Facing Your 4 Most Common Fears of Death

Apropos to solar eclipse mania comes a quote from a 17th century French nobleman: “Neither the sun, nor death, can be looked at steadily.” Four hundred years later, his words still hold. With that in mind, this week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen takes a safety-standards-approved look at 4 worries about the end of the road.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
August 25, 2017
Episode #167

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Last week we tackled two questions about the physical aspects of death: Does it hurt? And what will my final moments be like? This week, we’ll continue on with 4 psychological questions about death. I know, I know, this is not exactly cocktail party conversation, but never talking about our deepest fears only makes them grow bigger. So big thanks to listener Marc in North Carolina for starting this conversation.

Fear #1: I’ll die with regretsfear of death

This is certainly a legit fear—pretty much everyone regrets something, though not necessarily a past action. Indeed, two researchers from Cornell University found that our greatest regrets come less from the things we did and more from what we let slip through our fingers. As they put it, “actions produce greater regret in the short-term, whereas inactions generate more regret in the long run.” Why do we more often regret the road not taken?

The reason may be simple: mistaken actions can often be corrected--you can ask for forgiveness, make amends, or try again. But missed opportunities—whether it’s Decca Records not signing the Beatles or you wondering what might have happened if you had taken that job in Paris or asked out your college crush—don’t usually come around again.

Which brings us to: what to do? The usual argument against regret is that it’s unproductive: don’t cry over spilt milk, let it go, it is what it is.

But you can also look at regret as an opportunity. In recognizing and regretting our mistakes, we inherently grow and recalibrate. Regret is a lesson learned; it can propel you to make different, better choices in the future. It can reaffirm your personal standards and values. In other words, regret is shorthand for live and learn.

To take things further, we can share that growth and learning with those we love. So instead of focusing on past regrets, focus on the future, both yours and the future of those you love. What can you do to make their future better and brighter? Learn from your regrets and pass down the wisdom you’ve earned.

Fear #2: I’ll die without repairing broken relationships

Long estrangement, unresolved conflict, and ongoing drama are all like an infestation of termites: it eats away at your foundation and makes everything shakier.

To borrow from Smokey the Bear, only you can make amends. When you’re asking for forgiveness, two things are vital to making it real and making it stick. First is acceptance of responsibility. Take full ownership of whatever happened. Second, actively try to repair the relationship. Whether through words or actions, show that you’re sorry and that you care.

Making peace and asking forgiveness is really hard. One way to motivate yourself is to make relationship repair part of your bucket list. In addition to skydiving or visiting the Great Wall, aim to make amends with people you have wronged and make peace with those who have wronged you. It takes more courage than bungee jumping, but the potential rewards are far greater than any adrenaline rush.


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