Thanatophobia: “I lost a parent; now I struggle constantly with the frightful thought of death”

A 33-year-old father of two shares his struggles with thanatophobia, the extreme fear of death, and how having his own family helped him see the need to overcome the fear. 

Avatar illustration of a family mourning the death of a loved one during funeral

The loss of a loved one hits people differently. For some, it gives them a deeper perspective on life, while for others, it makes them see life as more of a vanity. 

Grieving the death of a loved one also takes on different forms for different people - with some experiencing intense grief and emotional pain that doesn’t improve over a long time (a condition now known as complicated grief).

For Emmanuel Nwaeme, a 33-year-old software engineer, the death of his father left more than just a large hole in his heart; it also left him extremely scared of death. Living with the constant fear that he could slump and die at any time affected his daily life and relationships. 

“My father was always a happy man, and being the first of four kids, we were quite close. However, my memories of him are hazy at the moment," Nwaeme tells SemicHealth. 

Nwaeme lost his dad at the age of six. It was sad and tough for him. He felt his dad’s absence even at school, where most other students talked about their dads except for him. “At that young age, I couldn’t comprehend grief. I just knew he wasn’t going to be with us anymore,"  Nwaeme says.

But the most painful part of the story was how Nwaeme’s father died. Nobody saw it coming, not even the slightest hint.

“He wasn’t sick. We woke up that morning preparing to go to the airport for a holiday outside the country. My mom had prepared me and was busy preparing my sisters. I was with my dad as he was speaking with a relative on the balcony. All of a sudden, he slumped and was dead by the time he got to the hospital," Nwaeme narrates.

When he was around 14 years, Nwaeme found out that his dad had died of a heart attack. That was when the heightened level of fear started to creep in. Nwaeme started nursing the fear that one day he would just drop dead too. 

When he was diagnosed with high blood pressure at 25 years old, the diagnosis did not help Nwaeme’s fear of death, as he felt he inherited the cardiovascular disease from his dad and would likely die too young, too. 

“I felt my hypertension diagnosis confirms it; I’m a goner. So, I started living with a death date in sight. I felt I would not live longer than 32, which was my dad’s age when he died. It affected my relationships, and I became a bit reckless about my health in general,” Nwaeme recounts.

But, at 33, Nwaeme has not only outlived his dad, but he has also learned to overcome his fear. Part of what gave him the strength to fight his fears and increased his desire to live is the fact that he has a lovely wife and two children, whom he would love to watch grow into fine gentlemen.

“Seeing I now have a reason to live, I started to take my health more seriously and learned all I could about high blood pressure and how to live it. My goal is to keep my blood pressure in check, knowing that hypertension equals death,” Nwaeme says.

“I don’t know how much time I’ve got left, but I’d rather not spend it worrying about death.”

It is normal to experience fear of death (thanatophobia) after losing a loved one

Grief is an overwhelming emotion that you have no control over. Because losing someone you love is one of the biggest challenges you can face in life, it can leave you shocked, angry, devastated, profoundly sad, guilty, or even scared of death. The extreme fear of death is called thanatophobia or death anxiety.

While many people don't talk about it, death anxiety is common, and anyone can experience it. Some reports indicate that death anxiety is more common in males than females, others say the opposite.

“It is totally normal for children and adults to experience fear after death. Death is a confusing process for everyone, especially children. Children may have difficulty comprehending the finality of death. They may believe that they did something wrong to cause the death or that it is their fault,” Dr. David Tzall, a licensed psychologist, tells SemicHealth. 

Because children do not understand death, it can be scary for them, especially when it happens suddenly. They must have reached a certain developmental level of cognitive, moral, and social maturity before they can get a proper context of death. So, they easily get afraid and feel lost in the midst of it all.

“Adults can experience fear after death, but it might be for other reasons. A person's death makes people question their own mortality and how much time they have left. 

Children get scared of death because they don't understand it, and adults get scared of death because they know it is a reality,” Tzall says.

The way you break the news of a loved one’s death to a child matters

You shouldn’t speak to children the same way you speak to adults. But even aside from that, children have different developmental stages. 

A 6-year-old child would most likely not have the same sense of maturity as a 10-year-old. For children, it is important to consider their age when you are breaking the news of their parent’s or loved one’s death to them. Generally, it would be best to be direct, upfront, and use simple language.

“The main message is that the person won't be around anymore. It can be good to emphasize that it was not their fault and that, if they had a close relationship with the child, that the person loved and cared about them,” Tzall explains.

If you are a religious person, it is okay to explain death to them from a spiritual angle based on your beliefs. But, overall, you should focus on comforting the child and answering all their questions. This will help them deal with the trauma.

Understanding death can help you overcome its fear

It is normal to avoid discussing death because it’s bad news. However, psychologists like Tzall agree that the more people refuse to accept that death is a natural part of life and affects everyone, the more power it has over them. 

“We fear that which we do not understand,” Tzall says. “People will seek out religion on the matter because it provides a sense of hope and happiness that death is not the last part of life.”

Even though no one can tell exactly when they will die, having some control over what happens when death is near or after death can help provide some relief from the anxiety and fear of death. For instance, some people draw up a will and make some arrangements for their death.

Other ways to overcome the fear of death include:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Changing your habits that lead to anxious thoughts
  • Doing away with anxiety triggers
  • Seeking professional support
  • Going for therapy sessions
  • Meditating
  • Living a vibrant, healthy life
  • Building a great social life

Keep in mind that the fear of death may affect you more if you:

  • Are in poor health
  • Always nurse negative thoughts (pessimistic)
  • Don’t have a fighting spirit
  • Don’t have religious beliefs
  • Lack fulfillment in life
  • Lack intimacy in relationships

“Experiencing life to the fullest is a great antidote to this fear. The best we can ask for is to try and be as present in the moment as possible,” Tzall advises. 

Seek support whenever you need it

Don’t feel ashamed to speak to someone if you are experiencing grief or fear. Don’t listen to anyone who says you need to handle it alone. 

“I tell clients that the best time to speak to someone is when they recognize they need to speak to someone. They might think that others have it worse, that their issue is small, and that they would burden someone. This is a common error that prevents people from seeking out care,” Tzall reveals.

Speak to a healthcare professional, particularly a psychologist, if grief or fear is:

  • Interfering with your daily life
  • Making you feel sad and depressed
  • Affecting your job
  • Making you isolate yourself 
  • Making you overly and constantly anxious

Aside from a psychologist, you may find some relief after speaking to your friends, relatives, or spiritual leaders. However, consulting a licensed professional is even more helpful, as they are in a better position to prescribe medications and recommend treatments if needed. 

“It is also crucial to note that grief over death does not have to stop. It's a process that changes over time, so the frequency and intensity of fear or sadness ebbs and flows. The idea that there is "closure" to someone's death is inaccurate,” Tzall adds as a final note.

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