I used to sleep with the lights on. My crippling fear told me that when I slept, I couldn’t fit to stay alive. I had this vision of someone breaking into my apartment and killing me in my sleep. Months of sleepless nights finally prompted me to tackle my fear of death.
This fear manifests in different ways, but everyone has it. It’s in our DNA. If this fear has interrupted your life--caused you to dissociate, created an existential crisis, or robbed you of sleep--it’s time to attack the emotion. If you need therapy for this, please seek out a professional.
I’m not a psychologist, and I can’t cure your fear of death. But I will provide the techniques that helped me. Remember that this is a journey, not a destination. Some days I feel fine, while others I stay up at night. We have to consistently work on this fear throughout our lives, especially as death witches.
Acknowledge the Purpose of the Fear
In my experience, many people treat the fear of death as a weakness. I used to say that I didn’t fear death because I thought it made me appear braver. But this emotion serves an important purpose. If we didn’t fear death, we’d drive 100 mph down the LA freeway during rush hour. We’d smell sour milk, and drink it anyway. No one would work towards their dreams, because if there’s no end, there’s no rush.
The fear of death keeps us alive. As unpleasant as this emotion feels, it makes us value life, and there is no shame in that. Perhaps author Lisl Goodman said it best:
“Our very essence rests on the knowledge of mortality From the building of permanent shelters to the invention of means of transportation to ever more distant places...all this is founded on our knowledge of death. If there were always tomorrow--if we didn’t know that our future was limited--our only goal would be the satisfaction of immediate, parochial needs, as we witness it on an animal level.”
The trick is to make this fear work for you, not against you. Thinking “life ends, so nothing matters,” will only worsen your life. The following tips will attempt to flip that mindset.
Define What You Think Happens After Death
What do you think happens after death? Take some time to write down, in detail, what your theories are. Do you believe in an afterlife? Are the afterlives separate for different religions? Do you believe in reincarnation? Or that you’ll enter a deep sleep?
Although this may seem arbitrary, it’s essential for the rest of the process. Some people find comfort in the idea of an afterlife and reuniting with Gods. Others feel terror at the idea of a conscious end. The next tips will provide support for all views, whether religious or otherwise.
When you are writing your ideas, remember: THERE IS NO “TRUE” ANSWER. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard something like “consciousness just disappears, and that’s a fact.” We DON’T KNOW what happens after death. Scientists don’t know, religion doesn’t know--no one knows. Treating your theories as a fact could lock you into a box of existential dread that you don’t need to be in. Be nicer to yourself.
Pinpoint What about Death Scares You
The fear of death is more complicated than many people assume. Everyone worries about a different aspect of death. If you want to tackle your emotions, you need to determine what they are.
According to psychologists, here are the most common fears surrounding death:
You may have more than one reason why death scares you. Write down your reasons, and remember that all of these fears are valid. There’s a logic behind them, even if the emotion itself feels irrational.
This is a technique that psychologists use to test what they call “emotion myths.” These myths are assumptions that we treat as truth, when they may actually be flawed. In short, you write down arguments against your fear.
Here are some examples for the fears I listed above.
These “myth busters” won’t erase your fear immediately. But they may create cracks in your logic. They help people realize that there may not be as weight to their emotion as they once thought there were. As a thought experiment, come up with arguments against your fear.
Write Your Own Obituary
Instead of discussing another person’s death, write about your own. Create an obituary for yourself, or write a speech that a loved one will give at your funeral. This exercise clarifies what we want from life, because it forces us to explore the impact we can have on others.
Try not to invent worst case scenarios in this exercise. Brainstorm your ideal funerary speech. Imagine that you’ve accomplished everything you wanted to; this will illuminate what you want to do in life. It will also frame death in a positive way, proving that your life will make a lasting impression on others. I still remember feeling inspired by speeches at my relatives’ funerals.
This is by far the hardest technique on the list.
“Cope ahead” is a therapy skill designed to relieve anxiety around a situation. In short, you imagine yourself undergoing the experience that you most fear. If you’re scared of dying painfully, imagine it. If you worry about dying unexpectedly early, picture what will happen afterward.
The idea is to brainstorm how you’ll cope with these situations. For instance, will you get medical support that alleviates the pain? Will you write a will that tells your family to publish your manuscript if you die early? “Coping” may help you realize that you can handle the situation, even if it feels like you can’t.
Some authors have added physical exercises to this mental experience. For instance, witchcraft writer Konstantinos recommended lying on the cold floor to picture your body in a coffin or at a funeral. Although it may sound silly, your posture influences your thoughts whether you realize it or not.
IF YOU’RE GOING TO TRY THIS EXERCISE, READ THIS. You must schedule “cool down” time. Coping ahead is an emotionally draining experience, and you’ll want some self care afterward so you don’t carry your strong emotions throughout the day. I didn’t do this the first time I tried it, and it messed me up. So remember to watch a fun movie, take a bath, or spend time with loved ones to recover from the exercise.
Also, try coping ahead in ten-minute intervals. Again, this exercise is draining, and you don’t want to spend all day imagining your own death. Right now, you are living. Enjoy life and make the most of it.
Before I Go, Let’s Talk about Shadow Work
Whenever I see metaphysical writers talk about the fear of death, shadow is the number one recommendation. The psychology theory comes from Carl Jung, who argued that the conscious ego ignores or shuns emotions that we don’t want to experience. By tending to this “dark side,” we can make peace with it, Jung said.
One could argue that the exercises I mentioned above are forms of shadow work. But that’s not what Jung would say. He asserted that the “shadow” appears in dreams, as it is subconscious. Acknowledging your shadow and identifying or “assimilating” with it is the ultimate goal of this practice.
I’m here to discuss the downside that a lot of other writers ignore. Some experts don’t agree with this philosophy. It isn’t practiced in modern psychology, and it doesn’t work for everyone. I’m not telling you to avoid shadow work. I’m saying that, before you dive in, you should assess whether or not this practice will work for you.
I’ll list some pros and cons for you to consider.