A Discussion of Life, Ageing and the Denial of Death

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

The following discussion is not explanatory of all the psychological problems all of face. Rather, this essay is designed to focus on a major driving force in our lives that we mostly overlook. That is the fear of death.

Case 1:


Several years ago I was startled when an older female patient of mine reported that her married daughter was about to have a baby. Instead of feeling good about this, she said in no uncertain terms, that she had no wish to be a grandmother. Grand motherhood represented growing old, something she wanted, with every fiber in her body, to ward off.

Case 2:

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The parents of a seventeen year old teenager complained that she refused to she refused to study, pass her exams and graduate on time so she could either go to college or work and move out on her own. Ostensibly, they were ready for the next stage of their lives when they could be free of raising children. Yet, the parents constantly predicted that their daughter would never move out because she was a failure. In point of fact, this young women was intelligent and capable. She sensed that her parents wanted her to remain home as their little girl. Her attaining autonomy and assuming an adult role in the world was forcing these parents with the fact that they were ageing. As for this teenager, despite the fact that she stated her wish to become independent of her parents, her behavior belied the fact that she, too, did not want to leave the safety and security of her parents.

Case 3:

A woman is married to an extremely abusive man who, when he becomes enraged, curses her with the cruelest and most hurtful and demeaning words possible. Despite the fact that she felt miserable and depressed, she insisted on staying with this man. The thought of separating from him, left her with the overwhelming fear that she would be alone in the world and would perish. She had gone from living at home with her parents to becoming a married woman. At no time in her life, had she ever provided for herself separate and apart from her abusive parents.

Case 4:

A man and woman have been dating for 15 years. They do not live together but are sexually intimate. She pressures him to marry and he promises to do so at a future but undetermined time. Finally, they set a date for the wedding ceremony. As the date approaches, he breaks off the wedding and the entire relationship. Among the many factors that complicate his life is his inability to take his place in the world as a husband and father. Actually, the same can be said of her as well, or she would not have stayed with him for that many years.

Each of these cases represents among other things, the wish to remain young and put delay ageing and death. The inevitability that we will die is terrifying. As Earnest Becker pointed out in his classic book, “The Denial of Death,” we go about our lives convinced that death will not visit ourselves. It happens to other people, but, not to us. The problem is that we reach those critical points in our lives when the reality of death breaks through that denial and forces us to face the awful truth.

How do we cope with this underlying fear of death? The previous blog, “Better to Try than do Nothing,” based on the Garth Brooks song, “The River,” reminds us of the importance of living fully before the river runs dry. Obviously, the river and it’s flow, represents life. Each individual wards off the fear of death in a variety of ways. Some turn to their religious and spiritual beliefs, somewhat secure in the idea the after life guarantees eternal life. Others select jobs and careers that they believe will enable them to leave their mark on the world for all time to come. In fact, one compelling drive behind the wish to have children is the wish to leave a part of ourselves behind.

Irwin Yalom, MD, psychiatrist, explains that we procrastinate doing things, remain paralyzed at home, refuse to move on to the next stage of life under the delusion that time will move more slowly with a resulting delay of the process of death.

Suddenly, life breaks through these defenses and our coping skills fail, when we suffer the death of a loved one or we experience of a terrible, life threatening trauma. All at once we realize that, if it happened to him or her, it can happen to me. Depression and anxiety sets in because it’s no longer possible to deny death. 

In case 1, the woman is attempting to hold onto her youthfulness by pretending that ageing can be avoided. In effect she states that she does not want to become a grandmother because she does not want to grow old. I have known of grandparents who refuse to visit their grandchildren for that very reason.

In case two, both teenager and parent harbor the same hope that if they can avoid the next stage in life, they do not have to face the fact adulthood, the “empty nest, and the next stage in life.

In case three, a woman will endure terrible abuse so that she can be provided with and not have to become a truly self sufficient adult and face the fact that life ever flows onward. She would rather remain in a childlike state of being with an abusive man that have to face living life alone. Why? She is convinced she will perish if she becomes self sufficient.

Case four really has to do with the fear that marriage is the next step towards growing older. Many people find this difficult to tolerate. Frankly, this is why some individuals who want to have children, delay this decision because parenthood also exemplifies leaving childhood behind. Now, they would have to become then nurturer rather than be nurtured.

The solution to this depressive state of things is to live life to the fullest before the “river runs dry.” Psychotherapy is a good way for those who are stuck in an unhappy stalemate in their lives to learn how to move on with life in ways that are happy and satisfying.

There are many documented case reports of people who barely avoided death, now having a fuller appreciation of life and what has to offer. There are many documented cases of people, faced with the diagnosis of terminal cancer, cramming into their time, doing all the things they ever wanted to accomplish. As the old saying and recent Hollywood movie says, it’s important to make that “bucket list” and carry it out before we “kick that bucket.”

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

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