before: before our birth and the development of our consciousness, we were in that state, and it was okay then. Some people believe in reincarnation, the continuous transmission of the soul from one body to another. I don’t feel particularly drawn to that idea, nor do I desire to be reborn and start over, or where I left off. But I know there was a time before me, and I am not aware of anything worthy of fear in that non-experience.
In trying to understand this question, I thought that possibly much of the common fear of death comes from religious teachings about a horrific hell. I don’t believe in hell. I don’t believe anything bad will happen after death — even to those who might deserve it!
I think it’s possible the fear of death comes simply from not stopping to look it hard in the face. Perhaps being afraid of death is a bit like being afraid of the dark. Once we turn on the light or look under the bed, we see there is nothing there to fear. So I invite you to sit for a moment with death. Make friends with it. It has a lot to teach us about how to live.
Of course, many people are afraid of pain, and dying –the pre-death part– can entail some physical suffering. But there are now very good medications that can help with pain and other discomforts, so it shouldn’t be that terrible. (See my post on pain and palliative care for more on this.)
The harder part for most of us is emotional pain. Dying means letting go of everything we love in life. (In other posts, including tomorrow’s post on staying positive, I discuss sadness and grief.) Dying also means being confronted with everything we might have been trying to avoid, including relationship issues, unrealised goals, and all sorts of regrets.
Perhaps people fear being tormented by regret when they have run out of time. As young people, you are in the perfect position to avoid this one. You can make choices now that will allow you to live a full and meaningful life. Studies show that it is meaning, not pleasure or status-oriented accomplishments, that lead to life satisfaction. (This article summarizes some findings on this: Meaning versus Happiness.) See my earlier post on regrets, which has been revised and expanded.
So what are we so afraid of? I think possibly we’re not afraid of death: we just don’t want to leave life.