Here’s another post I wrote 3 years ago, which also keeps attracting comments. Please note: the white elephant has some experience, but the following are just personal, random thoughts and I do not claim to be an authority on the subject!

For related comments, please see the original post


November 2, 2006

Here at the white elephant, we are not afraid to tackle the big issues… It’s almost my bedtime here and I am just scraping in with a post on the second day of NaBloPoMo.

So what is thanatophobia? It’s defined as a fear of one’s own death and is apparently very common. Why is it interesting? Because there are so many layers to it.

Firstly, thanatophobia is a form of anxiety. It’s a phobia, which is classed as anxiety. It comes with physical anxiety symptoms such as shortness of breath, increased heart rate, muscle tension, nausea, dizziness etc etc. It can be associated with panic attacks. It’s a fear of something which is at once inevitable but also quite unlikely at any given moment in time. The person is afraid of something which they know is definitely going to happen, but they have no way of knowing when.

Thanatophobia also has an existential, even theological component. If someone is afraid of death, what do they fear? The actual fear must relate to the person’s beliefs about death. What do they think is going to happen to them when they die and why is it so frightening.

Here’s a range of possible beliefs about death:
– nothing happens, you cease to exist (materialist view)
– you may go to heaven or hell, depending on some kind of judgment of your actions in this life (Judeo-Christian view)
– reincarnation (Hindu, Buddhist)
– some people believe in ghosts, or spirits of the dead who somehow just float around the earthly plane making a nuisance of themselves

For those who believe the first option, a fear of death is not very rational. After all if you don’t exist, what does it matter? You won’t be suffering. For Christians, and similar viewpoints, a fear of death could be related to some kind of guilt. You feel you have done wrong and you are going to hell. In that case all that is required is to repent and you’ll be forgiven – easy.

Those who believe in reincarnation may be afraid of their own karma. They may have done wrong and fear a horrible next life. It’s understandable. It’s also understandable for those who believe in spirits or ghosts to feel afraid. Who would want to be floating around forever, feeling cold and scaring people?

I get the feeling that most people with this fear haven’t quite worked out their own beliefs yet. They may be searching, and the fear could be a healthy sign that they are moving towards some kind of spiritual growth.

Some writers (like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Victor Frankl and also in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying) emphasise the need to confront one’s own mortality in order to grow or really be able to live well. Death is a necessary step on the road to rebirth in a number of ways, some of which are symbolic. There’s a cycle.

Fear of death could also be related to other problems. It could be due to narcissism (fear of one’s own nonexistence) or fear of the unknown. It could also be related to a death-wish as sometimes we fear what we really desire.

I don’t have thanatophobia and I’m frankly quite unconcerned about the whole thing. I don’t fear death and I don’t pretend to know what is going to happen to me there. I have some kind of faith that tells me it will be OK. But I find the whole thing very interesting.


One Response to “Thanatophobia (fear of death)”

  1. Pip Says:

    I’ve just read this and some of this relates to me! I fear death not for myself as I know when im gone im gone I won’t even know! But I fear it for my daughter! I watched my mum die when I was 19 and my daughter was one when it happened, and I’d seen death right in front of me which makes it even scarier! Because its reality! I’d seen it with my two eyes! I fear that when im gone I’m leaving her!

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