Me vs Mortality: Coping With Fear of Death

The greatest gifts my AVR experience gave me were an epiphany — put simply, I wanted to live — and a newfound determination to fight for what I wanted. But the flip side of wanting to live is not wanting to die. Since surgery I have discovered a certain terror of death which I never experienced before, and when it hits, it hits hard.

Photo (c) Kim Berkley 2006

I don’t feel it all the time. I’m not on constant watch for the next thing that could kill me, nor am I holed up in my room like Miss Havisham or the Bubble Boy, shielding myself from the world with paranoid meticulousness. In fact, much of the time I feel more alive than ever before, simply because I am now aware of how much it means to merely be allowed to continue to exist. But then I get a strange ache in my leg, or a large, inexplicable bruise, or some other unfamiliar symptom of the new life I’m not quite used to yet, and ye olde hypochondria starts to kick in.

Is it bad? Is it fatal? Is my heart valve still working properly? Will I need another surgery? (Perish the thought.)  If something goes wrong, how much time will I have? Could an ambulance get here fast enough? Is my will up to date? Should I write my own eugoogly eulogy?

Luckily, I’m (slowly) getting better at controlling myself when this happens. While I can’t say I’ve found a definitive cure for thanatophobia, I can tell you what’s worked for me so far. Hopefully there are at least a few helpful tips here for anyone else struggling with similar anxieties.

Connect with your inner “Dude”

Zen out. Go full Jeff Bridges and become the pinnacle of calm. Whatever soothes your soul, seek it out without delay. Do some yoga. Go for a walk. Pray, if that’s your thing — if not, think happy thoughts. Put on some Enya or some Kenny G and meditate (or nap, if you need a little extra shut-eye). Don’t have any New Age music on hand? Get thee to YouTube and search anything from “zen music” to “binaural beats” to “guided meditations” and you’re guaranteed to find something suitable.

In addition to yoga, meditation and music, a personal favorite spiritual resource of mine are the works of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and activist who co-founded the Plum Village meditation center in France and has penned over a hundred books on peace, mindfulness, and Buddhism in general. When I was struggling with facing my upcoming AVR surgery, his books Being Peace and No Death, No Fear brought me comfort when I needed it most.

I’m not saying the answer is to convert to Buddhism — I didn’t, though I came quite close a few times — but if you’re religious, get in touch with your faith and find solace in your beliefs. (Psst: if there’s nothing in your belief system to bring you comfort at such times, you might be in the wrong religion.) If you’re an atheist or agnostic like me, get in touch with yourself or the universe or nature — whatever brings you peace.

Imagine dragons (or something equally fantastic)

If calm remains stubbornly elusive, try a little creativity. Imagine that you are the hero/heroine of your own life story. It shouldn’t be hard, because guess what? You are! Your fear is your arch enemy. Put on some epic hero music — like the Dragonborn’s theme in Skyrim or the classic “Heart of Courage” by Two Steps from Hell — and fight back. As they say in Westeros,

“What do we say to the God of Death? Not today!” (Game of Thrones, S1E8)

Tell yourself you refuse to be overwhelmed by your fear. Reach for whatever gives you strength, whatever gives you the will to fight and not give up, and hold on tight. Imagine your fear is a dragon, and you are a world-class dragon slayer. (Or the Dragonborn, even.) Slay it — or name it Draco or Toothless and befriend it, if that’s more your style. But whatever you do, don’t let it get the best of you. You’re too awesome to let this thing win, and don’t you forget it.

Fun it out

Sometimes you just need to get out of your own head for awhile. In Lost, Jack told Kate his secret to getting through a tough surgery was by letting the fear take over for ten seconds — no more, no less — and then pushing it aside and moving on. This actually works for me, at least some of the time. Give yourself a few minutes to freak out, cry if you need to, and then go do something else. Not surgery (unless you really are a doctor about to perform surgery, in which case get to it!), but something fun. Something you love.

Photo (c) Kim Berkley 2012

Hanging out with wizards is always a good time.

Watch a good comedy or feel-good flick. Hang out with friends. Catch up on your reading (or your Netflix queue). Dance or sing along to your favorite songs. Paint, draw, compose, write, blog — play. Remind yourself that you’d rather enjoy life while you have it than waste it worrying about the inevitable, and then go enjoy it.

Be good: be well

Take care of yourself. Not just emotionally — physically. Eat right. If you’ve got a strict diet, stick to it. Exercise regularly and safely. Keep hydrated. Keep warm in cold months, and keep cool when it’s hot out. Get eight or more hours of sleep. Don’t binge drink. Do drink more water. Develop a craving for fruits and veggies and kick fast food habits to the curb. Get regular check-ups and take any medications you need to take when you need to take them (set an alarm if, like me, you’re prone to forgetting them).

Think of it as upping your survival chances. While there will always be things beyond your control, it’s nice to know you’re doing everything you can to keep your body in good, working condition for as long as is humanly possible. It’s also nice, when weird symptoms pop up, to be able to narrow down possible causes by keeping track of what you consciously do (and don’t do) to your body. Bonus: being healthier just plain feels better. Your body (and your doctors) will thank you for it.

Live big

Sometimes it’s difficult to find the motivation to live it up when the only person you’re living for is yourself. Find a cause that matters to you and support it. Your cause doesn’t have to be big or complicated — you don’t have to go join the Peace Corps or a Tibetan monastery or the ASPCA to distract yourself from your own mortality. It can be as simple as donating to charities or volunteering now and then at the local homeless shelter, or realizing you have a loved one, a friend, a relative, a pet, who needs you to be strong for their sake as much as your own. For me, it helps to remind myself that every day I’m still alive is a day I can do better and do some good in this world, even if it’s something as seemingly small as making someone smile, or listening when someone needs to vent.

Find a direction for your life, a purpose, something to keep you going when just plain “you” isn’t enough. Make the life you’re fighting for worthwhile, and make every second count.

Be prepaaared

I hope you read that in Jeremy Irons’s voice. If not, go watch The Lion King again. That being said, I should point out right now that by “be prepared” I do not mean “be constantly aware that you could die at any moment and you can’t do a darn thing about it.” It does, however, pay to plan ahead a little — when you’re in the right frame of mind.

Do not plan your funeral when you’re at an all-time low. Do not write your will when you’re in the middle of a panic attack. Wait until you’re in a good place, a calm place, then plan. Why? Knowing that you’ve minimized the burden of your eventual passing to the best of your abilities is comforting — at least, I find it so. I like the idea of sorting things ahead of time and sparing whoever I may leave behind at least a little of the soul-sucking work involved in postmortem arrangements.

Personally, I actually enjoy planning out my burial from time to time — not because the idea of being buried at all is particularly pleasant food for thought, but because I like working towards creating a plan which will make the most of my death. If all goes well, my funeral will be as cost-effective and green as possible, and much of my material possessions will go either to loved ones or charity. The thought of resting in peace forever under the shade of a beautiful tree is highly preferable to contemplating the cold, foreign face of death itself. Fear of the unknown, after all, is part of human nature; it only makes sense to take comfort in the known.

Don’t be a Katie Kaboom

In other words, don’t bottle up your emotions. This is by far the most common advice for almost any given situation, but that’s only because so many people still make the mistake of ignoring it — and then they implode. Don’t implode. Talk about your fear with someone you trust — or, if you’d rather, someone who doesn’t know you at all. Attend support groups, in person or online. Seek professional help if you need it. If you don’t want to talk about it, write about it. Listen to or read about others who have gone through similar things, especially people who have positive, honest insights to share on the matter. Do whatever it takes to feel understood, supported, and uplifted. Whatever it takes to snap out of your fear and live.

Believe me, it’s worth it.

Do you or a loved one struggle with a fear of death? If you have any thoughts you’d like to share or tips you’d like to add, please post them in the comments! And of course, if you liked this post, please don’t hesitate to share the link and subscribe to receive free notifications of future posts.

3 thoughts on “Me vs Mortality: Coping With Fear of Death

  1. Pingback: Dreadful Dreaming: Nightmare and Sleep Tips for Cardiac Patients | Tick Tock Ticker

  2. Thus is great advise for anyone, anytime even if you have no medical problems. We all get a little depressed from time to time. And life takes it tolls. I learn a thing or two from you. Thanks for writing.


    • Yeah, I focused on a particular fear but I was hoping to make my advice fairly universally applicable so it could be used for other scenarios as well; sounds like I did a decent job. :)



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