• The coronavirus pandemic and related tragic loss of lives has many of us considering our own mortality more than we might have previously

  • Lianna Champ, funeral director, author and grief counsellor, explains death anxiety and offers advice

  • Many people are struggling with their mental health as a result of the lockdown and pandemic – if you are too, find your therapist here

The effects of the current pandemic around the world has made many of us think of our own mortality and of those we love. Coronavirus has heightened our senses and, as we are all in this together, our sense of humanity can also been honed. Having deaths reported daily in the news can make our anxiety external, giving us a sense of panic for the safety of ourselves, the people we love and people we do not even know around the world. The future is unknown and uncertain and we don’t know where the virus will strike next. 

Most of us don’t want to think or talk about death and actually having a fear of death is quite normal and stems from our natural instinct for survival. As human beings we are driven to stay alive whilst at the same time we are aware that death is inevitable. It is this survival instinct that keeps us safe and can be used to benefit our lives. But what happens when an irrational fear of death begins to seep into our thoughts and takes over even when we can see from the statistics that the chances of dying of Covid-19 are relatively small?

What is death anxiety?

Death anxiety is the fear someone feels when they become acutely aware of, and apprehensive about dying and death. Death anxiety is a very real concern for some and can affect their day-to-day functioning.

When people consciously think about death it can affect them differently. Some take action to postpone if for as long as they can - through a healthy diet, exercise, community involvement etc. Others will push it to the back of their mind, try to ignore it and carry on, aware of it, but with plans to do something about it later ie. get healthy at a later stage, give up smoking at the start of the next new year etc, then they distract themselves by doing something else. And then there are those who find their thoughts of death and dying completely overwhelming and this can have a knock-on effect in many areas of their life.

Triggers and reminders

Try not to keep running the news as this can keep events very fresh and real. Keep in mind that the media can hold the same tragic images in the news for ages. Repeated reporting, whether in print, radio or TV, can make it feel as if it’s happening again and again, sometimes bringing events from the other side of the world right in front of us. The internet and the speed at which news travels visually and auditory has made the world feel like a very small place indeed. There is much contradiction in the news and this confusion can make it worse. Keep the scale of reality - the world population at this date is approximately 7.6 billion. Yes, we see disasters but we can also see many good and great things happening. Everything needs balance.

Action plan to reduce death anxiety

Anxiety is not a present moment fear, it is about something that may happen in the future. Constantly living in the future ie thinking about what might happen, denies experiencing the reality of now. It robs us of enjoying the here and now and can blind us to the good things that we have and the ‘in the moment’ joy of family and friends. Look around you and try and balance the scales.

Find someone you can talk to and share how you feel. If you can’t think of someone you can trust to share your anxiety with, try writing down with total honesty what you are feeling and really connect with events in your past and present which might resonate with why you are feeling so anxious.

If you had a date and time for your death, what is the one thing you would need to do to die with peace? If you were to think of the things that make you anxious one by one and imagine that each was a thorn in your foot. Which is the most painful and why? What would you have to do to remove it and stop the pain?  Once you find a connection, you can uncover what is triggering this anxiety. Once we understand why we are feeling the way we do we can take back control.

When death anxiety can be a good thing

A healthy fear of death can actually make us change our beliefs and behaviours for the better. An awareness that we are not immortal can make us better people too, as it can make us think about how we would like to be remembered. And it can bring more love into our life as we become nicer people and build more meaningful relationships - love isn’t contained in any one person but grows from the relationships we create with each other.

By really grasping that ageing and dying are an inescapable truth can ignite us to live a better life and consider our footprint upon the earth.

Choosing our thoughts and taking control of how we think and where we direct those thoughts
can release a lot of mental suffering and anguish. By accepting that we cannot control everything in life can help us reduce anxiety about the future and we can learn to experience life in the present moment. By ignoring our common sense we can be robbed of experiencing a lovely level of happiness. It’s like an open doorway that you want to walk through but you don’t know what is behind the door. So you stay where you are, tempted but frightened of what might be. Dare to take the risk - you may free yourself.

Alternative therapies

When you feel anxiety levels rising, close your eyes and breathe in and out deeply and slowly. This shows down the heart rate and calms the mind until you can reconnect with the here and now.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help to control thought patterns and is evidence-based in overcoming anxiety.

The Grief Recovery Method can help uncover unresolved grief.

If you are still feeling overwhelmed and suffering from excessive thinking about dying and death, please do seek professional help.

Lianna Champ has over 40 years’ experience in grief counselling and funeral care and is author of practical guide, How to Grieve Like A Champ

Further reading

13 things I've learnt about death

The psychological impact of coronavirus

Should we welcome death in our lives?

Practical tips to manage coronavirus anxiety

Could thinking about death improve our lives?