Scared to Death of Death: Common Fears and Statistics

Is Your Fear of Death Healthy or Unhealthy?

Woman pulling sweater over face
Fearing death is not unusual, but it can sometimes prove unhealthy. Photo © christian.plochacki/Getty Images

The fear of death and dying is quite common, and most people fear death to varying degrees. This article offers statistics and a summary of who fears death, different types of death fears, and the difference between the healthy and unhealthy fear of death.

Who Fears Death?

The fear of death is so common that it has spurred multiple research projects and intrigued everyone from scholars to thanatologists to religious leaders around the world.

Some interesting findings and statistics have emerged from studying the fear of death, such as:

• According to the 2015 "Survey of American Fears" conducted by Chapman University in Orange, California, 21.9 percent of Americans are "afraid" or "very afraid" of dying. It requires noting that this survey includes other responses that involve dying or death but concerning something more specific, such as murder by a stranger (16.0 percent) and murder by someone known (10.9 percent). Interestingly, more Americans (28.4 percent, according to this survey) fear public speaking than death, which prompted comedian Jerry Seinfeld to quip, "This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy."

• Women have generally shown a greater tendency to fear death versus men, possibly because women are more likely to admit to and discuss such fears, and/or because men are more likely to believe in dying for a cause or purpose historically.

• While some researchers will argue that young people fear death more than the elderly, one study conducted among dying people in Taiwan and published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management showed that the fear of death actually did not decrease with increased age. In addition, the same study showed that a patient's fear of death decreased after they were admitted to hospice care, which possibly resulted from the education and holistic emotional/spiritual support patients receive from members of the hospice team, such as a hospice case manager nurse.

Types of Death Fears

It is possible to break down our general fear of death into several specific types of fears, such as:

Fear of Pain and Suffering. Many people fear that when they meet death, they will experience excruciating pain and suffering. This fear is common in many healthy people, as well as in patients dying of cancer or some other terminal illness or disease. (Unfortunately, many people do not realize that palliative care can help alleviate pain and other distressing symptoms.)

Fear of the Unknown. Death remains the ultimate unknown because no one in human history has survived it to tell us what really happens after we take our last breath. It is human nature to want to understand and make sense of the world around us, but death can never be fully understood by anyone living.

Fear of Non-Existence. Many people fear the idea that they will completely cease to exist after death occurs. While you might suspect that this fear is limited to atheists or others without personal spiritual or religious beliefs, the truth is that many people of faith also worry that their belief in an afterlife isn't real after all, or that they did not earn eternal life while alive.

Fear of Eternal Punishment.

Similar to the fear of non-existence above, this belief does not apply only to devout believers of religious or spiritual faith. Many people—regardless of their religious persuasion, and even those with no religious or spiritual beliefs at all—fear that they will be punished for what they did, or did not do, while here on earth.

Fear of Loss of Control. Human nature generally seeks to control the situations we encounter, but death remains something over which we have absolutely no control. This frightens many people, who will attempt to exert some form of control over death by behaving in an extremely careful manner to avoid risks or undergoing rigorous, frequent health checks.

Fear of What Will Become of Our Loved One(s). Another very common death fear focuses on worries about what will happen to those entrusted to our care if we die. Parents, for example, might worry about a newborn or child; family members providing home caregiving to a loved one might fear nobody else can handle their patient's many needs and demands if something happens to them; or someone in the prime of life might feel afraid at the thought of leaving a spouse or partner alone due to death.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fear of Death

In general, the fear of death can actually prove healthy for human beings. When we fear dying, we often act more carefully and take appropriate precautions to minimize risks, such as wearing seat belts or bike helmets. A healthy fear of death can also remind us to make the most of our precious time here on earth and not to take our relationships for granted. Fearing the reality of death might also push us to work harder in order to leave a lasting legacy. George Bernard Shaw perhaps summed it up best: "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live."

On the other hand, an unhealthy fear of death can sometimes prove so severe that it actually interferes with someone's daily life. Known as thanatophobia, this intense, often irrational fear of losing your life can consume your thoughts and affect even the most basic decisions you might make, such as refusing to leave your house just to bring in the mail. If you suspect your fear of death has risen to the level of thanatophobia, then you should seek assistance from a trained mental health professional.

"America's Top Fears 2015," October 13, 2015. Chapman University.

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