Overcoming Death Anxiety

Suddenly I’m in my mid 40’s and I can’t quite remember how I got here so fast. Friends are talking about retirement savings and kids moving out. When listening to a bunch of politicians the other day on the radio, I was hit by the fact that many of them are probably right around my age. All those ‘old fogies’ I’ve been watching on the news each night, since I was a child, are getting to be as young as I am!!

At this point in life, for the first time, I have a general idea of what the rest of my life might look like. Of course there are always surprises, but I can actually imagine the path. Up until now I could only clearly imagine and plan up to certain crossroads. Maybe it is this new view that has brought home the fact that life is short. Somehow this has brought on both a sense of peace and flare ups of anxiety. Have I done enough? Do I have time to do all that I want to do, to become all that I thought I’d be in this lifetime?

The fear of death is considered an essential evolutionary trait which prevents people from taking unnecessary risks and attending to their own health and wellbeing. But this is not to say that staying fearful and avoidant of the topic is in any way an adaptive trait. In our society, we see that task, for those who have been given a specific timeline for their life, or whose years are coming to a close, as being, to come to peace with death. This is, in fact the task for all of us but there is little in society, these days, that helps prepare us for this.

We are an age denying and shaming society and a death denying society. Those two things go hand in hand and speak of a pervasive problem that is not making our lives better. We can do better. We can face this better, as a whole.

Aging

Aging is the reminder that we are not immortal.

Women

In her book,“The Change- Women, Aging and Menopause,*  Germaine Greer speaks about the fact that women spend their childhoods preparing for the first half of their life: learning how to be attractive; how to find and please a mate; and how to raise children. If women chose a different path, they are often on their own, with little guidance. There is little advice given about the second half of life, as if it is immaterial. The physical effects of aging are rarely discussed prior to this time, few feel prepared for what to expect. Never mind the shifts in roles and responsibilities and relationships.

For women, physical markers of age are often portrayed as disgusting and hideous (see the concept of ‘crone’ or ‘witch’ throughout media for the past 100 years or so). There have been many books written, deconstructing the reasons for this. They speak primarily about the way women’s value has been consigned to the perception of reproductive abilities, which has been conflated with attractiveness throughout much of history, in many cultures.

Reproduction is nature’s way of defying death. We pass on our genes in order that we might “continue to live on.” We don’t often link these things consciously, but the pressure we feel to reproduce, in order to feel valuable, comes from others and ourselves.

Knowing that we are valuable whether we reproduce  and whether or not our children are a success, is one of the tasks to overcoming aging anxiety.

These days, reproduction is not usually the main concern of those looking for someone they find attractive, however, most of us have been socialized to believe that that youth and particular body types are what all women should all find attractive and live up to.

Staying attractive to our partner, or to others, is also a way that women attempt to live up to the messages that their space on this planet is paid for by being sexually attractive to others. The stereotype of the middle aged man trading in his wife “for a younger model” is not an uncommon fear among aging women. There is nothing wrong with feeling attractive, but we need to deconstruct ‘attractiveness’ as a concept and divorce it from it’s solo affiliation with reproduction, youth and body type.

We need to challenge toxic messages about attractiveness being the key to worth and purpose by finding things that provide worth and meaning in our own lives. And, we need to support other women, in this quest by reminding our daughters, nieces, sisters, friends, and ourselves that we are more than our bodies. 

Parenting is another area that women feel that they prove their worth. When children grow up and leave, many women may have mixed feelings about the relief of the responsibility that may have been all consuming and anxiety about how they or others will see their worth if they are not immersed in someone else’s life.

The concept of being an individual who is valuable, in her own right, with or without children is important for women to embrace in order to reduce anxiety about aging and death. This is easier to embrace if it’s been developed in the first half of life by: shifting the domestic burden to be carried more equally; sticking to relationships which support autonomy; and by giving oneself permission to have your own needs and wants.

Men

For men who have spent the majority of their life working, retirement can mean a major transition. If you found your identity and worth in your job, and haven’t spent a lot of time on your relationships, retirement can be a very disconcerting and lonely time. Trying to figure out what to do with your time, how to feel useful, in essence, trying to replace the feeling that working might have given (even if you were not enjoying your job) can be difficult. Depression in middle aged men is very common (see How to Reduce Suicides – A Guide for Everyone). I believe that one way to combat this is to…

…invest in your relationships. Reach out to other men. Show interest in the interests of the women in your life. Be curious about others. 

Doing this in the first half of your life will make it easier in the second half, but there is no wrong time to start. (See Men and Friendship in Adulthood- Couples, Singles, School aged Families & Seniors).

Remind yourself, your sons, nephews, brothers and friends that they are worth more than their income or position. That it is not weak to have feelings and to share fears and faults with others.

This is how we all grow stronger and fight the isolation and loneliness that so many men feel.

Everyone

As our bodies age, we notice changes in our physical abilities. Things break down, our strength is less. I believe that if we can do the work involved in fighting the toxic messages that identity and worth is found only in youth and economic productivity, than we may find we have more energy to put into caring for ourselves well. More energy for meaningful relationships, for investing in each other, our community and ourselves.

Gratitude for making it to the age we are, when many do not, might be a start for shifting our perspective on aging. 

Defeating Death Anxiety

Dr. Irvin Yalom, an American psychiatrist, wrote in his book “Staring at the Sun- Overcoming the Terror of Death*” that there are three things needed to overcome death anxiety: living mindfully; knowing our place in the universe; and focusing on our beliefs about life after death.

1. Mindful living

“…the more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.”  —Irvin Yalom

Yalom quotes Nietzsche who admonishes humanity to “Consummate your life.” It is difficult to fully experience your life if you hide or are ashamed of the markers that show where you’ve been. Embrace what you have experienced up until this time, make them into your treasure to be spent during this next phase of life. Be conscious of where you are and why you are there and where you might need to go. Check your daily life. Is the energy you are giving to your day to day life, going to the things that are most meaningful to you? What needs to be changed and what needs to be embraced? Figuring this out can only happen when you are present for yourself. (Check out What’s Worth Digging For? Finding your Values for more on this).

2. Knowing Our Place in the Universe

In European and North American society, the idea of the individual as the most important unit has its pros and cons. On one hand, we are conscious of ourselves, our own happiness and goals, on the other hand, there is immense pressure to become leaders, or aspire to some type of ‘greatness.’ As we age, our anxiety about achieving this often grows. Remembering that we are only a very small piece in a very large universe, at one very short time in this history of this planet, can be both soothing and alternately stressful for us individualists. No matter what we achieve, no matter how famous we become, we will, one day, be forgotten and, of course, will always remain unknown to all who have come before. Whatever we achieve in this life, may or may not be seen as glorious in the future, as we know from all those historical figures whose achievements were lauded in their day and are now being re-evaluated.

Our job is to experience life, learn as much as we can from it, and do our best to leave those we love better for having known us.

3. Beliefs about Life after Death

I won’t go into all the various religious beliefs about life after death. These will guide people in different ways, depending on what they are. For the most part, religious beliefs about life after death admonish people ‘to live good lives.’ If you have a specific belief about life after death, spend some time thinking about it. Talk to your religious leader or spiritual advisor about questions or worries you have about it. It is never too early to think about what this means for you now.

For those who do not follow a particular religion, most believe that there is nothing after death. This, if one truly embraces it, will remove fears about pain, about missing family, about regrets, etc. because they will all be gone. We won’t be around to feel them. Much of what we fear about death is about our feelings about our life. Those who have come to peace with death have come to peace with their life.

We are all going to die. Some of us will experience a long aging process, giving us plenty of time to prepare to die in a way with few regrets, others won’t have as long. Think about death, think about what happens after death, think about what you want to have done before you die, what kind of relationships you want to have, how to fix what has been broken. The good life is lived when one is prepared for death.

 

*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.

See Death Education for Children – Don’t wait for Grief

And Finding Hope in the Climate Crisis

Also Success – What Part is Up to Me?

And 5 Steps to Recovering from Failure

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