How should we think about such a problem? Is it a similar kind of thing to the various other phobias we know of, such as social phobia, claustraphobia, and agoraphobia? After all, most people are afraid of death; in some ways it seems like a normal response. But of course most people do not give death a second thought, unless compelled by circumstance to do so.
I imagine that in the past, or in other cultures, someone with this problem would probably go to see a priest rather than a doctor, although maybe in such cultures the distinction between the two would not be so clear cut as it is in ours. Fear of death, one might say, is an existential or spiritual problem, not a medical one. It may even lie behind all or most of our more everyday fears. This is what the ancient Roman philosopher Epictetus had to say about the matter:
“Reflect that the chief source of all evils to man, and of all baseness and cowardice, is not death, but the fear of death. Against this, therefore, fortify yourself. To this let all your reasonings, your exercises and discourses tend. Then you shall know that by this alone are men made free.”
Being a practical philosopher, Epictetus no doubt had a tool kit of disciplines and exercises to help him erode the fear of death. Philosophical and spiritual traditions the world over have their own ways of dealing with the fear of death.
It may be that the root of all these practices is becoming more fully alive in the here and now; I rather think that we fear death to the extent that we are not yet fully alive. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore says,
“I know that I shall love death, because I have loved life.”
A caveat to all of this, though, is that we need to have enough emotional robustness and positivity to face and deal with the fear of death. My approach to treatment is along these lines – I want to help people not to become anaethetised to the fear of death (after all, such anaesthetics are not hard to come by in our world!) but to be calm and happy enough to begin to look death in the face.
In Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, there is to be seen, perhaps painted on a wall, an image called the ‘Wheel of Life’. This consists of a fearsome monster holding up to us a large disc within which is depicted all the different kinds of creatures and how they circle repeatedly through various states of being. The monster is Yama, the Lord of Death. It is said, however, that as we grow as individuals, becoming happier, calmer and more compassionate, Yama stops looking so terrible. In fact he even becomes beautiful, and it turns out that he is not a monster after all. In the classical world of Greece and Rome, also, Thanatos, the god of death, was depicted as a beautiful winged boy, not unlike Cupid in fact. If we learn to live fully and contentedly, death is not so scary after all.