Disappointment – “I failed this exam, my life is ruined” or regret – “I am getting a divorce, I wasted so much of my life.” Patients present with a wide variety of complaints that can be understood as a form of death anxiety.
Fundamentally, patients come to see us to understand and explain their lives. One can reinterpret this as a patient asking, “If I died today, would my life have been good enough?” or “When I die, how will I look back at this moment in time and judge the choices I made?”
Other patients come to us attempting to use the same maladaptive defenses that did not serve them well in the past in the hopes of achieving a new outcome that will validate their lives. While it may be understandable that a child dissociates when facing abuse, hoping that this defense mechanism – as an adult – will work, it is unlikely to be fruitful and will certainly not validate or repair the past. This hope to repair one’s past can be interpreted as a fear of death – “I cannot die without correcting this.” This psychic conflict can intensify if one does not adopt a more adaptive understanding of his or her life.
Death anxiety is the feeling associated with the finality of life. Not only is life final, but a constant reminder of that fact is the idea that any one moment is final. Other than in science fiction, one cannot return to a prior moment and repair the past in the hope of a better future. Time goes only in one direction and death is the natural outcome of all life.
Death may have some evolutionary purpose that encourages the promotion of newer and more fitter genes, but one doesn’t have to consider its origin and reason to admit death’s constancy throughout humanity. People die and that is an anxiety-provoking fact of life. Death anxiety can feel especially tangible in our connected world. In a world of constant news, it can feel – for many people – that if your house wasn’t displaced because of global warming or that you are not a war refugee, you don’t deserve to be seen and heard.
This can be a particularly strong feeling for and among physicians, who don’t think that the mental health challenges generated by their own tough circumstances deserve to be labeled a mental disorder, so they designate themselves as having “burnout”1 – as they don’t deserve the sympathy of having the clinically significant impairments of “depression.” Our traumas don’t seem important enough to deserve notice, and thus we may feel like we could die without ever having truly mattered.
This can also be applied in the reverse fashion. Certain individuals, like celebrities, live such extravagant lives that our simpler achievements can feel futile in comparison. While the neighbor’s grass has always felt greener, we are now constantly exposed to perfectly manicured lawns on social media. When compounded, the idea that our successes and our pains are both simultaneously irrelevant can lead one to have very palpable death anxiety – my life will never matter if none of the things I do matter, or my life will never matter because I will never achieve the requisite number of “likes” or “views” on social media required to believe that one’s life was worth living.
A way of alleviating death anxiety can be through the concept of legacy, or what we leave behind. How will people remember me? Will people remember me, or will I disappear like a shadow into the distant memory of my near and dear ones? The idea of being forgotten or lost to memory is intolerable to some and can be a strong driving force to “make a name” for oneself. For those who crave fame, whether a celebrity or a generous alumnus, part of this is likely related to remaining well known after death. After all, one can argue that you are not truly dead as long as you continue to live in the memory and/or genes of others.
Legacy thus serves as a form of posthumous transitional object; a way of calming our fears about how we will be remembered. For many, reconciling their feelings towards their legacy is an avenue to tame death anxiety.