Virginia Ironside: Dilemmas

Tuesday 15 March 2011 01:00

Dear Virginia, Can you help? I'm 25 and I'm terrified of death. I think it started when my younger brother was killed in a motorbike accident three years ago. I got over it, but have been left with this fear. With others I can appear quite normal, but when I'm on my own I find myself obsessing about dying. Sometimes I can't sleep because I'm frightened I'll die in the night. I know that sounds silly. My parents say they're not scared of death, so why should I be? How can I ever get over this?

Yours sincerely, Anita

I have to say your parents don't sound the most sympathetic of people. It's pretty self-centred to say that just because you're not frightened of something, no one else should be. I find quite a few people have those blind spots. "I'm not frightened of spiders," they say. "Why are you?" It's as if their own emotional responses are the social benchmark and anyone who dares experience anything different is irrational and weird.

But it does sound as if this fear is actually a little more than the usual anxiety most people feel at the prospect of death. Even if we can cope with death itself, it's the idea that the hereafter might be rather creepy that worries most of us. Do we come back? Do we go to Heaven or Hell? Do we turn into a general nothingness? It's just the sort of anxiety that can hit everyone at three in the morning, a special time that has been designated for us, as far as I can see, to panic to our utmost about anything that is on our minds.

You say you've got over your brother's death. I'm sure part of you has, (insofar as anyone can "get over" a death like this) but I wonder if there's a subconscious part that is still grieving and this fear you have is your inner self trying desperately to remind you that you haven't quite laid him to rest. Not that you will ever completely lay him to rest, of course, but perhaps there's more to be examined about how his death has affected you. I'm sure you'd find that seeing a trained bereavement counsellor from Cruse would be a great help. Anyway, it certainly couldn't do you any harm. So do try that first.

Could it be that you are worrying about what's happened to him? Where is he now? Is your preoccupation with death actually because a part of you wants to join him, and it's that longing that frightens you? Next step would be to treat this fear as a phobia. Okay, it started off, perhaps, as a perfectly normal fear, particularly after your brother died, but your brain has perhaps got stuck in a groove, like an old record. A cognitive behavioural therapist could help jog the needle out of the groove, and also explain to you how you could do your own jogging when you get stuck on this particular terror.

I doubt if it will ever go away completely – it would be most odd if you weren't always just a tiny bit frightened or at least wary of death – but at least you could perhaps lessen its impact and stop it having what is clearly a devastating effect on your life.

You're still grieving

My heart goes out to you, having lost your brother so young. It's understandable that you have fears about dying – none of us expects death to come at such a young age. This aspect must be part of your parents' grief, and I think their apparent lack of sympathy with the way you feel must stem from their own efforts to be brave and recover from their loss.

I think you must know deep down that your fears are irrational. You are extremely unlikely to die young like him. But irrational fears are strong and debilitating, and rarely dismissed through logic.

You say you've "got over" your brother's death, but does that simply mean you have put a brave face on it, and perhaps not fully dealt with it? Perhaps you need help to be able to really let him go, so that you can embrace and get on with your own continuing life. I do think you need to talk to someone who will take the time to listen and reassure you – perhaps a friend your own age. Or you could try speaking to a bereavement counsellor, which is free if you go to the charity Cruse. Good luck.

Shirley Taylor

Maidenhead, Berkshire

Healing takes time

I am so sorry. My brother died unexpectedly in his early 20s and, 30 years later, I can remember the turmoil and pain clearly. I think most people, especially when younger, live their lives in the unconscious assumption that "it can't happen to me". You have discovered that "it" can, and that protective layer has been stripped from you. This takes a very long time to heal and you have nowhere near "got over it". However, you will recover, but by allowing this terrible experience to become part of your being, so that your brothers' life and death become part of who you are, rather than leaving him behind. You will also be able to live your life in the knowledge that we are all fragile, and that can be very liberating and strengthening.

Fear of death is common to all humanity and you may never be completely free of it, but you will be able to recognise it as a useful part of your make-up and remember your brother with love and regret rather than the bitter fear and pain that you feel now.

Margaret Thompson

Chessington, Surrey

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My daughter is just 10 and she's very sensitive and bright. My ex-husband wants her to go to the local comprehensive next year. The school is fine, but it's a bit rough, and I just don't feel it's right for her. My parents would pay for her to go to private school, where I think she could really fly. I desperately want this for her – but he's adamant she should go into the state system (he went to a comprehensive himself) and says I should have more faith. I just don't know how to solve this.

Yours sincerely, Vanessa

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