What’s Driving Your Physical Distancing: Death Denial or Death Phobia?

by | May 26, 2020

In the realm of end-of-life education, two terms come up very often: death denial and fear of death. We talk about fear of death and death denial as kind of the same thing and we use the terms interchangeably. But are they really? I’m wondering if the varying ways that people think about and respond to the coronavirus pandemic, shed some light on the differences between the two terms.

When I googled the phrase “death denial versus fear of death” (and a bunch of variations) I got, “no results were found.” Instead the two terms are lumped together as if they’re synonymous. But I’m starting to see it differently.

It’s been fascinating to watch and read about how community members respond differently to government advice, guidelines or regulations around physical distancing. People’s behaviours fall on all points along the continuum between total compliance and non compliance. Might it be that one of the factors guiding our actions is our attitude and beliefs about death?

Death denial and non compliance

It seems to me that if I can’t imagine death ever happening to me (and to people I care about) then maybe I would be less concerned about physical distancing. This may seem more obvious in younger people who are less susceptible to the virus. But I think there are folks of all ages who—consciously or unconsciously—believe that “it” (aka death) will never happen to them. Is this belief is guiding their behavior? Are the non compliers actually a group of death deniers?

Does fear of death make us comply?

On the other hand, I’m afraid! I don’t want to die anytime soon, mostly because I have a daughter for whom my death would be traumatic. I think my fear of infection for myself and others makes me take all the precautions very seriously. Are the physical-distancing compliers more death phobic than the non compliers?

While there are a host of factors that influence people’s behavioural patterns, I wonder if there is something to this proposition about death denial versus fear of death as a guiding force. 

What about you?

How do you distinguish between death denial and the fear of death?

Has either death denial or the fear of death been guiding your actions with respect to physical distancing?

COVID-19 is illuminating the difference between death denial and death phobia.
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  • Fear and denial may, of course be related; one can feed the other (denial because of underlying fear, for instance). There are also different kinds of fear – rational (hot stove, traffic) or irrational (spiders). Accepting one’s mortality can co-exist with one’s desire to stay alive (long enough to see one’s grandchildren graduate, get married, etc.). I recently learned a new “word” – complexicated; this would fit here very well. The relationship between fear and denial (of death) is certainly complexicated.

    • So true, Rudy, about acceptance of mortality coexisting with our desire to say alive. And I love the new word! Thanks for chiming in.

  • Maybe for some it’s neither of these. Maybe they simply accept that death is inevitable at some point, and will occur eventually, in some way. These ones may choose to simply keep living their “full” life, without restriction. Being more focused on living than afraid of what may or may not contribute to their death. Some might consider this reckless. Some might consider this courageous.

    • Thanks Karen, that is also an interesting perspective.

    • Karen, I have contemplated this too, weighing the courageous/reckless thoughts. Where I get stuck is how my desire to live courageously (mask free, close to people) effects others.

  • I have a genuine curiosity about and acceptance of the possibility of death. I neither deny nor fear it but rather realize life is sacred and that death is inevitable. I take reasonable precautions, but paranoia will destroy ya, so I do not go into fear mode. This pandemic is mostly media driven which is dependant on driving fear and creating separation, with that in mind I take care not to be close to the elderly nor the immune compromised and I live my life.

  • I am very much aware of my mortality and others and so take precautions seriously. I agree that deniers simply aren’t in touch with their own mortality but I’m still confounded by the selfishness of those who flout the measures out in place to protect themselves and others. And then there are the nihilists…

  • I don’t know that I fear death, as much as I fear leaving behind those for whom I am responsible (i.e., my cats, my horse, my bereaved clients at the Hospice where I work in NYC etc.). I do fear getting sick and not feeling well enough to care for myself and my animals. I also do not want to be responsible for unknowingly infecting others. I am content to stay at home and am grateful to be able to still work from home. I do not want to contribute to the continuation of the pain and suffering I have witnessed over the past several months, when our NYC Hospice began accepting COVID-19 patients in March.

    • Thanks Rosanne, I too am driven by my desire to minimize pain and suffering for others. I’ve been following the news in New York, as it’s a place I used to call home, and still have good friends there. It truly is hard to witness.

  • Great inquiry to make Reena and Michelle, and woven in the warp and weft of this conversation is the silken thread of healthy healthy respect for life? Both regard for ourselves and the feelings, wishes, rights and traditions of others. Respect – meaning the willingness to look again – how might our actions contribute to the life – and or death of another being? Thank you for this invitation to explore more deeply unconscious cliches and words that allow us to label something, and move away quickly without feeling impact or regard.

    • Thanks Penny for bringing to light the consideration of the way our actions impact others. And you are welcome! We aim to stimulate conversations, thinking and feeling. So glad to journey with you.

  • I have an extreme death phobia. I want to stay inside at all times now because this pandemic has increased my fears a lot.

    • Hey Kristy, It’s often in times of crisis that we come to see who we are and what concerns us. I hope you have what you need to support yourself in this time.

  • I am not afraid of death; it will come when it is my time. But my germ-phobic daughter is beyond the pale with Covid-19 and she is getting worse. She won’t hug me or kiss me; which makes me sad.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective Beverly. It can be so very hard to hold in our hearts our respect for the individual choices and values of those we love particularly when we are impact in ways that hurt. I wish you strength as you move through this time and hope that the gift of loving touch can be received from other sources.

  • I am reminded of a Grade Nine assignment. The teacher asked us to write a short personal essay with the title, “Fear Life?” If we think of death and dying as being part of life (instead of the opposite of life) then how is fear of death related to fear of life itself? Fear of taking risks, of being vulnerable, of embracing, of change, of uncertainties?

    • Yes, yes, yes! What a powerful question Rudi – and what a great teacher! This reminds me of the “What’s love got to do with it?” post Reena wrote a while back which references “All About Love”, by bell hooks. As always, thanks for sharing.

  • In my mind these two terms are not interchangeable. I think the death denial ‘it won’t happen to me’ drives much of the non-compliance for all ages, for many reasons. The fear of my own death is not so much of the reason for my own compliance but more the fear of infecting others.

    • Thank you for your comments Paula. We know this concern for our individual and shared well-being is what drives many of us. At the same time, we chose to present our thoughts in this short article in this dichotomous approach to generate conversation and shed light on the often unconscious, almost always shoved in the closet, yet very powerful influence of our beliefs and attitudes about death and dying.

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