Moving Beyond the Fear of Death

It is okay to acknowledge fear. We all have it. When living with a cancer diagnosis, it can be exceptionally difficult to ignore. Especially when it comes to that age-old fear of death. And when one has an advanced, metastatic disease, thoughts of premature death are virtually impossible to avoid. But living in fear or letting fear guide our lives is not necessary. Rather than give in to fear, it might be possible to train ourselves to look differently at the things that trigger the fear response. In such a way, we could move beyond fear.

Options for Moving Beyond Fear:

  • Mindfulness
  • Concern
  • Consideration
  • Caution

Of course, it isn't as easy as simply choosing a word from a list. A person must mean it for change to take effect. And change is not easy, especially if one has always been rewarded for a particular response. Think of this: when you are afraid, there is often a person available who is ready to comfort you or try to assuage the fear itself. This attention is wonderful when it is appropriate, but too much of it can turn "fear" into a crutch, a substitute for other means of validation. Or, in some cases where the fear is simply enabled or even encouraged through co-dependency or an impulse to be sympathetic, it may reinforce a person's predisposition to negative feelings about the world. But fear, outside of an imminent danger, might be an unreasonable response to the unknown.

Where Does the Fear Come From?

When it comes to death, what, precisely, is there to be afraid of? If it is pain, then it is the pain itself that causes fear, not the resulting death. If it is a question of an Afterlife, then this is a spiritual or religious issue that, again, really has nothing to do with the process of dying (though it may well influence one's approach to the process). Sadness about not experiencing something important or an inability to participate in future events is understandable, as is anger about these future experiences being denied. I am sad about the prospect of not being there to experience milestones in my daughter's adult life; I am angry that, through no action of my own, I may have those future opportunities taken away from me. But if I were to spend my last days in fear of an inevitable end to this experience, nothing would be gained; in fact, the opportunity to participate fully and engage with this life would be hampered.

It is possible to exchange the sense of fear for active mindfulness. Death may not be what we want, but it can be approached with an awareness of living. For instance, I may be concerned about how I feel toward the end, or how others react; I could be concerned about pain mitigation, how lucid I will be, whether I will get to chose the hour or whether it will be chosen for me. I may be concerned about whose hand I get to hold or what the impact might be from my passing. I might consider the process itself, focusing on it as its own special journey, and I might consider the ramifications of what I leave behind and how I have planned appropriately for my own legacy.

Combatting Fear with Action

If the prospect of death still drums up sensations of fear, I might try being extra cautious in my approach. I can take steps to address the causes of my fears. Making a living will, deciding on Power of Attorney, addressing palliative medications with my doctor or caregiver; all of these are rational actions that will put fears to rest. If there are people you love, let them know. If you have stories to tell, start telling them. Living in the moment may not increase the number of days we have left, but it certainly makes those days more vibrant -- and it might also fortify the will to continue treatments or stay in better health, which effectively could extend a life. In that way, dealing with its root causes rather than succumbing to it a numbing fear of death, might actually be the thing that keeps death at bay.

We benefit from making the most of our time. Filling our days with joy and gaining the satisfaction of accomplishment or sharing a special moment can bring deep meaning into our lives -- a meaning that inextricably becomes part of our legacy.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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