September 14, 2020:
Many people, therapists included, are uncomfortable talking about death. Our awareness of our physical death affects every aspect of our lives, and in existential philosophy and psychology, it’s the foundation of anxiety and depression. Existentialists note that we need to integrate death into our psyche in order live more authentically, understand ourselves as individuals and members of a group, and create meaning.
In the book Denial of Death, Ernest Becker writes that each of us is working on our immortality project. This is linked to Otto Rank’s ideas of separation and connection as part of our life-death awareness and experience. Our immortality project is what we develop so that we feel our lives have meaning and purpose, allowing us to recognize and transcend physical limitations (confronting mortality) and become eternal (legacy).
In working with cancer patients, Irv Yalom noted in gaining mortality salience they reprioritized their values and became more in touch with the beauty in their lives. Engaging with our thoughts and feelings about death deflates the importance of what we perceive as obligations or a prescribed life trajectory. Confronting death shows us what’s truly important and removes the (often self-imposed) barriers to living a life in line with our values.
One of my favorite existential examinations of death anxiety is Albert Camus’ The Plague. The sickness winding through a tiny town can be viewed as a physical illness, an ideology, or a denial of death. Camus sees life’s frailty and absurdity as something to embrace and to use to cultivate calmness and connection.
If you’re curious about more existential ideas on death, check out other contributions from Rollo May, Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, Irv Yalom, Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Paul T.P. Wong.