"Rippling" Death Anxiety Away

Insights on death anxiety from existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom.

Posted Jun 26, 2019

Although I am not a therapist, I can appreciate the difficulty a therapist would face (or can try to) when trying to help someone with death anxiety. How do you help someone who is faced with anxiety over something which none of us have ever experienced, which is permanent, and which is inevitable? It's not like you can practice for it. And no matter what you think about it, it is still going to happen.

Of course, you didn't need me to tell you any of this.

In Staring at the Sun, existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom discusses several approaches to alleviating death anxiety. The one that hit me most was rippling. Yalom describes rippling as the idea that each of us creates circles of influence all around us that, like ripples in a pond, reverberate throughout the world. The influence we have had is often conscious, but it is also something we cannot be aware of because it is impossible to know all the ways we have rippled. In this way, we leave a part of ourselves that endures after we have died. This, Yalom argues, can be a source of deep comfort.

I think this power of rippling is most poignantly described by Yalom when he writes about the sheer delight that can come at just knowing that you have had an impact on another person. That joy, the emotional power it can have, is a representation of the potential influence of using rippling as a means of reducing death anxiety: As people, we want to matter to others. We want to have an impact.

And so perhaps nothing is worse than being invisible, in life or in death.