If you’ve lived a full life, you’re more apt to accept death. You’re able to wrap your mind around your demise without anger, panic or woe.
Yet for many retirees, the prospect of their own passing is immobilizing. A flurry of negative emotions vies for attention, from fear (“I’m afraid of a long, painful decline”) to regret (“I won’t see my grandchildren grow up”).
If you experience what psychologists call death anxiety, you’re not alone. Roughly one in five adults say they’re afraid of dying.
Older people may feel less haunted by death, especially if they’re terminally ill and receive hospice care. Surrounded by nurses and aides who prioritize emotional support and comfort, hospice patients tend to view their impending death with serenity.
On the other hand, some otherwise healthy seniors cannot bear to think about death. Whether it’s the realization that they have fewer years left, to dread that months or years of physical suffering await them, a dark cloud of foreboding invades their everyday life.
What separates those folks who take death in stride from the ones who let it eat away at their wellbeing?
“Part of it is having a more relaxed, flexible attitude and a willingness to rescind control over how we will die,” said Katherine King, an assistant professor of psychology at William James College in Newton, Mass. “A lot of us don’t tolerate uncertainty very well.”
If you have a controlling personality, pondering your death can cause agitation. Coping with such a sweeping, impossible-to-control force can prove crippling.
Another source of death anxiety relates to your overall satisfaction with how you’ve navigated your spiritual, creative and financial life. Generally, those who are fulfilled in these areas accept with equanimity that death is the next stage.
Steve Jobs qualifies as someone who attained a measure of fulfillment. Confronting his pancreatic cancer, he described death as “very likely the single best invention of life.”
Like many terminally ill people, he waxed philosophical about death. While we’ll never know if he cursed his bad luck in private, he took a more reassuring position in public.
“It is life’s change agent,” he said in his now-famous 2005 commencement address to Stanford University graduates. “It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.”
Aging in itself enables some people to accept death. The more funerals we attend, the more we start to see death in a new light.
“Losing people around us like friends and loved ones creates a feeling that it’s time,” King said. “It’s a natural preparatory process. As you get into your 80s and 90s, it can seem like the next task” on your to-do list.
But for those who continue to resist (“I’m not ready to die!”), honest self-reflection can help.
Ask yourself, “Do I have any unfinished business to tend to?”
“People who fear death tend to believe they haven’t completed their lives,” said Connie Zweig, a retired psychotherapist in Los Angeles, Calif. “So the key is to move toward completion, whether it’s completing a relationship where you still feel wounded or a business project that’s important to you. It’s that longing to reach a resolution.”
By taking steps to repair ruptured relationships, reclaim discarded dreams or intensify your search for spiritual or religious affirmation, you can address the nagging feeling that something’s missing. Checking off all the boxes in your life thus reduces death anxiety.
Speaking of religion, it can work for or against you when you’re grappling with the notion of your demise. Naturally, your beliefs about life after death play a big role.
“If you think you’ll be buried and a tree will grow there, that’s enough for some people,” said Zweig, author of “The Inner Work Of Age.” “Others are more religious and their beliefs can either give them solace or dread.”
Regardless of what’s driving your fear or sadness about death, detaching yourself from your inner demons can work wonders. It’s liberating to rise above your anxiety and, like Steve Jobs, take a big-picture view of what life’s all about.
Zweig recalls counseling a 70-year-old woman who was grieving from the loss of her parents, brother and best friend. Unlike some people who grow to accept death as they mourn the passing of loved ones, Zweig’s patient expressed mounting stress as she thought about her end-of-life.
“I suggested that she meditate,” Zweig said. “She learned how to quiet her nervous system and quiet her mind so that she could watch her thoughts about death and let them go. They became less gripping and less overwhelming.”
After a few months of meditation, the woman attained a heightened state of calm in mind and body. Even her breathing gave her comfort.
“Each time I breathe in and out, I’m practicing dying,” she told Zweig. The regularity of her breathing reduced her fear and gave her strength to persevere.
“In that way, she acclimated to those previously disturbing thoughts,” Zweig said. “She found peace of mind.”