Death Anxiety Explanation Relaxed

Here lies Frederick Jonathan Grunewald II., or Death Anxiety in Modern Life

Reading Time: 12 minutes
“dead toes” by Austin Robert Dickson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

So, it’s the bottom of the 9th, 2 outs, 3 and 2, bases loaded. It’s The Jays are down 12-9, and it’s their last game of the regular season, and their last hope of making the playoffs. Rodriguez is up. He steps into the box, digs in his feet, spits, adjusts his helmet, waggles his bat, and turns his eyes on the pitcher. They stare each other down for a tense quarter-minute.

The pitch comes fast and straight. Time freezes, and Rodriguez can see the red laces like a toreador’s cape. The ball starts to slide away but too slow. He steps, swings, connects, and watches the ball shoot out into the warm summer air. It goes, and it goes, and it goes.

The crowd erupts. People are screaming and crying and dancing. They’re jumping up and down. The entire Jays team rushes the field also screaming and crying and dancing and jumping up and down. Everyone is overtaken by wave after wave of sheerest ecstasy. Except for one person, Fred.

After decades of bad eating, lots of alcohol, and a high stress job, Fred’s body just couldn’t take it. And just as he is rising out of his seat, clenched fist raised in triumph, mouth agape and voice thundering a battle cry, his poor, beleaguered heart finally pops. His eyes go wide, he clutches his chest, and he flops back into his hard, unforgiving plastic seat. Fred’s dead.

The Funeral

dead roses
“Dead Roses” by twid is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

And we can imagine the funeral: coiffured women in tasteful black dresses, making polite chit-chat with long-lost family members. Men in tasteful black suits sipping whiskey or Heineken, talking about their jobs or their hobbies, nibbling on hors d’oeuvres, each pretending to be at a boring cocktail party and not at a wake for a man they didn’t know very well and liked even less.

For our part, we stand there watching, scanning the room, wondering where the coffin is, where the corpse is. But it’s not here.

We eventually find it sequestered in a small room off to the side, surrounded by flowers and wreaths and smiling family photos. A large-format head-shot of a smiling, 20-years younger, and 50 pounds slimmer Fred stands on an A-frame next to the coffin.

Approaching it warily, we steel ourselves for the gruesome reminder of the grisly death which awaits all of us at the end of this too-brief existence. The casket stands open. Its white-satin interior sparkles in the tastefully designed mood-lighting.

Holding back the disgust which has been building up in anticipation of this moment, and preparing to fight back the tears which we know will come at the sight of Fred’s lifeless remains, we finally look down into the coffin. And there he is, Fred, dressed up in a tasteful blue suit, a bouquet of white flowers held in hands folded across his chest.

We stand, gazing dumbly, waiting for our minds to be overtaken by the wordless contemplation of life’s fleeting finitude, but as we look, all we can think is that he seems… he looks… good.

His skin is clean shaven and baby-bottom smooth, and there’s a rosy flush to his cheeks. The tailored suit fits well and his shirt collar doesn’t cut into the fat around his neck. He looks comfortable, like he’s just having a nap. Like he got tired of the inane small talk in the other room and just snuck in here to have a bit of a lie down before the party really gets started.

And we feel so relieved. It isn’t so bad really. There’s no smell, no maggots, no distended belly bloated by the off-gassing of ravenous intestinal bacteria. No eyes rolled back up into a lolling head, slack jaw and dangling tongue. No. To be honest, we realize, he looks better dead than he ever did alive.

Death Anxiety

skulls and bones piled against a wall with two crosses painted on it
“Skulls ! by Augusto De Luca. 02” by ilfotografoprofessionista is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

If we look at this in a naive way, we’d have to admit that we’re lying to ourselves. Because none of this is true, this isn’t what death is like. The real story is that we drained Fred’s blood and filled him back up with formaldehyde; we had his fingernails clipped and his hair cut and his face made up; we laid him down in a plushly lined wooden box – we spent all of this time and money because we don’t want to have to see what death really looks like.

In other words, this funeral isn’t for Fred, it’s for us. It’s to make us feel better, to dull reality’s edge, to make death look, smell, and feel like a pleasant “passing on” into “the other place.” It allows us to tolerate the stark reminder that we are all finite, and that someday soon we will all be as dead as Fred.

Which is true. But it’s more complicated than that. Seeing someone else die reminds us that we will die too one day, and the idea of touching a dead person comes with the magical thought that by touching death we are “tempting fate.”

Confronting the full reality of someone else’s death is threatening – it makes us feel anxious – and anxiety is a complex feeling. Anxiety is the fear of something that could exist, but doesn’t; something that could happen, but hasn’t yet; something that will be terribly frightening when it gets here, but which hasn’t yet arrived. It’s the fear of possibility, and of that possibility being bad. And if there is anything in the world which best fits the description of “possibly bad,” it’s death.

And so death anxiety is the physical and psychological stress response we have to the idea of our own death – even if we’re not personally in danger, and even if there’s nothing even remotely dangerous around.

Death Denial

Denial is the tool we most often use when we feel anxious or stressed out, and it’s complicated too. To be in denial is to say that something isn’t true, even though it obviously is. But denial isn’t lying. Denial is wishing that the world was different than it is, and then convincing ourselves that that wish has come true.

diamond-studed skull
“Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull.” by Secretly Ironic is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Nobody with us at Fred’s funeral would deny that Fred was dead, and yet we could still argue that they’re in denial. What about? Well, we’ve already said it, they’re in denial of their own death, the death that is coming for each of them, personally. They’re in denial that someday they too will die.

That’s what the soft music is about, the tasty snacks. That’s why Fred’s corpse has been embalmed and hidden away in another room. That’s why his dead, unfeeling body is wrapped in soft plushness and ensconced in an entire symbolism of tranquility and comfort, surrounded by loved ones and pleasant memories. We don’t want to touch him, or see him for any longer than we have to, and we want to believe that he is comfortable in death, so that we will be comfortable too when it’s our turn to go.

Death Denial is Tricky

In children, denial is generally pretty straightforward. They know they dropped your phone and cracked the screen, but they are afraid of the consequences of telling the truth. So when you ask, they point to their teddy bear and say, “Teddy did it!”

With adults, it can be this simple, sometimes, but it often becomes very much more convoluted and confusing. Take, for example, a person diagnosed with cancer but who can’t accept the reality of their impending death. They might go out and get second-opinion after second-opinion, never stopping until they find someone who casts the diagnosis into doubt. Or they might become obsessed with alternative “cures” like apple-cider vinegar or alkaline diets or homeopathic remedies which prescribe tinctures made from the person’s own urine. Or they might refuse treatment, buy a boat, and sail off into the sunset.

Each of these is a way of denying the reality of impending death and lets the person feel like they have control over an otherwise uncontrollable circumstance. But importantly, none of these tactics actually contributes to an improved prognosis or a more dignified death. They are all ways of running from a terrifying problem instead of dealing with it directly.

Living in Denial of Death

featureless skull sculpture
“IMG_0312” by StephenVelasco is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

But we don’t need to be sick or dying to be in denial of death. We deny death all day, every day. Almost everything humanity has ever invented has been for the purposes of keeping us alive longer – be it the farming that sustains us, the houses that protect us from the dangerous outside world, the technologies that connect us to one another, or the weapons that defend us from people who might want to hurt us. All of these things, though not always obviously, are ways of managing our anxieties about our frailty, mortality, and inevitable death.

Health Consciousness

Let’s start with a fairly straightforward example, like general health-consciousness. We tell ourselves, “As long as I eat right and take my vitamins and exercise enough and avoid all known carcinogens and contaminants, Death can’t get its hands on me.” In other words, if I keep healthy, I will live 5 years longer, which means I push the problem of dying 5 years further away.

There are also short term death-denying function to being health conscious too. On the one hand, the Endorphin boost of exercise pumps you up and makes you “feel alive.” On the other hand, regular exercise builds up physical strength and endurance. Neither of these are at all necessary in our world of machines and mass-production, but they are symbolic of being able to fight off and/or escape from attackers and predators, and in so doing escaping from death. Symbolism is very important to death denial.

Extreme Sports

Death denial can also be downright paradoxical, though. We look up into the sky and see the tiny dot of a human being hurlting down towards us. At the last second she pulls the rip cord and her parachute explodes open above her. She whoops and yowls in exhileration and we look up at her, thinking, “why the hell would anyone do something as crazy as that?”

Well, by falling all of that way and demonstrably not dying, she proves to herself and the universe that death can’t touch her. That’s why it’s such a rush: she should have died, but she didn’t. There are any number of “extreme” sports which have the same effect, including bungee jumping, car racing, mountain biking, parkour, long-distance running, and stunt bmx riding. These are the ultimate test of skill because if you fuck up at the wrong moment, you could very well die.

Technology

Death anxiety can also be incredibly subtle, too, and technological ‘early adopters’ are a great example of this. These are those people like your cousin Duane who is totally obsessed with high-tech toys and always has the newest phone, tablet, smartwatch, electric scooter, thumb-print door locks, and “smart” appliances. He loves to talk about how one day he will upload his consciousness into the singularity and merge with our benevolent AI overlords.

While this is arguably a compensation for Duane’s lack of self-confidence and/or people skills, being tech-savvy and in-the-know is also symbolic of superior knowledge, intelligence, and social status. Given the general unpredictability of life and death, this doesn’t guarantee protection, per se, but it does make you feel like you belong to a special class of people – the ones who really know what’s going on. This means in turn that they are less likely to get hit by the next plague and/or natural disaster and die. This has been neatly, if horrifyingly, demonstrated by the demographics of Covid-19 infections and death, the victims of which are overwhelmingly old, poor, and disenfranchised.

Other Common Death-Denying Tactics

Other well-known methods of death denial include having children, amassing great wealth, accumulating social clout and political power, founding libraries and hospitals, commissioning statues, and declaring yourself an eternal deity. Getting famous, owning expensive and/or “nice” things, and hobnobbing with important people, are also ways of denying death. As are workaholism, alcoholism, obsessive behaviours, avoidant behaviours, and phobias of every kind. As are Rogaine, faith healing, enemas, and homeopathy, and the various religions of philosophy, science, history, economics, and politics.

Death in the Back Seat

A huge pile of human skulls and bones
“Ossuary” by michelhrv is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Usually, death anxiety functions in the background of our minds, motivating us to our idiosyncratic death-avoiding and life-affirming behaviours, without us realizing what’s going on. The when, how, and what of this motivation is determined by both personal factors and larger cultural elements. For example, there are certain events which trigger death anxiety in people more or less universally: funerals, the death of a well-known person, natural disasters, food/resource shortages, or war. Similarly, basically every human culture ever documented has some version of the Grim Reaper, the personification of death. Here in the West, we also have a number of abstract, symbolic, and poetic representations of death, like a wilting rose, a snuffed out candle, and Hamelt and his human skull.

On top of this, each one of us also has a unique set of people, events, and thoughts which can trigger death anxiety, and each of us has an equally unique constellation of death denying tactics we use to stave off our anxities about death. Maybe you saw a squirrel get smooshed by a car when you were a kid, and from then on riding in cars makes you feel a bit queasy.

And, importantly, all of us make different kinds of decisions when we are anxious about death and when we aren’t. These usually come up as “inexplicable” seeming urges to eat ice-cream, or to get outside and go for a walk, or to start an argument with the traffic cop who just pulled you over.

Think about it, do you feel like drinking alcohol or smoking a cigarette after hearing about a car crash on the news? Do you find that feeling alone or powerless makes you want to strap on a parachute and jump out of a plane? Or maybe thinking about the possibility of economic collapse makes you more judgmental and/or racist?

Who Cares?

blurry skulls
“Skulls, Skull, Teschi, Teschio – fotografia di Augusto De Luca. 46” by Augusto De Luca – Naples is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

If denying death is something that all of us naturally do, then who really cares? Sure, it’s quirky and weird, but does it do any harm?

Money

Well, yes. Death anxiety motivates us to waste a huge amount of money and effort on snake oil health products and cancer cures and fad diets, many of which, ironically, are bad for your health. And then there’s funerals, which cost on average $8,000 if you let yourself get tricked into embalming and renting out the funeral hone for a viewing. There’s even a world-wide “Deathcare” industry, which in the US alone is valued at $14,000,000,000, and which makes all of that money by taking advantage of people’s grief and anxiety.

Suffering

But more importantly, unacknowledged death anxiety causes a great deal of suffering. For some people, death anxiety motivates them to get in fights, and make bad decisions, and take much greater risks than they would otherwise. They feel the need to rebel, to directly deny their powerlessness in the face of death. They need to demonstrate to themselves and to the universe that they are special, and because of this personal specialness, they are immortal. This need to prove their specialness drives them to continually strive for money or fame or power, and they lead lives full of stress and vicious competition, never finding satisfaction in any of the successes they fight so hard for. And so they die 10 years early, having worked themselves directly into the very grave they are fighting so hard to escape.

For others, their death anxiety locks them up inside of themselves and makes them terrified of breaking away from their parents, leaving home, and living their own lives. Or they find a job at a desk, sit down at 20, retire at 70, and die having been nowhere and done nothing and experienced nothing. They wrap themselves into the arms of some all-powerful person or institution in the belief that if they never live, they will never die. They re-create the eternally warm and safe embrace of the womb and remain ensconced within it until they are put into the ground or burned to ash.

These descriptions probably sound very familiar. These two approaches to anxiety-management form the backbone of the human personality, our general approach to life and how it should be lived. And it would be surprising indeed to find someone who didn’t exhibit at least one of these tendencies, if not both.

What is most important to understand is that neither of these kinds of people is ever happy. Constantly chasing immortality or avoiding life is incredibly stressful. You become fixated on the methods you find to keep the terror of death at bay and are compelled to rehash them over and over until you die. There is no possibility for real pleasure in this way of life. It is the definition of hell itself.

Conclusion

happy skull mask
“Weird mask” by Ray_LAC is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The alcoholic drinks because she “likes the taste,” and the capitalist is competetive because he’s just “made that way,” and the worker drone sits at his desk for 45 years “because it’s comfortable, and besides, I have no ambition.” We can see these traits clearly in others, but it is very difficult to identify them ourselves.

But the suffering we put ourselves through is very much a choice. By turning ourselves away, by blinding ourselves to the incontrovertible fact of death, we manufacture our own misery and drive ourselves faster towards the very thing from which we’re trying to escape.

In the same way that workaholics often don’t know they’re workaholics, death deniers usually don’t realize that they’re denying death. They think they’re happy. We all think we’re happy with the anxiety-driven lives we lead, because we have to. Because we don’t know we have a choice, there is no choice. And besides, whatever crazy thing we’re doing, it works; very few of us ever actually feel the terror of knowing that we are going to die.

Anxiety and denial function inside of a space within ourselves that we try not to pay attention to. We push it to the back of our minds so that we can manage the basic tasks of the day-to-day. We avoid looking into that scary inner place because it’s where we keep all of the icky, nasty things. And death is just about the ickiest, nastiest thing there is.

References

Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_(personification)

https://www.shirleys-wellness-cafe.com/UT/Urine