Writing Through Emotions: Death – the Ultimate Fear 4

Halloween, All Hallows Eve, Día de los Muertos, Samhain — ritual celebrations of death, the end of harvest, and the transition into the cold, dark winter. The ancient Celts believed the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead to be thin and permeable this time of year, when ghosts roam the earth causing trouble. The Celts built giant bonfires and wore animal skins and heads as costumes to ward off the ghosts. They also left treats on their doorsteps and set places at the table for their deceased loved ones.

The customs of wearing costumes, creating altars honoring the dead, and leaving treats or candy for them are practiced, in one form or another, throughout much of the world. Here in the U.S., our ghosts (and therefore the costumes depicting them) are malicious, evil, and frightening.

Halloween movies are full of zombies, vampires, horrible bloodthirsty creatures that never die. The fear titillates and repels us in equal measure. In fact, based on the many thrill-seeking pastimes we engage in — scary movies, bungee jumping, parachuting, and riding roller coasters — you could say that we like to be scared.

In a 1949 article, “The Enjoyment of Fear,” Alfred Hitchcock wrote:

For every person who seeks fear in the real or personal sense, millions seek it vicariously, in the theater and in the cinema. In darkened auditoriums they identify themselves with fictitious characters who are experiencing fear, and experience, themselves, the same fear sensations (the quickened pulse, the alternately dry and damp palm, etc.), but without paying the price. (Italics mine.)

At the bottom of all this thrill seeking is a primal fear of death, which we all experience to some degree. And each of us responds to this fear differently. Some face it in small ways through the above mentioned movies and activities. Others deny the fear by refusing to think or talk about death, yet find themselves confronted with it when they or someone close to them becomes seriously ill or passes on. (Even the phrase “passes on” is a gentler, more palatable term for death.) Some find comfort in the idea of an afterlife.

Perhaps, in addition to dressing up in costume and handing out candy, this is an excellent time of year to explore our own feelings, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding death.

  1. How do you deal with fear of dying? Close your eyes and imagine that your own death is imminent. Write about any thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions you experience.
  2. What does “to die” mean to you? Does it mean oblivion, a final ending of life? Does it mean some sort of afterlife or rebirth? Freewrite for ten minutes about your perceptions and beliefs. Then freewrite another ten minutes, exploring their opposite. If, for example, you believe that there is no “death” and that consciousness is reincarnated into new bodies, explore the idea of finality, of nothingness. What do you notice as you write?
  3. Which do you think would be worse: your own death or the death of a loved one? Why?
  4. What do rituals and/or celebrations this time of year mean to you if anything? In what ways do you participate in them, and how do they influence your thinking or feeling on the subject of death?
  5. Consider the following quotes:
    • The fear of death follows from the fear of life.  A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. ~Mark Twain
    • We understand death for the first time when he puts his hand upon one whom we love. ~Madame de Stael
    • I knew a man who once said, “death smiles at us all; all a man can do is smile back. ~From the movie Gladiator

      Which quote most resonates with you? Write about what the quote stirs up for you, including images, memories, and emotions.
  6. Write a short fictional story using thoughts, ideas, and discoveries that came from writing in response to the previous prompts.

As we transition through fall to winter, it’s natural to turn inward and to reflect on symbols reflected in nature: waning, death, decay, hibernation, and darkness. Using writing to explore topics we most want to avoid thinking about can be illuminating. I encourage you to try it — see where it leads.

And, if you’re so inclined, share a comment below.


Related Articles:

A Week’s Worth of Journaling Prompts: Vulnerability
A Week’s Worth of Journaling Prompts: Fear of Failure
Día de los Muertos


Image Credit: Doug Wheller


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4 thoughts on “Writing Through Emotions: Death – the Ultimate Fear

  • Linda Sievers

    How close to my heart is this topic.

    This past wekend, our cat of thirteen years went missing. Yesterday, we found him, not alive. The vet said he died of sudden, multiple impact. The vet would not say that it was a car that hit him. But the term “sudden, multiple impact,” suggests to us that he was beaten or kicked to death. He was not a cat who went into the street.

    For a long time, perhaps because I am 65, and I hope going to be around for a while, yet, I find it harder to accept the death of those I love, more than I fear my own death. My death means I’m free, the ultimate freedom, or so I like to believe. But someone else’s death, someone I love, as my innocent cat, I believe is one of the major challenges of being human. Time helps. But letting go of the habits, the mannerisms, the tendernesses of another is an all consuming process of heart mind, body, and soul.

    On a lighter note. “Here’s to Gray Kitty. You were a sweetheart. Thank you for wandering into our lives and for sharing you sweet, innocent goodeness, and love with us. Many loving blessings to you, Big Little Guy.”

    And thank you, Amber, for an opportunity to pay tribute to a sweet animal.


    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Linda, my condolences to you on the loss of your beloved pet. I know how hard that is. And thank you for sharing your painful story of loss and your thoughts about the fear of death. I think many of us feel the same way you do — to lose someone else to death means grieving and always living with that loss, whereas the idea of my own death doesn’t bring a sense of loss, only an ending.

  • Linda Sievers

    Thank you, Amber. I look forward to what others might contribute to this subject. It’s a difficult one that somehow must be grasped at some point in life, or grasped as best we can.

    On a lighter note, this is the first day of NaNoWriMo. I am starting my first day with a rough draft of a book with 4,399 words. Thanks for the tip on NaNo. Only 45,601 words to go.

    Right now, my shoulders are past my earlobes, and at my height, 5’1″, this is a scary condition. I think I need to go ice my neck.


    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Ah, Linda, thanks for the visual (and the laugh). Congratulations on your NaNoWriMo adventure. 50,000 words is only 1,666 words per day… you’re ahead of schedule … reward yourself with a long, hot bath and scented candles. 🙂