The fear of the “process of dying”

by Kelvin H. Chin, Executive Director, Overcoming the Fear of Death Foundation

First of all, just to be clear, the fear of the PROCESS of dying is not the same as the fear of death. It is a common fear, and is closely related, but it is not the actual fear of death itself.

As I often say, it is important for us to be clear about "what our fears are of." Because many of us go through life confusing and conflating our fears, even making ourselves fearful of things we are not afraid of by not thinking clearly about these issues.

For example, someone might go to visit a National Park and when he looks over the edge of a cliff down into a valley almost one mile below, he becomes understandably terrified, and concludes from this that he is afraid of going to national parks. So at all costs, for his entire life he avoids going to all national parks. He's not afraid of national parks! He's afraid of going near the Grand Canyon. This is an obvious example perhaps, but we do this analogously all the time in our lives.

We even think that just because we don't like something, or maybe that we don't want "that something" to happen, that means we're afraid of it. Maybe we don't want our bodies to start unraveling as we approach our latter days – we just really dislike the thought of it – and we think, "I must be afraid of dying." No, that is not the fear of dying. Just because you don't like what might happen to you physically before you die is different from being afraid of it. Similarly, just because you don't like your ex-husband does not mean you're afraid of him.

The result is that we end up using up a lot of extra energy in being afraid of things that we actually are not really afraid of, or misconstruing our dislikes for fears. So by clarifying our thinking, not only will we use up and waste less energy on being afraid of things that we're not even afraid of, but we will also be able to more clearly address the fears that we are afraid of and reduce and possibly eliminate them.

So, having identified our fear as the fear of "the process of dying," let's discuss how to reduce and possibly eliminate it.

By the way, this fear can also be described as "the fear of pain and suffering" before one dies. And that pain and suffering could be physical, emotional, or both.

I will discuss possible solutions both from an understanding and experiential standpoint, as well as from a practical tips standpoint.

Acknowledging the Difference Between Body and Mind

We all have physical bodies. But we also have mental and emotional experience. Some people believe that mental experience derives from the physical brain, and others believe that it comes from the mind (or consciousness, self-awareness, or soul).

Regardless of where you think mental experience comes from, I think we can all agree that it is different from physical experience. And I think it is actually that difference which will help us reduce or eliminate the fear of the process of dying.

The "Conscious" Model

This is a simple but ingenious model that a good friend of mine who is now a philosophy professor, Charlie Donahue, came up with in 1970 when we began teaching meditation. He said all experience can be captured by the phrase "conscious of xyz." The idea is that most people identify themselves with the xyz's of life, the concrete, easily definable, very specific "objects of experience." The "physical" experience of life.

For example, if you go to a party or a reception where you don't know anyone, and someone you meet says, "Tell me about yourself," what do you usually say? I'm guessing that your answer goes something like this, "Well, I'm a doctor (lawyer, student, etc.), and I live in (fill in the blank)." Then the conversation typically goes to specifics like sports teams, where you went to school, social groups, cars you drive, and maybe even how much money you make. Because this is how many of us define ourselves. By our things. Stuff we can point to. Stuff we can touch. Material stuff.

But is that all of who we are?

Charlie would point out that we've ignored the left side of the equation, the "conscious of" side. Don't we need that part of the equation to even have experience in the first place, to even be able to appreciate the objects of experience? I'd say Yes.

And in my terminology, I would call that side the mind, my mind. I need to have a conscious mind to experience. The "mental" experience.

So again, it does not matter where we think or believe that mental experience comes from. We all have mental experience that is separate from our physical experience. As my friend Charlie would often say, "We are 'conscious of' xyz, but we are not the xyz's – that is not the totality of our experience."

And my experience over the past 30 years working with people on death and dying issues, is that the more a person is identified with their physical experience at the exclusion of their mental experience, in other words the more they identify with the xyz's of the above model in defining themselves, the more likely they are to experience greater pain and suffering when their body begins to deteriorate and die. I think that happens because they have temporarily forgotten how powerful their mind can be in choosing what it finds more important to experience at any given moment. I will get into that in greater detail later in this essay.

Now, I want to be very clear about something here. The key words in the above sentence are "at the exclusion of their mental experience" – so, physical experience of the xyz's in life is not "bad" – it is an integral, important part of life. However, it is not ALL of life. It is not what we should "completely identify" ourselves with. That is the point.

By recognizing and exercising our minds as powerful instruments of choice throughout our life, as experienced as distinct from our physical bodies, we set ourselves up for a much more independent, a much more self-controlled existence. And that of course applies immediately, during our entire life, and including at least up to our death.

Therefore, understanding that our mental experience is distinct from our physical experience creates a greater likelihood that we can reduce and eliminate our fear of the process of dying, and the pain and suffering associated with it.

Priorities and Choices – "Real-life" Examples...

If you think back to your childhood, you did this all the time. How many times did you go out and play with your friends and skin your knee in the playground, hurt your finger, cut your face on a tree branch that snapped back at you unexpectedly in the woods? We've all had this happen to us countless times when we were kids. And most of the time we just continued to play. Why? Because it was more important to us to continue having fun with our friends even though our physical body had been hurt. The mental experience trumped the physical pain and discomfort.

Look at sports. At all levels – whether it be peewee league, collegiate, or professional sports – we see examples of athletes "playing through pain." That's even an expression widely accepted in sports commentary. And often this is serious pain from serious injuries – dislocated shoulders, broken ribs, never mind the ubiquitous sprained ankle, or black-eye. Why? Because of our desire to fulfill our obligation as a teammate, to win the game, or perhaps to meet our personal goal of winning a 6th Olympic gold medal. We have decided, made the choice, that our mental experience will override our physical pain.

How about the death of a loved one? So often we hear stories, and maybe have directly experienced ourselves, where a loved one is dying, and all of the family members have been summoned to the bedside. But some of them are at great distance and take longer to arrive. Yet, the dying person manages to hold on, to maintain enough lifeforce in his or her physical body until the last family member or close friend arrives. How does that happen, time after time? I think that, even through great physical pain and discomfort, that person decides mentally to hold on, and in that instance the power of their mental experience – their choice to hold on – supersedes their physical inevitability. It's simply more important to them to hold on until the last family member or friend arrives, before letting go, before succumbing to the physical pain they may be enduring.

So what's the point?

These are but a few examples of very common occurrences, that illustrate to us the power of our mind to overcome physical pain based on what we consider more important at that time. And, this becomes easier for us to do as we increasingly look at ourselves in a more balanced way – not just from the xyz side, but also from the left side of the above "Conscious of xyz" equation, the mental viewpoint.

Practical Tip

In addition to increasing the clarity of our thinking and expanding our understanding about death and dying to help mitigate this fear of the process of dying, I also suggest that we take some practical action steps.

We should think about "what is important to us." And we should do this long before we get close to our death.

There are, for example, available online many different workbooks and other tools to help you focus on creating your "Values History." They help you think through and prioritize your thoughts and attitudes about life, healthcare, and other relevant issues.

For example, right now, while you are healthy, vibrant and young, your Must Do/Must Have list may include things like snowboarding, helicopter skiing, hiking up a very tall mountain. But as your physical body wears down, other items you have written will start to rise to the top of the list of priorities. And what becomes most important to you then is not so much the climbing of Mount Everest, but instead the warmth and presence of your closest friends and family. And maybe as your days begin to wane even further, what rises highest on your Values list becomes things like your eyesight, your sense of taste, your ability to articulate.

Consider doing this Values History as part of "Knowing Oneself." In the language I've used in my lectures and other essays, consider this another way for you to overcome your fear of death through virtue. That is, another way for you to "turn within" and get to know yourself a little bit better, in that sense increasing your self-knowledge through that "ancient Greek sense of virtue."

Do it now. Don't wait til you're preparing to die. Live your life more fully and happily with greater meaning this way.

Balance, Values and Choice

So, to sum up – the fear of the "Process of Dying" is like being really fearful of our BMW getting high miles and in a few fender benders and having some internal mechanical problems – but it's still running fine. We can choose to be really afraid of that happening, or we can get our minds around the idea that we're more than our BMWs, we're more than our bodies, that we're also people with minds – thoughts, emotions, values, and the ability to have choice. And the courage to take steps to make these choices, to figure out what our priorities are, what our values are. And to not be afraid to share them with others – even at receptions and parties where we don't know anybody. Because sharing in that way is to truly share more of who we really are inside.

Again, it's a step. And I'm not saying not to take care of our bodies (or our BMWs or Chevies). All I'm saying is – that's not the totality of "who we are." We're both physical and mental. So we need to balance our self-perception. That's all. Incrementally. And by doing so, it will help reduce our fear of the "Process of Dying."


Kelvin H. Chin is a Meditation Teacher, Life After Life Expert, and Author of “Overcoming the Fear of Death.” He learned to meditate at age 19, and has been teaching Turning Within and coaching others in their self-growth for 40 years. He helps people understand their life challenges through their individual belief systems, and helps them find their own solutions. His past life memories reach back many centuries, and he accesses those memories in his teaching and his coaching in the same way all coaches draw on their own available experiences for perspective and effective analogies. He can be reached at or