What is death anxiety?

Death is inevitable. Death is a fact. Death is among us every minute of every day. Death is everywhere. Many cultures fully embrace the concept and reality of death but, within some, it is a taboo. Whatever we think about death, the stark reality is that it will affect us all and there is no escape.


A lot of people fear death, however, we are mainly distracted during our daily lives and tend not to dwell on it. We know it is there but we usually maintain some psychological distance from it.

In the UK, it is largely hidden. Bodies are discreetly covered and taken away after demise in hospitals and homes; funeral directors and morticians deal with the corpse’s journey to burial or cremation. We may choose to view the body, which is dressed and made up to look more acceptable to the living. Mainly the business of the dead goes unseen.

Death steps closer

It is usually only when someone close to us dies that we feel death has come closer to us, and we are forced to face its presence.

As humans, when we are young, or even older, we may feel that we are somehow immortal. Our lives stretch ahead in front of us. It is at times when our contemporaries die, or our loved ones, that we are then faced with the inevitability of our own death. The death of a loved one makes us hyper-aware that death may strike quickly when we least expect, that no one lives forever on earth. We are more aware of the impending loss of everyone we love and the ultimate loss of ourselves. This realisation, when it fully hits us, may be terrifying. 

This heightened understanding of death may cause anxiety to creep to the surface. It may be conscious or unconscious. All we may feel is an acute fear.

The unknown and anxiety

The unknown causes us to feel anxious and uneasy. We know on a logical, rational level that we will die one day, however, the hour of our death is not known. We may die in our sleep at a great age or die young from accident, illness, homicide, terrorist attack, or war.

We do not know the day, time, year or cause of our death. We generally prefer not to ponder on it because, if we do, it leads us to question our belief around death itself and we are forced to face our own annihilation.

The author Thomas Hardy articulated the unknown time of death's arrival very succinctly. His protagonist was pondering on her own demise, thus "...a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it? Why did she not feel the chill of each yearly encounter with such a cold relation?" (Tess of the D'Urbervilles)

Impending annihilation

Maybe reading this you are feeling a sense of unease, your heart may quicken a beat, you may feel a sense of the pending loss of yourself already. The pain of leaving your loved ones and possessions behind, everything and everyone you love and hold so dear. One day all this will end. You will be gone. 

How does this make you feel right now? You may feel so uncomfortable that you stop reading, you may feel sad, or, you may want to continue to explore these feelings. The choice is yours to make. 

Death and freedom

Facing the fact of our death is awesome. It may be a liberating experience. Really? How can facing the stark fact that our time is limited and we will lose everything one day be both terrifying and emancipating? The answer lies in awareness. 

When we face the end, we can more fully appreciate the present. We will enjoy the life we have each and every day. We will hold our loved ones in our hearts and tell them how much we love them. We will stop what we are doing and appreciate nature; birdsong, gardens, parks, beaches, animals and pets.

To know this is all temporary makes it more precious.

Just to take a pause and understand, even for a brief second, that we may not live to see the day end. There is no guarantee or certainty that we shall be here tomorrow. It could be the last time we see a loved one. Facing this horror, whilst causing great sadness, helps us to fully engage with the moment. It grounds us in the present.

We won't allow unfinished business with our loved ones. We will appreciate and show our love. We will fully embrace the beauty of sunsets and sensual experiences, we will enjoy our health, not taking anything for granted.

Even in the midst of problems, we will understand that all this struggle will eventually pass. We have a finite time on earth. Why worry? Everyone living right now will all be dead in a hundred years time. A sobering thought. It puts our worries into perspective somewhat. Think about it. Our great-grandchildren won't even know who we are. We will be forgotten. 

So, whilst we are here, on this brief sojourn on earth, how do we want to live? Do we keep putting things off until some time in the future? We may not have a future, so why not see if there is any way you can experience it as soon as possible? Many people delay hobbies or holidays until retirement but then a spouse dies or illness prevents travel. All those cherished plans are ruined. If only they had travelled or started that hobby whilst they were younger and in good health. 

It is highly unlikely that someone on their deathbed regrets not working harder or earning more money. It is up to us as individuals to find meaning and purpose in our lives. We will each have our own idea of contentment and a life well-lived. We have our own, idiosyncratic values and standards. 

Are you contented in all parts of your life; your job/career, relationships, environment? Or could changes be made to improve these and how you feel? Sometimes a change in one area of your life may help to improve other parts. For example, a change of relationship may lead to a move to another area and living arrangements. A new job may open up a friendly social network and improve work/life balance. Returning to education to learn new skills and to train for a new career may open doors to a myriad of opportunities. 

Sowing a seed of change 

We may ask ourselves what we want to prioritise whilst we are here. Imagine yourself on your deathbed, have you any regrets? Would you do something differently if you had time left? Would your priorities change? People who are dying may go through profound emotional change. They have time to make amends, say their goodbyes, and put their finances in order. Others do not have that time. 

I ask you, if you had five years left to live what would your priorities be? Would you change your routine and circumstances, relationships and work? Why not make those changes whilst you are in good health? Are you living your best life now, or are you procrastinating over making decisions to change and be happier and more fulfilled?

We have options

Despite what you may think, most people have options. We can choose. There is a different way of being, if only we are brave enough to take an alternative path, if you are not living your best life now, what are your options? Write them down. You may find you could possibly change something.

A job, a way out of an unsatisfying relationship, there is support out there to help you financially and emotionally. Before you categorically state that there is no other way for you, at least open your mind to possibilities. Sow a seed of potential growth and change.

A lonely experience

Facing the inevitability of the death of our loved ones and ourselves may feel daunting. A recent bereavement may have stirred up all kinds of thoughts and feelings, you may be faced with crippling anxiety or dark thoughts of doom. You may be questioning your very existence and asking what comes next. You may feel that you are struggling alone with these feelings as others move on with their lives seemingly blissfully unaware. Death is solitary, death is lonely. Our relationship with it is ridden with grief. 

How therapy may help

Therapy provides a safe, confidential, non-judgemental space to thrash out all your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, fears and anxiety around death. You may have experienced strange things happening after a bereavement and dare not tell people for fear of being judged, you may be questioning your life path or just generally feel that you cannot cope.

Therapy can offer coping strategies and ways to face your fear of death. Whatever you feel, believe or experience, you will be believed, acknowledged and validated.

You won't go through this alone. Some feelings and thoughts are shared by others and there can be a normalising which may prove to be comforting. Whatever you take to therapy you will be emotionally supported.

Go well and try to live your best life.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire, ST4
Written by Amanda Parfitt, Msc Counselling Psychology. Reg.MBACP (accred)
Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire, ST4

Amanda Parfitt.
Psychotherapist and Bereavement Counsellor.

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