How Can We Overcome Our Fear Of Death? The Approach of The Psychotherapist Yalom. (Part 1) written by Dr Linda Berman.


Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die.

Irvin D. Yalom, Staring at the Sun.

This post is based around the ideas of Yalom and represents Part 1 of an introductory exploration of his excellent book, Staring at the Sun.

What was it that  inspired me to choose this topic for this post, at this time?

Having reached 70, I have experienced a greater sense of my own mortality. Increasingly, I have seen some friends become ill. Then, in 2018, my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Fortunately, his cancer was contained, but radiotherapy affected him badly. I witnessed my previously strong and healthy partner suffering and struggling, emotionally and physically,  with painful and distressing symptoms.

Inevitably, it altered the balance of our relationship; we have always shared tasks and suddenly I was in the role of carer, albeit temporarily, in an intense and new way.

Whilst life has now thankfully returned to its previous pattern, what happened in 2018 has meant things will never be the same.

We are changed; a little older, a little wiser, sadder, more reflective and also grateful and appreciative of the fact that we have got through a difficult experience together…… and that we are both still here.

Existence itself feels somehow more miraculous and more beautiful.


Yalom has described this as an ‘awakening experience,’ (‘a confrontation with death that enriches life,’) one in which a person’s mortality comes sharply into focus.

Other such experiences, besides illness, may be divorce, loss, trauma, ageing, children leaving home, job loss or retirement.

Alongside this, for us, now,  the awareness of our mortality looms larger.

There is one who remembers the way to your door: Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.

T S Eliot


Thus we both returned to Yalom’s book with renewed interest.



How Can Reading This Book Help?

As in all his writ­ings, hope lies in authen­tic liv­ing and lov­ing, mean­ing, altru­ism, deep con­nec­tions, and a life­time of immer­sion in art, music, lit­er­a­ture, and nature. A keen appre­ci­a­tion of the blessed­ness of every­day life comes from death aware­ness. Although painful and fright­en­ing, Yalom main­tains that death aware­ness, and even peri­od­ic waves of death anx­i­ety, if prompt­ing self- reflec­tion and change, can add immea­sur­ably to the qual­i­ty of one’s life.


Yalom is an existential psychotherapist; he believes that at the root of many of the problems that patients bring to therapy lies the fear of death.
This fear may be well hidden behind other symptoms, but it is nevertheless there. Therapy may involve looking beyond the presenting symptoms to the underlying fears of ageing and death, which may often never have been confronted.


Man cannot possess anything as long as he fears death. But to him who does not fear it, everything belongs. If there was no suffering, man would not know his limits, would not know himself.

Such fears are inevitable in us all; what is important is how we manage our knowledge of this universal, inescapable destiny.

Yalom’s Theories About Treating Fear of Death in Psychotherapy.

Yalom emphasises the importance of  finding meaning in our lives, living and relating authentically and being conscious of ourselves and others around us.
‘….the more unloved your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.’
Many thinkers, philosophers and writers, across time and across cultures, have come to similar conclusions. A fulfilling life definitely helps to accept and manage the fear of death.
“I used to think that eighty was a very old age. Now I am ninety, I do not think this any more. As long as you are able to admire and to love, you are young.”
-Pablo Casals.
“If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
Clive James
The poet Mary Oliver neatly expresses Yalom’s point in “When Death Comes.’
Here is an extract:

When Death Comes.


When it’s over, I want to say; all my life
I was a bride married to amazement,
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Yalom has many further ways helping others to cope with the fear of death, several based on the views of the philosopher Epicurus.

Read more about these next week…….







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