Fear of Dying

We are the generation that avidly read Erica Young’s 1973 bestseller “Fear of Flying”. But we are now of an age where our biggest fear may well be the fear of dying.

My 81-year old brother is battling stage IV renal cancer. This diagnosis was totally unexpected; it came out of the blue, like a frightening thunderclap on a clear cloudless summer day. He was not prepared. He was one of those who seemingly defied old age; very healthy, active and full of zest for life. There were no symptoms until one morning he could not get out of bed, experiencing severe lower back pain. Thinking this was just a nerve that got jammed between his vertebrae, he went to his doctor who referred him to a specialist. An MRI disclosed the problem and a subsequent surgery revealed the horror of a disease in very advanced stage. Chemotherapy did not help; it was simply too late.

Following his predicament up close was a very unsettling process for me because, being 10 years younger, it brought me abruptly face to face with my own mortality. Not that this is the first time I have been confronted by this. I was also a firsthand witness to my mother’s terminal illness and graceful death.

Both my mother and brother opted for euthanasia – a legal procedure in Belgium, my country of origin – because they realised their chances of recovery were slim to none and they wanted to spare themselves and the family the pain and agony of going through those prolonged and excruciating days until the body caves in naturally. In many countries euthanasia is now the final solution and people have that option. But not in Indonesia or in a lot of other western countries. Be it an option or not, the one thing it does not take away is the fear of dying. We still need to deal with that.

Fear of dying is natural for many reasons: because we all want to live to a ripe old age if health conditions permit; because for a lot of us this is the happiest period of our lives and we don’t want it to end. We may fear death because we don’t know what’s awaiting us on the other side. A lot of us don’t fall back on religion. For those who do, spirituality and religion can be very comforting when contemplating death. We fear to leave our loved ones behind; to cause them pain and grief with our passing. In essence we grieve for our own inevitable end.

Fear of dying can also be the fear of seeing our bodies deteriorate and crumble away, becoming debilitated/disabled/losing our minds/becoming totally dependent on others’ care. I’m sure you can fill in all other possible scenarios for a pain-filled, undignified or lonely death.

Are you afraid to leave your loved ones financially bereft, burdening them with the huge costs of palliative care, funerals and all the expensive payouts that go along with a dignified death?

Are you unsettled thinking about death? Not knowing when and how you will die? Or do you fear the unknown state of not existing anymore, the certainty that we won’t wake up again and continue to enjoy life?

Are you thinking about death in a healthy way? Or are you afraid that by addressing your mortality, you may make it real and imminent? Does it create feelings of helplessness or powerlessness?

Fear of death can be devitalising; paradoxically this is healthy because it spurs your motivation to live life better. We have to face our fears and go deep into our own particular reasons; we need to drill down to our core fear in order to understand what it is precisely we are afraid of. Ask yourself the tough questions to get at the most underlying fear. What do you fear most about getting to the brink and what do you think will happen when you get there?

There is a fine line between the usual death-related anxiety most everyone experiences and the paralysing condition called Thanatophobia, which is an extreme form with severe emotional symptoms. Thanatophobia can cause frequent panic attacks, dizziness, sweating, and nausea. It is a mental health condition best treated by professionals.

Death is the extinguishing of consciousness, said the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Why fear death when our consciousness cannot perceive it? He explained that consciousness stops at the point of death and we enter a state of non-existence, which is essentially the same state we are in before we are born. If you have ever lost consciousness or were under anaesthesia, you experienced …absolutely nothing. You can equate that with a death-like state. Is that something to fear?

Are you prepared to die? Besides the emotional or spiritual facets of death, we also need to address the more practical aspects and ask questions like these: Have you saved up for your final medical or palliative care? For your funeral/burial/cremation? Have you written out your will and your living will? Have you made provisions for your loved ones to find the needed financial resources or access your bank accounts/life insurance policies? These are complex topics and we can address these in future articles. Remember that you can control much of what you leave behind. In the meantime, here’s some liberating advice: Do plan your own demise so you can stop obsessing about it. It’s the most empowering thing you can do.

The best way to keep anxious thoughts of dying at bay is to live life at full tilt, as if there were no tomorrow. If you are busy living and have adequately prepared for your future state of non-existence, you won’t have time to worry about the actual process of dying. Now I need to dig up my bucket list and get on with it. My own fear is not living long enough to accomplish everything I still want to do, see and experience.


By Ines Wynn

The Boomer Corner is a column dedicated to people over 60 living in Bali. Its mandate is to cover topics, practicalities, activities, issues, concerns and events related to senior life in Bali. We welcome suggestions from readers.

E-mail us at : Baliboomers@gmail.com


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