Existential depression and death anxiety


My copy of Staring at the Sun – Overcoming the Terror of Death just arrived today from Amazon.  I’ve been suffering from waxing and waning episodes of existential depression and death anxiety for quite some time now.   I heard about this book when I was looking for something entirely else.

I’ve always had a strange fascination with death.  Perhaps it started when I visited Auschwitz when I was a girl of 10  – an experience I’ve never forgotten.

My adolescence and young adulthood was filled with thoughts that death would be a peaceful respite from my traumatic life.   I actually thought it would be so comforting to go to sleep and never wake up back then.   Many times my soul felt so very weary and death seemed a comforting embrace.   When I was 18, I did consider taking the package of sleeping pills I bought after I’d “ran away” after a particularly abusive episode at home.   My life was forever altered that night after I had been taken in by the parents of a trusted friend.    I wouldn’t be here writing this today if it weren’t for them.

Why did I want to die then?

Because you start to question the value of your own life when you are told you don’t matter, when you are told you are never good enough, when you are made to feel there is something wrong with you, when you are abused by multiple people in your family and are made to feel you can’t survive without psychological help, when you realize you begin to realize that no one wants you around as I felt growing up.    You begin to think of yourself as nothing more than garbage, a waste of human tissue.  It’s an awful way to live.  You begin to think that death would put and end to that kind of rejection because if your own family can’t love you for who you are, who could?

As I grew older and moved away from the destructive family I had and found friends to show me I had value, I started to see things differently.  I started to value myself and it felt good.

But when I began to start my own family, I began to fear death.   I would lay down my life for my girls in a heartbeat, but I would not want to leave them until they are old enough to take care of themselves.  I began to fear that I will be taken from them too soon.   I would periodically have panic attacks regarding my own death.   Sometimes something in particular would trigger it – like finding out a few people in my life were diagnosed with cancer.  And sometimes nothing in particular would trigger panic attacks.  I’d been sent into the urgent care and the ER on two separate occasions, certain I inherited my grandfather’s heart condition.

I don’t want to die, but  I still have been times when the feelings of failure and weary spirit return and life just becomes incredibly hard to bear.   Having no one in real life to talk to about this makes it incredibly difficult at times.  This isn’t a topic most people feel comfortable talking about.  It’s as if they talk about it, it will happen to them. ” Don’t be ridiculous’, they’d say and want to switch the topic immediately.  It would make them  extremely uncomfortable and they would want to put the thought of it completely out of their mind.

I did get the chance to talk with someone about this once online.  I realized how much of a burden I carried alone when I realized how relieving it was to talk about it with another who understood how much I actually thought about the concept of my own death.

But since I can’t be in contact as much as I’d like, I decided I needed to have something I could refer to whenever I needed it, when the fears of death threatened to consume my peace of mind.  When I read a book review of Staring at the Sun, I knew I had to have a copy for my personal library.

Here is an excerpt from a book review at the blog Sunset’s Light:

Irvin Yalom, M.D. (Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, Stanford University School of Medicine) has authored a dozen books, including the classic textbook Existential Psychotherapy. Yalom has also written the best-selling and widely-translated novel, When Nietzsche Wept (now a movie directed by Pinchas Perry, 2007, 105m, starring Ben Cross). Writing across genres, Yalom maintains a consistent clarity, warmth and compassion. In Staring at the Sun, Yalom presents an intimate memoir and manual for transitioning into death. Combining erudite insight with spell-binding storytelling, Yalom shows how he, his patients and others have transmuted their awareness of death into a vital force for fulfilling and consummating their lives. Yalom demonstrates how — whether believer or atheist — we can fulfill of our lives and leave traces of “immortality” – or “rippling” as he calls it – by how we positively affect others.

~ H. Talat Halman

Assistant Professor, Religion

Central Michigan University

From Chapter 1 – bits that caught my attention

Epicurus was a Greek Philosopher born in 341 B.C.E, shortly after the death of Plato.   Many people thought he advocated sensuous pleasures.  He, in fact, did not.  His primary goal was the attainment of tranquility (ataxaria).  He practiced “medical philosophy” – just as the doctor treats the body, the philosopher must treat the soul.

There was only one proper goal of philosophy in his mind – “to alleviate human misery”.  The primary source of human misery – the omnipresent fear of death.

The vision of death permeates our lives and leaves no pleasure undisturbed.  To alleviate this fear, Epicurus developed several thought experiments.  (I’ll have to find out later what they are)

Death anxiety is the mother of all religions, which, in one way or another, attempt to temper the anguish of our finitude.  God, as formulated transculturally, not only softens the pain of mortality through some vision of everlasting life, but also palliates fearful isolation by offering and external presence, and provides a clear blueprint for living a meaningful life.  But despite the staunchest, most venerable defenses, we can never completely subdue death anxiety.

~ Yalom, p 5.

Though the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.

~Yalom, p. 7

It is the synergy of ideas and human connection that is our most powerful aid in staring down death.

~ Yalom, p. 7

…confronting death allows us, not to open some noisome Pandora’s box, but to reenter life in a richer, more compassionate manner.

~Yalom, p. 9

I’m excited and comforted by this book. The idea of synergy came to me a few times this week when I was enchanted by the ideas of a few introspective and articulate minds. Their ideas inspired me to write a flurry of my own ideas and it was a wonderful feeling. I very much need and appreciate the synergy created when I encounter the insights of others. It’s magical.

And the concept of leaving traces of my immortality is something I’ve thought of before (though I didn’t have a name for what I chose to do).  I’ve always made an effort to reach deep within the hearts of others and make some impact in their lives.   Sometimes I’ve felt I have succeeded in leaving traces in the hearts of others and some of me will live on through my writings.  My daughters will know who I am because I save every entry on this blog, and I am going to more of it in the future specifically for them.

I think for as much as I’ve thought about death over the years, I live as though every day might be my last, because it just might.

This entry was posted in booklists, death, existentialism. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Existential depression and death anxiety

  1. doctorjohnsmith says:

    I’ve read about “rippling” not that long ago. It’s true that, short of a statue, it’s our only chance at immortality. That and the arts, also. I love the idea of leaving a book behind, or an album, a series of photographs, creations that will let whoever encounters them know who I was, at least a little.

    Rippling also goes hand in hand with Dabrowski’s Level IV, the idea of humanism, of helping others, and eventually of that mysterious and almost unreachable Level V, where the individual is sublimated by a constant state of giving, of becoming that which the world ought to be. It’s a beautiful and daunting goal and it’s something I keep in mind every day. I’m hoping it’ll help me weather the storms of future crises….

    And it is true that the synergy of ideas and human connections is incredibly important. It’s the most powerful illusion we have to delude ourselves that we are not ultimately alone.

  2. raisingsmartgirls says:

    I don’t think I’d like to be immortalized as a statue. I much prefer having a drawing made of me by a talented artist. I think that’s my favorite medium. I did have a friend write a poem about me and my eyes once that was lovely. I wish I didn’t lose it.

    I hope that my blog and my writing has served to set down a few ripples. I’d like to think so. I wish it could be more than just in a virtual setting…but this helps some. It helps to give my life meaning…knowing that perhaps I’ve lessened someone’s burden, or given them hope, or restored their faith in human nature (which is devolving as we speak it seems).

    I have felt the same way about wanting to leave some very tangible things behind – I take a lot of photos too. I have saved almost every letter and love letter I’d gotten over the years too – one day my girls will know that me through the eyes of others too. I think they will have quite a few things to remember me by.

    One of my favorite things is reading the letters of famous literary figures. Sometimes that’s more telling about who they are than the words they are famous for.

    Did you read this post yet?


    I hope someone writes lovely things about me when I die.


  3. Mike says:

    I liked your post 🙂 Yalom’s “Starrring at the Sun” is on my short reading list.

    Lately I have been also thinking about death. What is “better”, long battle with death, or a momentary, sudden death? The answer may not be so obvious:


  4. raisingsmartgirls says:

    Mike –

    Thank you.

    I agree, the answer may not be so obvious. I think, because of the tendency I have to over-think things, the momentary sudden death one might be slightly preferable to the long and drawn-out and physically or mentally deteriorating, or physically painful walk to the end.

    But that opinion could change too.

    Thanks for your link.


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