Fear of Dying (Also, Don’t Diagnosis Members of Your Own Family)

Under no circumstances are therapists allowed to provide services to friends or family. This is truly unfortunate. If this were not the case my grandfather, Peter, would have been my most fascinating, albeit frustrating, client. I’d have had him on the couch 3 days a week, a la Sigmund Freud. Before passing away a few years ago he had a concern; more of a fear really. No … it was a phobia. He was outright terrified of
death.

It consumed him day and night to where his sole focus was literally on surviving for as long as possible. This meant: no red meat, no simple carbohydrates, three physicals per year (one is the norm, two is pushing it), wearing a seat belt at all times, no driving in tunnels or on bridges (due to potential terrorism), and no sun … ever. He kept a purported antidote for Anthrax in his medicine cabinet and considered purchasing a hard hat should he need to walk (at night of course, due to his “no sun” policy) near construction sites.
When I lived on the first floor of my apartment building, he was concerned about tsunamis. When I moved up to the 30th, he freaked out about planes flying into the building. On top of all that, he was angry: The NFL is overpaying their players, gambling should be legal, socks are too black, the price of lettuce has increased by 4% over the past 6 months. I diagnosed him with the following conditions:

Specific Phobia (death)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Hypochondriasis
Intermittent Explosive Disorder


I’m sure there were others. But he knew I was onto him, since I needed only six years to finally memorize most of the relevant parts of the DSM-IV, so he probably held out on some other neuroses that were part of his personality.

His preoccupation with death always amazed me. Research shows that anxiety about one’s mortality generally peaks around 40, but is actually quite low in old age. This is probably because our brains are hard-wired for acceptance of the inevitable, similar to when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness. In such a case, a person generally goes through stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance (known as “DABDA” in professional circles). Why didn’t Peter ever get that “acceptance” part down? He lived to be 87, dying in his sleep. Why so many years of fighting what most of us ultimately can be prepared for?

The therapist in me hypothesized that this fear was learned in some way. His parents maybe? Friends or teachers? The media? Someone or something taught him to be terrorized by the sheer notion of death. I needed more information. I called up my mother to get the scoop. She always put up an angry front about how mentally ill he was, but I know deep down she felt sorry for him.

“I need to ask you about Pop Pop.”

“Who?”

“Your father.”

“What about him?”

“Was he always so preoccupied with dying? I mean it was completely pathological.”

“I know, it doesn’t make any sense. He was a pretty devout believer in Heaven, and it’s not like he was beaten by his parents or anything.”

“So you don’t know of any traumas as a kid or something like that.”

“Oh please, he had a great life: good money, decent marriage, fine health. 87 years without even one hospital visit!”

“Maybe that’s it. Could he have been so scared to lose what he had?”

“Don’t people actually pay you to come up with these answers?”

“No, my work is much more sophisticated than that. In fact,”

“Look, can we talk about this later? The Sopranos are on. I’ll tell you one thing, though, get ready to join the party, you’re almost at that age where it kicks in.”

“What do you mean?”

“All the men in our family have this fear of dying.”

“You think it’s genetic?”

“Yep, I’d imagine by 40, you’re going to be a pretty miserable person. Have a good night.”

I guess that gives me five good years before I begin my descent into madness. I should probably get married soon, to have someone to take it out on.

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22 Responses to “Fear of Dying (Also, Don’t Diagnosis Members of Your Own Family)”

  1. Nathan says:

    Great post again, Rob.
    You bring humor and insight to stuff most of us wouldn’t even notice.
    Well written; keep them coming!

  2. CBlast says:

    You are a wonderful writer, and I am glad you joined Rudius. Are you going to do a book? Also, are you ever going to post on the message board?

  3. DidiStriker says:

    Consider this Dr. Rob… perhaps it wasn’t a fear of dying per se, but a fear of abandoning the living.
    I suspect Peter didn’t fear losing what he had, but feared his families reaction to losing him.
    Gosh, what a responsibility to put on oneself huh?! The poor dear, a slave to his notions.
    Many people consider suicide a selfish act. When someone fears abandoning the living, they view functioning without self preservation equally selfish.
    I find “abandoning the living” is especially prevalent in people that have a good life, just as your Mother described about her Father. Genetic, I doubt it, but familial, sure! You probably have a great family, so it’s no wonder all the men eventually feel this way.

  4. Noah says:

    The not giving services to family thing is getting to me. Where does helping out a relative end and therapy begin?

  5. Wayland says:

    You can take it out on us : )

  6. Ninja says:

    I’m young, but I think about death sometimes. I will admit, it frightens me because it is the simple thought of not existing anymore. I have a fear of not being remembered, not being well known. It gives me a feeling of insignificance. Yeah, the people around me today may remember me, but not future generations.

  7. nat says:

    thank you for your article, it’s very insightful.
    I myself tend to think about things logically:
    I was born at early 1980s, suppose i live an average life [ round 65~75 years] for men.
    By now it’s 2007, i know i will die around 2045~2060.
    From that I know I have about 13,870 ~ 19,345 more days to live.
    I am afraid of death because I had several times in my childhood, came very very close to death, but I think i have plenty of time to deal with it.
    And I think death is nothing but a complex yet simple biological process, just like “making babies”.
    My plan is to work hard and try to wait till there are some sort of “instant freeze” technology.
    Since “magnetic freezing” technology will become more accessible and sophisticated in the future.
    And let’s be realistic: only our brain is the most important part, that contains the memory that defines who we are and how we think.
    All other body parts can be cloned even in 10 years time [illegally of course].
    Then there is little to stop us from gaining the access to immortality, which WILL become the basic right to all mankind in the future.
    So F*** death, as well as G*D.
    Don’t be afraid, you just need to be filthy rich.

  8. Cassandra says:

    Hell, if you want to analyze someone with a phobia of death, GAD, panic attacks, and hypochondriasis, i’d happy let you pick my brain.

  9. JasmineArdent says:

    The Tao teaches us that once we no longer fear death, we are eternal.
    Then again, Lao Tzu? Dead.
    Your mom sounds cool.

  10. Godot says:

    I’m 47 and more scared of death than ever. Being an atheist doesn’t help. I don’t understand people who think it does. Bertrand Russel said, “When I die, I shall rot.” Well now: that’s truly horrible. It seems to me crazy to fail to think so. You’re all dead nuts. I don’t go around beleiving things just because they comfort me, so, as an atheist, I must say, I am totally w/out comfort when it comes to the fact that I will end.
    On top of that, the greatest irony is that I am, at times, suicidal.
    By day, I take comfort in the idea that I can snuff it. By night, I can come close to panic about the Gestalt-like realizations I have that I will truly not be here some day.
    I’ve come to one conclusion: every single conscious being is flat out hands down nuts.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations.
    You have found the shortcomings of your profession.
    Go ahead and feel the tool of reason, but calling an illness what’s actually a human condition is just ridiculous.
    It’s incredible that you found your grandparent had all those disorders.
    Find me a person without disorders and I’ll call them sickness.
    Bah.
    You’re not making the world a better place with posts like this one.
    Dr. Rob: You might have read that post a bit too literally.

  12. Erica says:

    I am so scared of dying . I just turned 30 but I think about it so often it hurts . I have 3 beautiful children. I guess my fear is leaving my kids if it happened. I am not avoiding life or do I stop living . I just don’t want to think about it! Out of nowhere something pops in my head and there I am crying because the thought has entered my head. Please does anyone know what I can do to make this craziness stop!

  13. Anxiety attack says:

    Is it not being deathly afraid of dying?

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  19. sometimes i also have anxiety attacks and when it happens, i just breathe slowly and deeply to help me relax..~;

  20. Relaxation techniques and meditation can help a lot during Anxiety Attacks. ~’.

  21. Maya Bailey says:

    i suffered from anxiety attacks and my doctor put me on anti-depressants ~

  22. Maryam Kaur says:

    Prozac is also helpful against anxiety attacks but be careful about its side-effects,.-