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  • janetgoncalves

Death isn’t contagious but you can fear dying

It’s inevitable whenever you are being introduced to someone new that they innocently ask what you do as part of small talk. I answer that I amongst other things that I am a certified death doula. Dead silence is usually what I am greeted with. For those who do manage to wish to continue the conversation I usually get asked what that entails (in brief we support clients and their families throughout the death and dying process in a non-legal, non-funeral and non-medical scope of practice). If they haven’t walked away and still wish to continue the conversation, I then get comments about how I must find this job depressing to work with the dead and dying.

Society seems to think that any contact with death should be viewed negatively, and some people even imply that it is a contagion to be avoided like COVID 19. I and my fellow death doulas would heartily disagree with this sentiment. Experiencing positive contact with the dying is not a common thing to someone not in this line of work I’ll admit.

Death and illness are completely different things and that may be part of the negative light shed on death. Yes, some illnesses are contagious. Death is not. Some illnesses lead to death. Death is inevitable regardless of how healthy one is currently.

There are 4 common ways to die:

1. Sudden death- 10%

2. Steady decline-20%

3. Shattering decline-40% (complex situations, COPD, chronic heart disease, Emergency room)

4. Slow decline-30% (Dementia, Alzheimer, old age)

People who take the time to plan for their death, who talk about their death plan in advance, and put their wishes in writing to be carried out after their death have a much better time with death. Studies have repeatedly shown this to be true.

I’ll repeat it again. It’s impossible to catch death from a loved one, friend or newspaper report of someone else’s death. You can’t catch death, but you can fear dying. Having some anxiety about death is an entirely normal part of the human condition. However, for some people, thinking about their own death or the process of dying can cause intense anxiety and fear.

In fact, there are actual death disorders. Taphephobia is an irrational fear of the grave, or fear of being put in the grave while still alive, death, tombstones, and cemeteries. The word taphephobia comes from the Greek "taphos” (grave) and "phobos" (fear).

By 1891, Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli said fears of premature burial were so widespread it was time to create an official medical term (taphephobia). Victorians obsessed on death-they invented safety coffins (with bells to ensure they were not buried alive). Victorian girls were provided with doll mourning kits to play with. Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Premature Burial” stirred up the population, but at least got people thinking of their own mortality.

Continuing with other death disorders we come to Necrophobia. Necrophobia is a general fear of dead or dying things, or things associated with death. The word necrophobia comes from the Greek “nekros (corpse) and “phobos” (fear).

Thanatophobia is a form of anxiety characterized by a fear of one’s own death or the process of dying. It is commonly referred to as death anxiety. In the Greek language, the word “Thanatos” (death) and “phobos” (fear).

The experience of death anxiety may differ, depending on individual factors. These include age and sex. Older adults fear the dying process, while younger people more commonly fear death itself. Women were more likely than men to fear the death of loved ones and the consequences of their death. Woody Allen’s quote, “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”, tends to sum up many people’s anxiety towards death and dying.

Death doulas can help lessen death anxiety through many ways. We can play with the card decks The Death Deck and Go Wish or play Anxiety Jenga. Why not join a Death Café online or in person (participation is optional). (I offer them every month online, on the first Monday). We can go through a confidential Death Anxiety questionnaire with you and discuss the points raised. Many of us, including me, offer free consultations in person, or by Zoom or phone calls. Check out my website ( Or perhaps the next time you meet a death doula in person, you’ll be brave enough to transform the small talk into a real conversation.

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