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What Do We Fear When We Fear Death?

How children and adults face mortality.

Key points

  • Children become aware of mortality at a young age. Thoughts of mortality may allow them to confront and process certain fears.
  • Freud believed that people cannot fully accept they will die. Sartre believed that an ambiguous attitude toward death led to fears of death.
  • Death may become easier to comprehend and internalize as people get older.

We first become aware of our own mortality when we are very young, possibly as young as three or four years old. A grandparent or a great-grandparent dies, and we make the connection: the old person was once a child — just like us — but grew up, grew old, and died. We know that we too will grow up and become adults one day. But we sense also that the passage of time can neither be stopped nor reversed, and that once fully grown, we will continue to age and will eventually die.

We look forward to growing up but not to growing old. The thought of death can be unsettling for a child though the topic of death may have a seductive, if dark, appeal for the very young. One reason for this appeal is that death is perceived as an "adult" topic, and on that account, exciting. In addition, and relatedly, a conversation about death is intuitively felt to be a subversive one as adults are reluctant to talk with children about mortality. So children may have a heart to heart and build bonds of intimacy with each other by openly discussing "forbidden" questions concerning death.

Person falling
Source: Cdd20/Freeimages

There is another reason children may be drawn to the issue: they can, in giving voice to their thoughts, help each other confront their fears. When I was a child, for instance, a story was circulating among kids in my neighborhood about "a dame in black." She was said to enter a house when the parents are away, move surreptitiously, giving a child no way to hide or escape, appear suddenly from behind, snatch one by the throat, and choke one to death.

We did not suppose that any such woman existed, but this child-made horror story scared us all. Nonetheless, we kept repeating it to each other until everyone had heard it. Why did we?

I am sure we knew instinctively that the story-teller would get the attention of his or her audience, and that was part of it. It was, after all, the kind of story that wouldn’t leave any small child indifferent. But there was something else: While we were terrified of the image of the woman in black, we were helping each other face her in our own minds and at the same time, we tried to prove to ourselves and to each other that we were not afraid, at least in each other's company.

It must be noted, however, that while children fear death, they tend not to fully believe they will die. They know they are mortal but don't yet know it viscerally. As television writer Andy Rooney is reported to have said, "Death is for the young a distant rumor."

Freud went so far as to suggest that none of us fully believe in our own death. That, Freud argued, is due to the fact we cannot imagine being dead. He says that when we attempt to do so:

[W]e can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators… in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.

There is something to Freud’s suggestion, but it is not quite right. We can, actually, imagine what it would be like to be dead — it would be very much like not having been born, and we have a fairly good idea of what that is.

Nonetheless, Freud was onto something. There is a sort of perceived mystery about death that may pervade our thinking at least for a while. This elusiveness, this unreality about the idea of death is perhaps an essential part of what is typically referred to as “existential angst” — fear of death stemming solely from awareness of one’s own mortality rather than one whose source is to be found in a concrete mortal danger. Existential angst is not incapacitating in the way fear of a mortal danger might be, perhaps precisely because it portrays death as mysterious and partly unreal.

I suspect that as we find ourselves closer to death, the thought of one's life ending becomes quite believable. Existential angst may then turn into dread or into acceptance. I would conjecture also that we tend not to fully believe in our own mortality only when we are not forced to truly confront it. When, by contrast, we are faced with it, the fog of existential angst gives way to a different and much less amorphous thought: that death truly is, in the long run, inevitable.

I mention, in this regard, that I once spoke with a man in his 90s, who'd attended a public talk I had given. He said something that stayed with me: When one is his age, he said, one must come to grips with the unavoidability of death. He'd been treated for a potentially fatal disease when he was young, but it was different. Back then, he reported, he had hope. He thought he may yet overcome the disease and live for many more years. But what can you tell yourself in your 90s? How much longer can you possibly expect to live? For anyone who doesn’t believe in an immortal soul or a technological miracle, there is one answer: not very long. The Grim Reaper will not simply come but may come any day now.

Can anything be done to overcome the fear of death?

Sartre pointed out an ambiguity in our attitude toward death and in the source of fear. While we don’t want to die, we know that we can choose to. That choice is also something we fear. He suggests that part of the reason we may be afraid while standing on a bridge or a place from which we may fall to our own demise is that we don't know what we ourselves may do. We are, thus, afraid we might jump.

One can argue, however, that the inclination to entertain a thought of jumping off a tower or into a ravine has a perfectly rational explanation. It functions as a sort of ultimate exposure therapy — we may try to overcome fear of death by facing our end in our own imagination. There is something liberating about this though there may be something Stockholm Syndrome-like about it as well. Knowing that we cannot avoid death, we fancy we can welcome it and meet it half-way.

The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius once argued that death is not, in fact, terrifying. Interestingly, writing 2,000 years before Freud, he suggests, much the way Freud does, that we have trouble imagining what it is to be dead, and not only what it would be like for us but for anyone. The difference is that in Lucretius's view, this failure of the imagination gives rise not to an unconscious belief in our own immortality, as it does for Freud, but to a misguided fear of death.

The fear is misguided, for Lucretius, because we mistakenly imagine the deceased as deprived of earthly goods. That’s an error since the deceased are no longer. Consequently, there isn’t anyone who can possibly be deprived of anything. When mourners lament someone’s passing, they picture the deceased as a kind of victim, as someone who will, henceforth, be denied all pleasures of life such as embracing one’s spouse or children.

Yet really, this so-called deprivation is not deprivation at all from the deceased’s point of view. The deceased have no point of view, in fact. They cannot possibly care about the absence of anyone's embrace. When we imagine the deceased as deprived of life’s gifts, Lucretius says, we forget that no desire for anything remains after death either, and without desire, there can’t be any deprivation. Death is nothing to the deceased and should be nothing to us.

One may argue that Lucretius’s attitude here is reminiscent of the sour grapes fable. Much like the fox who cannot reach the juicy grapes and so tells herself they are sour, we know we are not immortal, so we might try telling ourselves that death is nothing to us anyway.

Even if Lucretius is right, however, we may fear death for the simple reason that we do not approve of the way we’ve spent our lives. (Interestingly, it can be easier to leave a life well-lived than one that could have gone much better.) Such regrets, unlike death, are avoidable, though one must take active steps in order to avoid them. Why don't we?

The answer might have to do with the perceived unreality of death earlier on. It may seem to us we have a lot of time, time to realize our potential or to make things right with others. Sometimes, people with a fatal diagnosis report changing their priorities in a way they approve of. Fear of impending death, while much stronger than existential angst, may, thus, have upsides. It can suppress other tendencies we have that we see as undesirable such as proneness to anger or frustration. A person close to death might come to like the self he or she has now become much better than the self he or she was before the diagnosis. All this can, of course, make one regret not spending more of one's life as this new and better self though even then, one would be pleased to have become less petty, more focused on what matters, if only for a little while. While we may not have lived so, we may at least die as wise and better people. That is sometimes a gift we get from our own fear of death.

But there are aspects of death that even the wisest among us can do little about. Above all, we may worry that our death would devastate those who love us. While we may not, in the relevant sense, be henceforth deprived of their company — not in a way that would matter to us then — we know that they will be deprived of ours.

Unfortunately, this may just be one of the ways in which human life is tragic. For the alternative is to live our lives in such a way that no one would mourn our passing. And that is worse, very much worse.

There is, though, something good and perhaps not fully appreciated about death: Death is the Great Equalizer. There is much more to say about that, but here, I will limit myself to this. However one may have lived — king or beggar, soldier or thief, David or Goliath — there is only one way in which our stories end: with the time of our death.

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