When the Fear of Death was Killing me

“I had seen this movie, where the main protagonist had passed away and the life of the family he had left behind was shown. His parents, the love of his life, his friends and all the people’s lives he had touched. Like with every movie, I had come to associate myself with these people and their pain at losing someone they loved.

I ended up thinking about my family, my parents, my wife, my daughter what if I lost any of them or if they lost me. Death can happen to anyone, anytime, I mean why is that, why can’t we know when we’ll breathe our last so that we can prepare for it, why is death so uncertain, why is the next second of our life so uncertain, will we even breathe again?

And then as if the universe knew what I was afraid of, everything around me was about death- my wife’s grandmother’s cousin sister passed away; every news in the newspaper was about someone or the other dying; a show on the television was the songs of the late R.D. Burman. Everything seemed to be about death and who they left behind.

I started eating hygienic, I stopped going on a two wheeler, stopped doing anything that felt even a little dangerous. I took my daughter to the amusement park and didn’t let her get on the merry go round for the fear the swing may break and she may fall from a height or worse get trapped under the remains of the swing. I kept a cook so my wife doesn’t have to cook for the fear she might cut an artery or an important vein while chopping vegetables, or might catch fire while working at the stove. Instead of a bus I started driving my daughter to school at the speed of 40 km/hr for the fear that the bus driver may be drunk or reckless or both and may end up in an accident, or the bus may be more susceptible than a car to be involved in a terrorist bombing. I know it sounds illogical but the thought would come to me and I would be scared.

Everytime I was having a good time and I was laughing with my family or my friends I would immediately go quiet thinking that the more I laugh, the more I will cry later. I was always scared what if someone dies, what if I die what would happen.

I would be hurt, it would be almost killing to go through the pain of losing anyone- my daughter, my wife, my parents, my friends even my in laws. I was so close to everyone. And what would happen to them if I passed away. What if I had to go through it? What if they had to go through it?

I knew I can’t control death. I knew there is nothing I can do, but it was still killing me I was so afraid all the time. No matter how hard I tried there was still always something dangerous out there…”

Thanatophobia, or “fear of death,” affects millions of people worldwide. For some people, it can produce anxiety and/or obsessional thoughts. Thanatophobia is the fear of death and/or one’s own mortality or losing the ones we love. Losing a loved one is hard, no matter what the circumstances. Overcoming the fear of losing loved ones is a very personal experience:

Thinking Realistically about Death

1. Recognize that death-related fears are normal. Most people fear the death of a loved one at some point in their lives. Validate your own fears and feelings. Say to yourself, “It is okay to be fearful or sad. It is natural to fear what we don’t know and can’t control.”

2. Identify what is making you feel afraid and why

Some of the general fears might be:

  1. Fear of the grief that you may feel if you lose someone or the people around you may feel if they lose you
  2. Future Plans or ambitions that you may have made with your loved ones that may be affected or the ones you made for yourself that you may not be able to fulfill
  3. Fear that the process of death maybe painful
  4. Fear that there would be no more experiences. Death is often seen as the end. That after death of a loved one we may not be able to have any more experiences with them or after our death we may not be able to experience anything more
  5. Fear that we wouldn’t be able to care for the people dependant on us and or if you are a dependant, fear that how would we survive after the loss of the person we are dependant on
  6. Fear if there is life after death what would happen to the people we care for, or for us

These are some of the common fears, identify what are the fears you are dealing with, you can try writing about it or think about what would happen if my loved ones or I were to pass away? What could go wrong?

3. After Identifying, Eliminate unproductive thought patterns. When you try to predict or imagine the future, you find yourself asking, “What if things go wrong?” This is an unproductive thought pattern known as catastrophizing. Having unproductive thought patterns can put you on edge if you feel like you want to control the outcome so strongly.

Replace unproductive thinking with positive thinking. Reason through your unproductive thought patterns.

  1. Do reality testing. Think about how people die either due to old age, or due to an accident or due to their behavior that may have been risky. The average age to die as of now is about 60 years so plan your life such that everyday after 60 is a bonus. The statistics regarding dying due to an accident are less than 5%. These two don’t lie under our control. What lies under our control is not doing what can be considered risky.

    By this I don’t mean not travelling by public transport or not cooking, millions of people do it without any accidents and the chances of accidents are low; by not engaging in risky behavior means not drinking and driving, taking a healthy diet, exercising regularly etc. If we take care of these our chances or the chances of our family members dying reduces significantly don’t you think?
  2. It’s okay to feel sad and low when we lose someone, however, losing someone is a part and parcel of life- who is born will die one day, I can’t stop death or stop the grief that comes with loss but I can prepare for it as best I can and I can maximize the most of the time I have with them.
  3. Think about all the things you or the people you love have accomplished, all the plans and ambitions, the list of future plans is endless so rather than focusing on what might be left focus on what you already have and try your best to fulfil as many as possible- because that is what lies in our control.

4. Focus on what you can control. You may not be able to control how long you or your loved one lives. Focus instead, on what you can do today such as spend time with the people you love and make the time they have here as good as it can possibly be.

Let go of what you cannot control. Imagine placing your fears on leaves that are floating down a river. Watch them as they drift away.

Use mindfulness to pay attention to the present moment. We fear because we are thinking about the future and what might happen instead of focusing on the here-and-now and what you can do with this moment. Take charge of what is happening right now

5. Think positively about the death. One way to do so is to recognize the circle of life and that both life and death are natural. In order for there to be life, there must be death. Try to see the beauty in both life and death. When one person dies, another can live.

Practice gratitude. Say something to yourself like, “I may lose my loved one, but at least right now I have the time to spend with him. I will focus on this and be grateful for this time that I have. I am so thankful for each moment I get to spend with him.” We can also choose to be grateful that we all, including our loved ones, have the chance to experience life.

Coping with the Fear of Loss

1. Some examples of positive ways of coping with fear include exercise, writing, art, nature activities, spiritual/religious behaviors (such as prayer), following your interests; hobbies passions and music. Crying can be a healthy and normal release of pent up sadness and fear.

Keep a fear journal. Write down your thoughts and feelings about losing your loved one.

2. Take deep breaths if you find yourself in a panic or having extreme anxiety about the thought of death or losing a loved one

3. Create meaning and purpose. Believing that the world has meaning (a point) helps people deal with the reality of death and can help reduce the fear of death or losing a loved one.

Having a purpose in life means living for specific reasons (such as for family, an occupation, to help the world, give back to the community, etc.). If you have a purpose or multiple purposes in life you can focus on what you will accomplish and carry on if your loved one passes away. This gives you reassurance that you will continue to have something to live for if you loved one is no longer with you.

4. Have a worry time period. Devote five minutes during the day when you will allow yourself to worry about something. Do this at the same time every day. Try not to schedule this worry period for bedtime, because you don’t want to lay in bed fretting over things. If you have a worrying thought any other time during the day, save it for your worry time period.

5. Cherish the time you have with your loved ones. Make sure to spend quality time with them. Talk to them about shared memories, as well as what you appreciate about the people around you.

Tell the people you care for that you love them.

6. Talk to a family member or a friend or any other person you trust. If you feel the need to talk to a family member or friend, consider asking them. Chances are, you aren’t the only person who needs comforting.

Offer support to others.

7. Keep the relationship alive. One of the biggest fears people have when considering the death of a loved one is the ending of that relationship. However, a relationship with someone lives on past death, in your memories, your prayers, your feelings and thoughts about the person.

Focus on the fact that your relationship and connection with this person can never die.

The reality is that loss is inevitable.

We will all lose relationships, situations, and states of being that we enjoy and love. Even if we practice non-attachment, on some level we will get comfortable with people and circumstances.

You could say that this is what makes life beautiful and meaningful—since nothing lasts forever, each moment presents unique possibilities worth fully appreciating and savoring. Or you could say this is what makes life tragic—that everything is fleeting, and eventually it all slips away.

How we choose to see things dictates how we’ll experience them. Would you rather see everything as precious or pointless? If we can choose the former, we can recognize that every loss provides opportunities for future gains—new relationships, experiences, and ways of being that may fulfill us in ways we can’t possibly predict.

Of course, this can only happen if we trust in our ability to recognize and create these new connections and situations. We all have the potential to do it. Some losses feel devastating when we experience them—and sometimes, the gain isn’t proportionate to the loss.

But somehow, we survive in the wake of almost every storm. Whether we thrive is up to us. That’s a choice we need to make proactively, not in response to what we fear, but in response to what we genuinely want to feel and do in this life.

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