Fears of Death

Adolescents, who need to maintain the illusion of invulnerability, usually reject thoughts of death (Kastenbaum, 1959). Like many adults, they tend to see death as something that happens to other people but not to them, or at least not until sometime in the distant future. However, the rapid changes in adolescents' physical structure and functioning may alarm those who have not been properly informed about what to expect and even make them feel as if they are about to die. Adolescents are also more likely to experience fears of death when they have other problems and difficulties. Psychologically healthy adolescents are able to cope with death more effectively than those who have emotional problems. In addition, fear of death tends to be greater among adolescents with lower cognitive abilities and poorer academic achievement than among those of higher abilities and achievement (Wass & Scott, 1978).

Expressed fear of death is more common and more intense in middle age than in either young adulthood or old age (Bengtson, Cuellar, & Ragan, 1977; Gesser, Wong, &Reker, 1987-1988; Kalish & Reynolds, 1981). Fear of death in middle age is precipitated in many cases by the individual's awareness of declining health and appearance, and the knowledge that his or her hopes and dreams have not been fulfilled. The death of one's parents, who previously had served as a kind of psychological barrier between oneself and eternity, can also prompt and intensify the fear of death in middle age. Furthermore, people who are living enjoyable, personally meaningful lives but are now seriously ill may become acutely aware of their own mortality. This awareness is exacerbated by the process of making an inventory of one's assets and liabilities and subjectively reckoning not how many years one has lived but how many one has left.

As people pass middle age, each passing year brings them closer and closer to the end of life. The personal past is seen as being relatively long and the personal future as fairly short. However, rather than showing great fear of death, when compared with the middle-aged, older adults are more apt to accept the fact that they have had their day and that dying in old age is only fair. Even terminally ill older adults tend to be less afraid than their younger contemporaries (Feifel & Jones, 1968). Consequently, older adults are, on the whole, better able to confront the reality of death and cope with their fears concerning it (Kalish, 1985). They spend more time in remembering and reflecting, and do not feel the necessity of planning as far ahead. They are more apt to fear isolation and loneliness rather than pain and sorrow at the prospect of leaving their families and friends. Still, like young and middle-aged adults, many older adults experience some regrets over lost opportunities and would welcome a chance to begin again.

The aforementioned picture is, of course, a general one, and fears of death may vary greatly from person to person in later life. For example, Butler and Lewis (1982) found that 55% of a sample of older adults whom they interviewed had resolved their fears of death in a realistic manner, 30% remained overtly afraid of it, and 15% coped with their fears by means of defensive denial. Older adults who are in poor physical or mental health, or who have a disabled spouse, dependent children, or important goals they expect to attain may be quite afraid of dying. For the most part, however, older adults fear the process of dying more than death itself. Their relatively greater serenity in the face of death is seen in the differences among the responses of groups of younger, middle-aged, and older adults who were asked how they would want to spend the time until they died if they had only 6 months to live. Significantly more old than young or middle-aged adults said that they would spend the time reading, contemplating, praying, or focusing on their inner lives (Kalish & Reynolds, 1981). According to Kalish (1985), the blurring of the boundaries of the ego or the diffusion of the sense of self in older adults provides them with a mechanism for transcending the fear of death and the pain of dying. The presence of family and social supports and having a sense of meaning or purpose in one's life also help in dealing with death.

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