Death. The inescapable final curtain call that we often spend our entire life fearing. How will we die? What happens when we do? How does it feel? Will our surviving loved ones be okay? We may feel sad that we’ll miss important events, or never experience small pleasures again.
These unknowns fuel our fear, which makes accepting mortality a challenge. And while the fear may never fully subside, we can take steps to make peace with our inevitable end. Today we’ll explore why death may seem so scary, and how to cope.
In the past, death played a larger, more direct role in daily life. Once, it was common to care for our dying and deceased family members at home. Before the 20th century, family members and communities organized funerals, with the deceased often being buried on family land. As the population grew and people realized the economic potential, the funeral industry developed. Cemeteries, funeral homes, undertakers, and embalming made death more indirect and less hands-on.
Also, medical advancements allow us to live longer. This is great but means we don’t experience death as often. On the flip side, because of medical progress, people often die in hospitals or hospices, out of view.
This detachment means many of us haven’t witnessed death directly, which makes it feel like a secret to be hidden.
These things also require us to make many decisions about our death. Burial or cremation? Which type of casket or urn? How will we pay for our funeral, so our family doesn’t have to? All these factors combined make death both scary and stressful to think about.
Outside of death, we’re taught early on to fear aging. Our society values youth, strength, and labor. Society often discards older adults who don’t fit beauty or strength standards or no longer work.
We dread turning 30 (THIRTY!), use anti-aging products to try to look youthful, and deny telling people our true age after a certain point, to avoid judgment. And we often try to one-up others to stay relevant in our careers and lives.
We’re constantly running from the idea of aging and death.
Accepting that we’re going to die can ease our anxiety, and help us live more present authentic lives. It allows us to truly understand that tomorrow isn’t promised, and the time to start truly living is now. Below are 4 tips for accepting mortality to make death and dying as stress-free as possible.
Not talking about death doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. It may even make the anxiety worse. Instead, we should find safe places to voice our feelings. Our loved ones likely have their own concerns about dying, too.
We can get together, share our feelings, final wishes, and everything we want to do before we die. This doesn’t need to be a somber affair (although it’s okay if it is). We can approach it with courage, honesty, and self-compassion.
Practicing mindfulness can help ease our anxiety about the unknowns of death. When we find ourselves ruminating about death, we can:
- Take a moment to sit with our thoughts.
- Notice the emotions that arise.
- Notice any physical effects the thoughts might cause (e.g., racing heartbeat, etc.).
- Accept the thoughts and feelings without trying to change or get rid of them.
- Notice when the thoughts and feelings have passed, and then go about the day.
3. Handle the Boring Bits
As mentioned, thinking about what happens to us (and our possessions) after death can be a major stressor. Creating an advanced directive and will, selecting a power of attorney, assigning life insurance beneficiaries, and allocating assets help safeguard our final wishes. It also alleviates undue stress on our loved ones during the grieving process.
Ideally, we should all leave this world the way we want to. While this isn’t always within our control, we can decide what a good death looks like for us. We can provide a written plan to the person who will assist us with our last wishes. It can include our top 10 things to do before we die, ideal last meal, death location, people present, death playlist, funeral atmosphere/theme, etc.
Death is the ultimate unknown. We can’t know for certain what happens when we die, or what it feels like. Often, we can’t even predict when we’ll die, or how. And while this uncertainty can be overwhelming, we can take steps toward acceptance and peace.
Sign up for a UCA membership to get help creating end-of-life legal documents, and download Dealing with Dying, our free guide with exercises to help you reflect on life, love, and closure.