A friend of mine has been undergoing aggressive chemotherapy for an aggressive form of cancer, and so the subject of dying has been popping up frequently at my house. Among the many insights I've been gathering, the following six help me, an atheist, think about dying and death in ways I can live with, for now...
1. Plan ahead. When it comes to death, many prefer life-long denial, according to Virginia Morris, author of the practical (and entertainingly written) Talking about Death Won't Kill You. By giving serious thought to what you want (out of the limited options we all have), you may have a chance at experiencing the kind of dying scenario you'd prefer. The vast majority of us apparently get the opposite of what we hope for, living wills and "do-not-resuscitate orders" notwithstanding.
2. Get used to it. The opposite of denial is to accustom yourself to the reality that everyone, absolutely without exception, regardless of dreams and hopes and faith, has to die, including you. Treat the dread like any other phobia and think about it so much, in a controlled way, that it eventually bores you a little and terrifies you a little less.
3. Don't gather regrets. Make an effort to hit your deathbed without the added misery of feeling you've utterly screwed up. If you're extra lucky, you may have a bit of time to tidy up loose ends and various kinds of remorse. But some of life's better experiences can't be delayed until the end.
4. Connect. Talk about death with someone who shares and thus validates your fears. Reading psychiatrist and novelist Irvin D. Yalom's book, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, feels like sitting in the presence of a wise, earnest, soothing relative or friend. Lacking a loved one or a therapist who "gets it," make a point, Yalom suggests, of connecting with the larger community, including making use of online support groups.
5. Find your meaning. Existentialists like Yalom and literate thinkers such as Julian Barnes in his Nothing to Be Frightened Of note that fear of dying often brings up fears of not having lived well enough, as well as not long enough. The death-obsessed would do well to fit in some time thinking about living a fulfilling life. Yalom mentions Nietzsche's "eternal return" thought experiment, in which you imagine living your identical life "again and again for all eternity." The idea there is to lead us "away from the preoccupation with trivial concerns to the goal of living vitally."
6. Be aware of the biggest picture. The idea Barnes explores near the end of Nothing to Be Frightened Of is my favorite. It's also the bleakest and may not work for you (as it doesn't really work for Barnes). It's the idea that, sometime in the coming six billion years before the sun burns out, evolution will discard "us," these current millennia's humans, as it favors the most adaptable. Art will not defeat death; the far future will not recognize us at all. While that very big idea doesn't offer license to be selfish, it does suggest (to me) how very inconsequential is the task of sweeping the driveway or the pain of a tennis elbow.