Q In the last five years my parents, several of my relatives, and even a couple of friends have passed away. I have always known of distant relatives or grandparents dying when I was younger and I coped with it. However, now that I am in my 50s and have lost both parents, I think about illness and death more often. I also feel more alone in the world than I ever have before. I fear my own death and dread that more of my family will soon pass away. Are these feelings normal? How can I accept this part of life without fearing it?
A When a person loses several close people in his or her life, the impact can be quite severe. Illness and death are some of the most challenging experiences humans have to undergo or suffer. This is true whether you are ill and dying or have witnessed others in this process. Watching loved ones’ bodies become diseased and frail and watching them suffer can be quite hurtful to witness. For some people it is a kind of trauma. We recognize how powerless we are when the body undergoes such changes.
Losing both parents can leave a person feeling orphaned. There is a ground that parents hold for most of us that makes us feel that we always have a place to go to—a secure base and roots. When that leaves we recognize more fully our existential aloneness in the world. This can compel some people to delve deeper into who they are, what they care about in the world, and how they want to live their lives more authentically. Knowing that death is around the corner, we can become more alive in the present moment. We are then less likely to take what we have for granted. Knowing that life is impermanent, we can be less attached and can learn to let go more fully. These qualities make us less rigid, resentful, and afraid, and lead to acceptance and a kind of grace and serenity with steady practice over time.
At times, fearing your own death is a sign that there are unlived aspects of your life. What feels dead in you while you are alive? What parts of yourself are you not in touch with? People who hold themselves back in life will feel more sorrow as they approach their own death. The weight and remorse of unlived life can be depressing. Anxiety also arises these days because people’s inner lives are impoverished and they don’t belong to a community that knows them and will be available in the time of need. Thus, one feels more alone and afraid of aging, illness, and death. Doing what we can to get more connected to like-minded people and feeling a part of something meaningful relieves fear and anxiety and engenders openness, meaning, and love.
Every culture and spiritual tradition has stories, rituals, and meaning-making processes around loss and death. These can be very valuable to help us accept this process as part of the human journey of growth and learning.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com.