Celebrating the Day of the Dead with my students helped me overcome my fear of death

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  • My Spanish classroom is covered in flowers and glitter as we prepare to celebrate the dead.
  • While death is often a taboo topic in the US, in Mexico the dead are widely celebrated.
  • Celebrating the Day of the Dead, or Día de los Muertos, has taught me not to fear my own death.

The third time I wound up in the emergency room struggling to breathe, I started to consider my mortality.

When I was a child, asthma landed me in an oxygen tent for a week. As an adult, when even my rescue inhaler and nebulizers couldn’t help my lungs, I unconsciously started writing my own obituary.

I tried not to think about death. But it always lingered, in a spooky, dark corner of my mind.

Americans largely don’t talk about death, as if mentioning it would summon the Grim Reaper. In a survey conducted in April by Chapman University, 29% of respondents indicated they were afraid or very afraid of dying. A 2013 article in Psychology Today described death as the US’s “leading source of uneasiness, discomfort, and apprehension.”

My Spanish class showed me how to celebrate

There’s no better time of year to witness our culture’s fear of death than during Halloween, when we adorn our yards with skeletons, mummies, and zombies.

In my Spanish classroom, however, we observe differently.

This time of year, my classroom floor is covered in glitter and brightly colored feathers. My students are putting the finishing touches on their sugar skulls for Día de Muertos, which falls on November 1 and 2. In Mexico and around the world, people remember loved ones who have passed on with altars, marigolds, photos, offerings, and celebrations.

As a Spanish teacher, I started introducing my students to Day of the Dead about five years ago. We learn about how the Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and make skeleton puppets, sugar skulls, or altars. I ask my students to think of a loved one who has died and draw an altar for them. We sit in a circle and talk about which artifacts we would place on an altar to conjure our loved ones for a night of fiesta.

Mexican tradition holds that the dead would be offended by grieving and sadness so the festivities should be joyful and full of laughter.

The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said: “To the people of New York, London, and Paris, ‘death’ is a word that is never pronounced because it burns the lips. The Mexican, however, frequents it, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, and celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and most steadfast love.”

COVID-19 made me reconsider things

Then COVID-19 came. Knowing that a respiratory disease could put me at greater risk of illness or even death, I considered the possibility that I could die tomorrow.

Death no longer felt like a spooky shadow that needed to be avoided. It had always been there, always would be. But that shadow was now adorned with flowers and color and photos of loved ones.

Psychologists talk about naming, confronting, and reframing our fears to help us overcome phobias. By allowing the brain to get used to a feared object or situation, we can adjust how we respond.

Carlos Olmedo, the director of the Dolores Olmedo Museum, explains it this way: “For Mexicans, death was part of life. For us, it was like going from day to night so we didn’t feel something we were losing; it was just a step more.”

Celebrating Día de los Muertos with my students and children has helped me reframe how I view death and dying. It no longer feels like something separate from life but as something that’s connected, just as the day and night are connected — no longer a loss, but another step.

Complete Article HERE!

I retrained as a hospice nurse – and lost my fear of death

A year after being widowed, Laura Horn began volunteering in a hospice, sitting with people who were about to die. She soon realised she could do more for them …

‘I’ve had life experience’ … Laura Horn.

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Laura Horn has found what she calls her end-of-life career, “a vocation to last the rest of my life”. In her 60s she decided to train as a registered nurse, specialising in hospice care. “I’m a brand new nurse but that’s not what’s important,” she says. “I’ve had life experience.” After Margaret, her wife of 20 years, died “suddenly and unexpectedly”, Horn understood she had to make a change. She had been thinking about volunteering in a hospice, after her mother and both parents-in-law were given palliative care. Following Margaret’s death in January 2017, Horn applied to the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, which trained volunteers to sit with the dying. They told her: “Wait a year. You can’t do it right away.”

Looking back, she says, they were right. “You can’t jump into something new until you have grieved appropriately.” She had “good therapy” and did what she calls “walking grief – I mean, I walked everywhere”. A year later, she reapplied. “They said, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ and my first sentence was, ‘I know loss.’”

As well as Margaret, she had outlived her parents, her parents-in-law and her brothers. They both “died of substance abuse, one of a heroin overdose, and the other of long-term substance abuse. That, I’m sure, was part of my motivation,” she says. “That kind of pain can also lead to openness and joy, and that’s what I’ve discovered.”

Volunteering was “a truly transformative” experience for her and Horn realised she wanted more. “I thought, I want to do the nursing part too.” As an undergraduate, she had studied biology, and her early work was in public health before she switched to education research. Most of her career was spent “trying to determine what helped students succeed in college and beyond. But I always had the sense that I would circle back to the world of health,” she says.

At 63, she enrolled at one of the very community colleges whose impact she had been researching, to take the prerequisite courses – anatomy, physiology, microbiology, pharmacology. From there, she applied to nursing school at 65, on an accelerated one-year programme for graduates.

The intensity was staggering. “I was devoting every waking hour to studying and my clinical work,” she says. The friends who had supported her after Margaret’s death, and lived nearby in Berkeley, California, cooked for her three nights a week. Horn would visit for an hour, then leave to study. “We called it ‘catch and release’,” she says. Her two children with Margaret had left home but were supportive. When she graduated, one of her friends made a little sign out of brightly coloured paper – “It’s never too late” – and stuck it to the back of her mortarboard.

In some measure, Horn has put herself back at the heart of the storm, in a place of death and loss, which she occupies for three shifts a week at the hospice where she works in Oakland. How emotionally taxing is her new career?

“We are not part of the family so there is that distance,” she says. “We are here with you at this important time. We are here to normalise the experience and we teach family members what to look for, and not to be scared. It’s emotionally taxing but not overwhelming.”

Now 68, Horn has noticed her own attitude to death evolving. “I think I have relaxed around it,” she says. “After seeing all I have about death I’m not so scared of dying. I have a limited amount of time left on this Earth and I will try to make the most of it. And not be too terrified.”

Most of all, she has realised that palliative nursing care is “a reciprocal relationship with patients and families”. She hopes “to find real balance in that, to learn from them as they learn from me. If I’ve learned nothing else, we can’t live a full and meaningful life without deep relationships. And that’s what I’m hoping for.”

Complete Article HERE!

Life and death lessons from my very best friend

Luis Carrasco and his dog, Penelope, at the top of Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona, on Oct. 11, 2014.

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I have always been afraid of death. Not of dying, but of the pain of losing those I love.

I was so preoccupied with it as a child, that ever since I can remember, I said I wanted to be a doctor. This delighted my mom and dad to no end, especially when I said the reason was that I wanted to help people. The truth was I wanted to keep them from dying.

For 45 years, through emotional detachment and good fortune, I had mostly avoided that pain I so dreaded. Until a week ago, when my luck ran out and my wife and I said goodbye to our dog, Penelope. She was almost 15.

It’s fitting that having learned so much from her in life, that she had one last thing to teach me.

But before I talk about the end, let me tell you about the beginning. My wife and I had been living together for less than six months, having recently moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, when she insisted that we get a dog.

Although I had a couple of pets growing up, they lived outside, and I felt little connection to them. In Mexico, having an indoor dog was unthinkable, it just wasn’t part of the culture. Penelope, as suits a proper Southern lady, would be raised differently.

Born Jan. 1, 2008, of a coonhound mother and a chocolate Lab father, she had a dozen siblings. About half of them were all white, the other all black. Six weeks after they were born, they barked and bounded in the back of a truck — a monochrome flurry of puppy energy — where Penelope and her brother’s mixed coats stood out.

My wife pointed at the pair, and I grabbed the male dog. She said she meant the female but that, “it was OK if we took that one.” As she always tells the story, with a tone that invokes the hand of providence, I apparently said, “No, no, let’s take the one you wanted.”

Thus, Penelope came into our lives, and, verily, I wanted to drown her in the bathtub.

We lived in a condo that shared walls with three other units and as she cried at night, what mattered to me most was that we were inconveniencing the neighbors. She peed inside the house, chewed anything she could get her paws on and demanded constant attention … for about a week.

Then, it felt longer, and now it feels shorter, but regardless, she very quickly settled into who she would be for the rest of her life: a sweet, relaxed dog who asked for very little and gave so much in return.

As I think about who I was then, and what I thought was important, I have a hard time understanding. I’m embarrassed at how sheltered I was and how even though I was 30 and married, I had so much growing up to do.

In those early days, Penelope’s biggest sin was forcing me out of my routine, out of my solipsistic comfort zone of not having to do anything for anyone else. Slowly, she not only made me a better person, but she opened my world in new ways.

Taking her for walks and going on hikes, her love for being out in nature was infectious. She took me from someone who thought twice about sitting on the grass for fear of an ant or two, to pushing through tick-infested bushes on the hunt for an elusive swimming hole. She really loved the water.

Being with her allowed me to get out of my head and enjoy myself. When I think of happiness, one of the images that always comes up is chasing Penelope, not a care in the world, as she ran around the hills of the Chickamauga Battlefield in Georgia. There are pictures, and they are silly.

Penelope sits by a lake inside Yellowstone National Park on June 1, 2021. (Luis Carrasco)
Penelope sits by a lake inside Yellowstone National Park on June 1, 2021.

She also helped me work on managing frustration, from her days when she was a rebellious puppy to her final months, when we dealt with the indignities that come with illness and old age. She could no longer walk by herself or properly control her bodily functions.

Penelope died on Aug. 20, and the pain of losing her has been at times overwhelming — emotionally and physically draining. There is a certain unreality to my days. Life had Penelope in it, so what is this now? My wife calls the whole thing surreal.

Yet, this is one more case of Penelope pushing me to grow up, to understand that death comes with pain, but it also comes with happiness. Even as tears still flow every time I think of her, afterward I am left feeling joy; blessed to have known her and for the time we shared.

I know someday the tears will stop, and the joy will remain.

Complete Article HERE!

Thanatophobia

— What It Is and What Causes It

By Mandy Baker

Thanatophobia is the fear of death or the dying process. Death or dying is a typical concern in society. However, those with thanatophobia worry about it more often to the extent it affects their daily lives. This article will define thanatophobia. It will also discuss the symptoms, causes, and treatments for this phobia.

What is thanatophobia?

The American Psychological Association defines thanatophobia as a persistent and irrational fear of death or dying. This fear can either focus on yourself or the death of loved ones.

Studies have shown that people with older parents often project their own fears of death onto them. However, the same study showed that older parents are less likely to have this fear themselves. Thanatophobia can affect anyone. However, it does appear to peak in middle age and then taper off in older adulthood.

The fear of death and dying is a natural presence in life. However, those with thanatophobia experience it more severely. People with phobias typically avoid situations that might cause them fear or anxiety. Research has shown that thanatophobia may increase a person’s avoidance when it comes to social anxiety.

What are the symptoms of thanatophobia?

The main symptom of thanatophobia is the psychological fear of death and dying. It is more than just your typical worry about death — a phobia generally affects your day-to-day life.

Many people with a phobia, such as thanatophobia, experience panic attacks. Along with an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, panic attacks tend to also include physical symptoms, which can include:

If you are experiencing thanatophobia, you may also find that you avoid certain social situations that cause you anxiety.

Learn more about panic attacks and anxiety.

What causes thanatophobia?

Health experts do not know what precisely causes thanatophobia. However, many believe that unresolved psychological or physical distress can play a major role in the development of death anxiety.

Thanatophobia appears to be more common in those who have:

  • low self-esteem
  • no religious beliefs
  • health issues
  • no sense of fulfillment in their life
  • little to no intimacy with loved ones
  • little to no determination to overcome difficulties in life

Other factors that may contribute to the development of thanatophobia are anxiety, depressive symptoms, and your belief about what happens after death.

How do you treat thanatophobia?

Though many phobias are curable, there is no one treatment for them. However, treatment typically includes a combination of:

  • therapy
  • medication
  • self-help techniques

Therapy

Psychotherapy is typically an effective treatment for phobias. One of the main types of psychotherapy that mental healthcare professionals use to treat phobias is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on helping you to change your behaviors and the way you think. It can help you learn and develop ways to help manage your phobia. One type of CBT, exposure therapy, can help manage phobias by gradually increasing the level of exposure to your fear. This then allows you to gain control over your phobia.

Medications

Healthcare professionals do not always recommend medication to treat phobias. However, your doctor may prescribe them on a short-term basis to treat the anxiety or other symptoms that typically accompany phobias.

Medications that your doctor may recommend include:

  • antidepressants
  • tranquilizers
  • beta-blockers

Self-help

Certain lifestyle changes may help you manage phobia symptoms, such as panic attacks. These changes may include:

  • getting regular exercise
  • eating regularly
  • eating a nutritious diet
  • getting enough sleep
  • reducing your intake of caffeine or other stimulants

Other self-help techniques include:

  • Relaxation techniques: Involve physical exercises that can help you relax and control your breathing.
  • Visualization: This combines relaxation techniques with a mental visualization of how you can successfully manage situations that cause you anxiety.
  • Self-help groups: This is a way to meet others with similar experiences, where you can share ways of coping with your phobias.

Summary

Thanatophobia is an intense and persistent fear of death or the process of dying. Typically, the anxiety that comes from a phobia will affect your day-to-day life.

People with phobias often experience panic attacks and avoid situations that may cause them anxiety.

Thanatophobia is treatable with a combination of therapy and self-help techniques. Your doctor may also recommend medications to help you manage symptoms such as anxiety.

If you feel you are experiencing thanatophobia that is affecting your daily life, contact your doctor or mental healthcare professional.

Complete Article HERE!

Dying without fear

— How psychedelics can ease the anxiety of terminal illness

A palliative care physician on keeping ‘1 foot in the medical world and 1 foot in the psycho-spiritual world’

By Anne Strainchamps

When Lou Lukas meets a new patient, she knows two things right away. First, that her patient has been diagnosed with a terminal illness; and second, that they’re terrified.

For Lukas, who teaches palliative medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical School, guiding patients through that fear and anxiety is just as important as treating their disease, because it’s what will determine how they live during the time they have left.

“What happens to most people is that they’re so frightened, they start to shut down,” Lukas says. “They become depressed and anxious. Meanwhile, we start scheduling them for medical treatments that may or may not work. But we haven’t questioned whether we can stop treatment because they’re too terrified to think about the possibility. So we get stuck in this cycle of clinging to life, even if it means I’m spending three days a week going through treatment and not spending time with my family. And in the end, nobody gets out of here alive, right?”

Lukas believes psychedelics have the potential to transform life after a terminal diagnosis by easing the grip of fear. Like many palliative medicine physicians, she pays close attention to the growing body of clinical trials for psychedelic-assisted therapy.

“It’s phenomenal,” she says. “Somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of people have profound experiences that dramatically change their life and their perception of their illness, which is remarkable because nothing else works like this.”

Wanting to know more about the future of psychedelics in end-of-life care, Anne Strainchamps of “To The Best Of Our Knowledge” got in touch with Lukas.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Anne Strainchamps: The FDA has not yet approved psilocybin for medical use. But clinical trials are underway in medical centers around the country. Tell me about yours.

Lou Lukas: I’m doing a trial of a psilocybin protocol for people who have pancreas cancer, which as you know is one of the most lethal of the solid organ cancers. Most people are diagnosed very far along and we can give them a couple of months usually, but not a whole lot longer than that. Some people might live a year, a year and a half. So you can imagine being told this.

AS: It’s a terrifying diagnosis.

LL: It is. And so people who are at our cancer center being treated for their pancreas cancer will be offered admission into this study, which will take them through six to eight hours of preparatory counseling, a day-long dosing session, and then several sessions of integration afterwards.

AS: What is it like to take psilocybin, for someone who has a terminal illness? How do they feel the day after? What’s different?

LL: It isn’t even the day after! When the dosing session is finished, when they come back into consensus reality, they just look at you like — “that was amazing.”

I witnessed one patient say, “All that anxiety I felt? It’s just stories. And I can get a different story. Yeah, I’ve got cancer, but I don’t need to be that worried about it.”

Underneath it all, people report a sense of being in the presence of love. You know, we put up a lot of defenses to get through our world, to keep ourselves physically and emotionally safe. And if we were able to let some of those defenses down, maybe we would have more access to love. And if you have that, then you can really accept a lot of things.

AS: What opens up for patients and their families, when they’re less frightened of the prospect of dying, when that anxiety eases?

LL: Then it becomes possible to think about going out with some joy and some curiosity and really full of life. Like: “What gifts do I need to leave to my family? How do I pass on some of my wisdom?”

We’ve all got a deadline in life.

There are some people who even talk about the ecstatic grief of knowing that this life we’re living is so precious and so sacred. But it’s only when there’s not that much of it left that you really feel the beauty and magnificence of it. So if you can help to convey that to people, if you can say, “Wow, look at this gift we’re sharing. Look at the intimacy we’re able to have now because I don’t have that much more time to hold your hand,” then you can really help people grow from generation to generation.

AS: You must be a very unusual palliative physician, because honestly, I think most would be more like, “Maybe we should add some more morphine.”

LL: I think given the opportunity, most palliative doctors would go into similar territory. I teach residents and fellows, and I tell them, “If you don’t talk to people about this, who will?” Because even if a patient has a trusted spiritual advisor, their pastor may not have any idea how sick they are. And if you don’t initiate those conversations about making meaning out of their life, they’re never going to connect with their pastor in a different way.

Our ability to reclaim some of the shamanic origins of medicine means learning how to bridge this gap. We need more physicians who feel called to edge-walking — one foot in the medical world and one foot in the psycho-spiritual world.

AS: I imagine some of these terminally ill patients must say, “If only I’d had this revelation 30, 40 years ago, I might have lived differently.” It does raise the question — why should people have to wait until they’re dying to have psychedelic therapy?

LL: Well, exactly. I’ve been thinking that it could be used like a sacrament, or rite of passage. Maybe when you come into adulthood, and then perhaps when you get married or have a child, or perhaps every decade, you just touch back down and remember that you’re connected to everything.

Almost like a ritual bath, a mikvah in Judaism — perhaps there’s this time when I take a psychedelic bath, when I think, “I’m going to wash myself in the universe. I’m going to immerse myself in the unconscious mind. I’m going to feel that expanse of consciousness and realize that I’m part of everything.”

And then come back and do the laundry and change the diapers.

Complete Article HERE!

We Need to Talk about Mortuary Makeup

Societal beauty standards follow us to the grave.

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It’s impossible to aestheticize death, but we still try. Shortly before the pandemic reached lockdown level last year, my 101-year-old grandmother died. When my mom proposed that I help her dress the body for the viewing, I obliged despite the fact that I creep out with ease. My grandmother was such a central figure in my life and I wanted a more private opportunity to say goodbye.

The experience fulfilled that expectation, but it also taught me that the process of prepping a body for burial is a vivid reflection of our relationship with societal beauty standards—an interminable dance that continues even after we die.

When we arrived at the funeral home the day before the viewing, the staircase leading us to the room where her body was kept felt like it spanned miles. What if she suddenly reanimates? If I tugged on a limb too hard, would it detach from the rest of her body? Once we got started, my anxieties were assuaged but my curiosity piqued. I knew that mortuary makeup was a common practice, but I didn’t anticipate how thorough the grooming would be; her skin had to look supple, her cheekbones had to look lifted and her complexion had to appear even and, at minimum, rosy-adjacent, given the circumstances.

The most shocking sight, though, was seeing the funeral director stuff my grandmother’s bra. After eight children and 101 years, the jig on perky breasts had long been up. So, what was the reason?

“I don’t know how I feel about stuffing bras, but it’s definitely something that embalmers do,” says L.A.-based funeral director Amber Carvaly. “It’s very commonplace and the idea is that people will look different laying down. But they’ll obviously look different because they’re dead and they’re lying in a casket.”

In a 2018 episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Carvaly gave Kim Kardashian—who is, by many standards, an archetype of the eternal fascination with youth and beauty—a step-by-step on mortuary makeup. To elucidate the idea behind the practice to me, Carvaly compared it to the philosophy behind Kardashian’s controversial Balenciaga Met Gala look. Basically, we each have distinct signatures that we like to be known by while we’re alive and ideally, these become the attributes that we’re remembered by after we’re gone. Which means that it’s never ideal for a dead person to actually look dead.

“Kim’s image and who she is and what she looks like is so iconic that you don’t even have to see her face or an article of clothing. She can just be draped in black and you know exactly who she is. Like that’s her brand and her icon.”

In the funeral industry, this would be likened to a “memory picture”, a term Carvaly introduced me to during our chat. In essence, it refers to the lasting image of a decedent that’s ingrained in the minds of their loved ones. “It’s a memory of who they used to be,” she explains.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to liken our desire to make the dead look life-like to the ongoing obsession with looking younger, or to attribute the latter to a society-wide fear of dying. This is something that can’t be color-corrected, concealed, or glossed over.

“We are obsessed with image as society and as individuals,” Carvaly says. “But this idea is implanted while we’re alive. As women, we’re so obsessed with anti-aging and it sort of emerges from a fear of death.” Carvaly says that this even shows itself in how beauty trends evolve. “They change to keep us looking younger and if you wear a trend that’s from the past, it dates you,” she says.

We want the memory picture to capture our loved ones at their best, so the measures that we go to to bring corpses to a perceived standard are just symptoms of the widespread idea that younger is always better.

“We’re a death-denying society,” Carvaly adds. “We don’t like to talk about it, we don’t like to accept it, we don’t like to look at dead bodies because all of it just reminds us of our own mortality. We do so much of that while we’re alive, so of course it carries into death. We don’t even want to look at old ladies on screen—we only want to see people when they’re young and beautiful.”

But while this is a reflection of Western culture’s image-conscious underbelly, the process itself was therapeutic for me. My grandmother died overnight and I slept through my mom’s calls and texts to come to the hospital. Helping to dress her felt like an atonement for not being there, beckoning back to times when I would paint her nails, help to pick her church hats, or watch her apply baby powder with a glamorous, fluffy powder puff. It’s how I cared for her and how she cared for herself. “I think that from a standpoint of beauty as a ritual and beauty as a way to care for people, it’s something different. It’s grooming as a form of love instead of beautification to suit industry standards,” Carvaly tells me.

When Carvaly’s friend Maria passed away, applying makeup to her corpse was a way of honoring how she liked to be seen; while she was alive she was seldom seen without a red lip. “If someone had been like, ‘Don’t put lipstick on her!’ or, ‘She’s dead. Don’t glam her up,’ she would have haunted us,” Carvaly recalls.

Both my experience and the concept itself are multifaceted: I was comforted by the ritual, but alarmed at the extent to which it was practiced. We beautify the dead mostly with the living in mind: to filter the intensity of seeing a corpse, to create a comforting pre-funeral ritual, and to pacify the most pressing reminders of our own mortality. But our discomfort with aging and death is tampering with how we live, and that’s something that no amount of makeup can mask.

Complete Article HERE!

A ‘death doula’ explains how to transcend your fear of dying so you can truly live in the present

Death doula, Tree Carr, explains what she’s learned as an end-of-life guide and how to overcome fear of death so you can live a life with no regrets

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Death doula Tree Carr’s insight into peoples’ final days means that she’s more in touch with mortality than most. Supporting people on their final journey may sound like a grim task, but for Tree, this calling has taught her lessons on how to truly live. Lessons which she has shared with woman&home…

Death is the great unknown and the idea of having to face up to our own mortality and how we’ll be remembered after death can feel more than daunting. However, by learning to interact with this inevitable experience with a positive and supportive lens—you can stop being scared of it. In doing so, you focus on living a far better life, with no regrets.

The word alone can evoke terror, superstition, grief, feelings of loss of control, and existential dread. The sobering reality of death is often kept swept under the carpet and considered taboo for most conversational circles. 

In our long timeline of humanity, we’ve sought to cheat it; delay it; bargain with it; or transcend it. Its great and elusive mystery has captivated the mystics and has raised the eternal question that science has yet to answer—does consciousness carry on after the body expires? No matter what your ontological or epistemological worldview on death is, it’s safe to say that most people are scared to death of dying.

What is a death doula?

A death doula is an end-of-life guide who holds compassionate space for a person journeying through the psychological, emotional, spiritual, and practical terrains of death and dying. The word doula is from ancient Greek, meaning, ‘a woman who serves’—although the role is far from being gender-specific.

I felt the calling to become a death doula in my early forties after a lifetime of synchronistic events all revolving around death. From a near-death experience of nearly drowning in the Atlantic Ocean at the age of four, through to many serendipitous moments involving being at the right place at the right time when strangers on the street have been close to death.

“You can stop being scared of it. In doing so, you focus on living a far better life, with no regrets.”
— Tree Carr

What I’ve learned as a death doula

In my work as a death doula, the most challenging aspect that I witness a dying person go through is surprisingly not the biological deterioration of the body (there is plenty of palliative care pain control for that). In fact, it is the emotional or psychological loss of the sense of ‘self ‘ that appears to be the most painful.

From what I’ve personally observed, at the end of life many people experience a long, slow, and winding loss of who they knew themselves to be. They are thrown into the existential dark night of the soul asking the big questions: What am I? Who was I? What was this all for?

As a result, this can propel the dying person into depression, grief, isolation, and anxiety. This is where the role of a death doula can be very helpful, traversing alongside a person as they lean into the fears and trepidation of the big D!

Certainly, overcoming the fear of death it’s not a ‘one shot’ remedy most of the time and can be a gradual unfolding that combines a mixture of practices and experiences.

How I help people overcome fear of dying

Person contemplating life

Surprisingly enough, my death doula work isn’t always for people who are actively dying. I have folks getting in touch who aren’t dying at all, but they have anxiety around death. Perhaps they are coping with the loss of a parent or struck with grief from experiencing the death of another person they knew.

I guide my client’s through navigating death phobia, tackling grief illiteracy, bereavement catharsis, and reframing the narrative around the topic and therefore moving into a peaceful acceptance of death.

Part of the journey can involve meditations on death, closure techniques, and emotional integration through a variety of creative processes—letter writing, drawing, conversation, and more.

Here are some simple practices I encourage my clients to engage in each day to help overcome the uncomfortable feelings around death…

Observe the ‘little endings’

One way you can start to journey into your fear around death is to have a daily practice where you bear witness to the ’little deaths’ all around you every single day.

It’s a form of mindfulness with a central focus on the theme of endings. When you meet a friend for coffee and then you both say goodbye and they walk away and leave. This is a little ending. When you lose your mobile phone. This is a little ending when the sun sets every evening. This is a little ending.

Allow yourself to hold awareness for these little endings and be with any emotions rising up. Begin to surrender to the process of not holding onto the little endings but allowing them to release. 

Engage the art of non-attachment, seeing that the only constant, is change. Regular meditation practice is also a good habit because it will help to stabilize a conscious state of equanimity through experiencing endings.

Watch the cycles of nature

A pathway through a dark foggy wood

Another helpful tip is to sit and be with nature, observe and be mindfully present. Being closer to nature connects a person to the reality of impermanence. Observing the shifting and changing of the seasons. The growth, decay and return to Spring Equinox. This forever cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Observe yourself falling asleep

Something else that can help out is sleep. The threshold states of sleep are liminal experiences just as death can be. When one becomes comfortable in these altered sleep states it can help ease the fear of death.

Make space in your bedtime routine for observing this. As you fall asleep every night and you hover on the liminal threshold of the hypnagogic state you can practice and surrender to the idea of your own death. Allowing yourself to relax and surrender to sleep from the cusp of fatigue is a surprisingly easy and transformative technique.

Attend a Death Cafe

Death Cafes are safe spaces to gather and meet to talk with other people about all things death and dying over coffee, tea, and cake. Whether you share your own experiences around losing a loved one or a beloved pet. Or maybe you are navigating your own end-of-life journey, Death Cafes are death-positive, compassionate, non-biased, and non-judgemental events.

In the many Death Cafes that I’ve facilitated worldwide, I see the boundaries of culture, gender, age, race, and religion dissolve as we all come together in solidarity over the one thing we all have in common—the fact that we will all one day die.

Living a life in fear of an inevitability that we all share can prompt or worsen difficult emotions, like anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and conditions like sleep anxiety
and insomnia.

However, by embracing the awareness of this inevitable life process, through positive and supportive ways, can not only help us live a more enriching life—but also help us to live one with no regrets.

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