When someone is afraid of death, they don’t fully engage with life. Studies on the psychology of death have explored that death is especially meaningful to human beings because of our tendency to insert meaning into events. Death has become a complicated system that incorporates aspects of our cultural, social, spiritual, biological and psychological attitudes. Given how much death affects the emotional well being of the grieving, our attitude toward death matters. Ignoring death can lead to psychological damage in the long term, even if it’s temporarily more comfortable to do so.
In our current “wired global village”, death attitudes are affected by the current trend of 24-hour news coverage focusing on man-made tragedies (school shootings, genocides) and natural disasters (choose your own global warming adventure).
No longer can death be simply read about or discussed, it’s now in our homes on a nightly basis — videos of everyday violence can be beamed onto our television and computer screens.
My mom and I were once leaving the cemetery where my grandparents are buried, and as we drove slowly past gravestones, she stopped the car and handed me her cell phone: “Take a picture of that one, I want a font like that for mine.” I took the photos, anxiety making me squirm in my seat. It wasn’t the first conversation I’ve had with my family about their eventual death, and I can remember discussions dating back to my childhood. This, unfortunately, hasn’t helped me accept the eventuality of death. But what can help, really?
Try as we might try to avoid thoughts of death, the fact that it surrounds us allows it to manifest in depression and anxiety. Death is inescapable, therefore our denial will always be challenged at some point: We can avoid the news, but people in our lives will continue to die regardless. So death denial is a temporary answer to a permanent problem, which is something we all know deep down.
So what can we do, those of us who are missing out on rewarding aspects of life because we are too scared of the potential worst-case scenario? Focus on the process of accepting death, a system that can’t be discussed without the mention of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her well-known stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). There are different ways that people have can come to adjust to the concept of death: neutral acceptance, approach acceptance and escape acceptance.
These three ways are believed to the most common coping approaches. Death acceptance is the way of rationally viewing death as an inevitability, approach acceptance is viewing death as the means to a better afterlife (so, basically, death sucks but brings you closer to God) and escape acceptance is the belief that death is better than living a painful life. The taboo of death is one that popular culture seems to be constantly trying to unravel as popular shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead kill of beloved characters in increasingly gory ways.
Those stuck in their grief can break through using therapeutic rituals. The rituals should be something related to the deceased and their passing. One of my best friends died suddenly when we were in our twenties, my own coping ritual was that I would go alone to her gravesite, sit on the grass, and speak out loud to her about what was happening in my life. This allowed me to feel connected to her despite the suddenness of her death and the fact that I wasn’t in town when it occurred.
Reeves suggests the following steps when creating a therapeutic ritual:
- Plan. Keep your goal in mind. For instance, I lived away when my friend died, so my goal was to feel connected and say goodbye.
- Symbols can be useful. Do you associate an item with your lost loved one? A perfume? A film? Did you practice a sport together? That might be something key to your own ritual.
- Active preparation. Dressing a certain way that could be meaningful to your relationship with the deceased, for instance.
- Include others. Even though I went to the gravesite myself to speak to my friend, I asked my parents to drive me and pick me up. Normally I am very self-reliant and wouldn’t trouble them for a lift, but it gave me a way to leave a sad moment and go directly into something comforting.
- Public acknowledgment of grief. It can be a good thing to let people know why you are suddenly more depressed than usual, to allow people the information they need to give you space and/or love.
There are many rituals that, culture-wide, allow people to deal with death: New Orleans has funerals that are accompanied by a marching band; Ghana has celebratory “fantasy coffins” (coffins shaped like an item that was important to the deceased), and Jews sit shiva. Though these rituals don’t take away the pain, they do fulfil some very important functions: the death feels real and therefore makes it easier for the grieving to move on; provides structure and a safe space; validates different ways of grieving; gives a sense of community; allows for an honoring of loved ones and many more ways that are specific to the individual.
To be honest, I still don’t particularly embrace death — even after my own various losses. Death acceptance can be a long process, especially if you don’t believe in a cheery afterlife ideal, but I personally am trying to engage in life despite my anxiety, doing activities like going on hikes (even though I’m terrified of being eaten by bears). Sometimes, living well is the best thing that we can do while we are on the path to accepting the inevitable.