Death is an inevitable process that everyone must go through at some point; there is no avoiding it. It is natural to have a fear of death and to feel anxiety about either oneself or a loved one dying. As older adults approach it, they can easily experience anxiety, a reduced sense of safety, and even strong fear. There is a different range of death anxieties. For example, there is the universal feeling that most people feel. But in more severe cases, people may have thanatophobia, which can be defined as “fear of death or the dying process (death anxiety)” at a more constant level. But what exactly are they afraid of?

What are the common fears for those who have death anxiety?

  • Fear of the dying process
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of leaving loved ones behind
  • Fear of other’s reactions
  • Fear of isolation
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear that life has been meaningless

Are there any symptoms of having this fear?

People who have thanatophobia may show mental or even physical symptoms when they start to feel an intense feeling of anxiety, typically when one is focusing on death (particularly their own or a loved one’s).

The most common symptoms include:

  • more frequent panic attacks
  • dizziness
  • sweating
  • heart palpitations/irregular heartbeat
  • nausea
  • stomach pain
  • sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures

In more severe cases, signs/symptoms may include:

  • avoidance of family and friends for long periods of time
  • anger
  • agitation
  • guilt
  • persistent worry

It is important to note that these symptoms may not be present all the time.

Has the recent Covid-19 pandemic had an impact on death anxiety/fear?

It has been reported that there has been an increasing number of older adults experiencing death anxiety due to the pandemic, with one study stating that 37% have suffered from depression and anxiety due to the pandemic. If one is hospitalized, this can become much more serious and even dire. This is likely due to the individual facing not only death anxiety but having lower physical strength and the lower ability to accustom to an unfamiliar environment as well.

As written in an academic study published in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, it is important to “educate patients with COVID-19 how to deal with death anxiety… to relieve psychological stress and improve the mental health of the patients.” With everything going on in our world right now, it is essential that we take care of our older adults who may be struggling with the thought of death right now.

What should I do as a caretaker or loved one?

Fear of death or death anxiety is perfectly normal; it is natural to feel weary of the unknown. If you are a loved one or caretaker of someone who is nearing death, there are tips that could help you with your last interactions with them. This list was created by Aging Care:

1. Don’t make them talk about their condition; it’s ok to talk about general news but don’t make them go into details if they don’t want to.

2. Listen with an open mind and heart; when your loved one is ready to talk to you, be ready to listen. They may not want advice but rather someone to talk to that won’t fall apart when talking about their fears and concerns.

3. If your loved one is harboring fears about the dying process, don’t just ignore them. Do what you can to alleviate those worries and be comforting.

4. Help them maintain their dignity rather than hover and treat them as if they no longer have any control of their life and the choices they make once they receive a diagnosis. Try to keep their life as normal as you can for as long as you can.

5. Reassure them that their life mattered. When someone is facing the end of life, they might doubt whether they had any purpose or not; make sure your loved one understands that you care for them.

6. Create a peaceful atmosphere. Some people would rather stay home than stay at a hospital if they know they are reaching the end of life. Others would like to remain in a healthcare facility; if this is the case, try to do everything you can to make the room feel like home.