Photo by Sage Friedman on Unsplash

I’m going to talk about Dr. Irving Yalom’s theory about fear of death, which he believed was the seat of much of people’s anxiety. He asserted that this fear was most likely aroused when people experience a loss such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, illness, a trauma or aging, for instance. The resolution, or potentially positive outcome of this is that it causes people to confront their mortality. This can lead to life-altering changes such as “stopping to smell the roses” and appreciating what life has to offer, connecting more closely with those you love, shifting priorities, and being more willing to take chances to fulfill life dreams.

I can’t think of a more obvious time to confront one’s own mortality than facing a terminal illness. The prospect of death is much more imminent and tangible. As such, how can we prepare for it in advance (for those who are not in such a perilous situation and those who are)? According to Yalom, living a “regret-free life”, focusing on our impact on later generations, and talking to those we love about our fears can help. As he said it: “If we live a life full of regret, full of things we haven’t done, if we’ve lived an unfulfilled life,…when death comes along, it’s a lot worse.”

So, how to go about doing all of that? I will give you some examples from my personal experience…from pretty well the moment I found out about my diagnosis, I started doing a life retrospective and prospective. What I mean by that is I examined what I had accomplished and experienced in life up to that point. In doing so, I compared it to my early expectations of what my life would have been like. As none of us knows what life holds for us, for the most part we will have done more, seen more, experienced more than what we could have imagined. That can provide some level of comfort.

My next focus was on what I wanted (or felt I needed) to experience and accomplish. (Note that what I am speaking about here does not include the emotional component, only the “rational”.) That essentially became my “bucket list” of what I felt I still needed to do, with anything else a bonus.

In the retrospective and prospective analysis is where we confront any regrets, any thoughts of unfulfillment. This is the emotional component, perhaps regrets at “roads not travelled”, life-altering decisions made that didn’t work out as one had hoped or expected. Confronting these regrets means examining where the “road taken” led us, the experiences we had instead. Can we change what has happened in life? No, but we can make peace with it and that is what this is about, reflecting on what we did experience, the people’s lives we touched. Releasing oneself from those regrets can be a freeing experience, with thoughts like: “If I’d never taken this road, I’d never have…”

This feeds into my assertion that thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to behaviors. If a person comes to resolution in their thoughts, it has a positive impact on their feelings and subsequent behaviors. In this case, acknowledging the positive experiences and impact of decisions made would lead to more positive feelings (less or no regret), which would potentially lead to positive actions. When I say positive actions that means perhaps seeking out new experiences or finishing off incomplete tasks. In my case, it has spurred me on to completing unfinished writing projects and focusing on (hopefully) future travels.

The retrospective view helps us turn towards the prospective. It also allows us to focus on Yalom’s second component of dealing with fear of death: looking at our impact on future generations. This doesn’t mean changing the world, but it may mean changing one person’s world for the better. In my many years of clinical work, I was always struck by the impact one person can have on another’s life without even realizing it. People who had been through horrific early life experiences and made it through would often talk about one person (it could have been the school librarian, a soccer coach, the little old lady down the street who used to invite them in for tea and a chat…) who had made a hugely positive difference in their lives. Sometimes, the connection, support, and belief in you from one person can help a person realize their worth and give them a reason to go on.

All of us have touched on other people’s lives, sometimes for the better or worse, but we have all had an impact on someone somewhere. Humans are, after all, social creatures. It could have been as simple as a chance encounter, a verbal interchange, even a smile that could have made someone’s day. We never know…Remembering those who have had an impact on our lives reminds us that we may very well have done the same for others. Even if nothing comes up from the past, it can encourage people to do so in the present and future.

As to Yalom’s final suggestion in confiding fears to loved ones, that is an important one. It connects us intimately with people who care about us. It allows us to share how we are feeling and in doing so to essentially, share the burden. It allows those who care about us to understand and empathize, to connect more deeply. And really, isn’t that what life is about, connecting with those we love?



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As a now-retired psychologist, I was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, and am currently undergoing chemotherapy to hopefully prolong my life.