American psychotherapist Irvin Yalom draws on existential philosophy as the basis for his therapy, working around the principle that humans face four key concerns: death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. All four themes interrelate, but I want to touch on just one for now. Death. Death and the idea that we all have death anxiety; whether that be a fear of non-existence, the dying process itself or our beliefs around what happens when we are dead.
In his book Staring at the Sun, Yalom suggests that anxiety likes to attach itself to something but that ultimately all of our anxieties trace back to a fundamental anxiety around our impending non-existence. If we consider anxiety as the fear that something bad is going to happen (which, of course has a vast range of applications for different people), and our (threat) response to that, it does indeed seem plausible that the paradox generated by our instinct to survive and conscious awareness that we are mortal, will cause some anxiety. The attachment of our anxiety to issues other than our mortality can be contextualised through different modalities Perhaps you take a psychodynamic approach and see the anxiety cause by the conflict between the id (instinct to survive) and the superego (medical approach to health, religious beliefs or cultural taboos around death and dying) as being displaced onto objects through phobias? Or perhaps you view it through a lens of choice and control; if death is outside our control, what might we have more chance of controlling (social situations, how others perceive us, not getting ill, OCD behaviours) and how does it feel not to have control? How could this idea fit with your model of therapy?
As with many anxieties, understanding the thing we are scared of and where it comes from can ease the anxiety and give a wider perspective for navigating barriers that can seem insurmountable. A great place to begin talking about death and dying outside of therapy, is a Death Café*. Originally developed by Jon Underwood, the Death Café model is an informal, relaxed space for people to get together to talk about death and dying. It is not a bereavement support group, nor is it counselling. It is a non-directed space for people who are going to die (that’s me and that’s you and everyone we know) to get together to talk about an often taboo subject. When we talk about death and dying it can us lead more fulfilling lives.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”– Mary Oliver, The Summer Day
In the therapy room, there are many ways we can use creativity to explore death and dying. If we take Irvin Yalom’s analogy of “staring at the sun” it can feel too painful, or even be impossible to directly look at or fully comprehend our own mortality. Viewing and exploring thoughts, feelings and meaning associated with death through a creative medium can be a way of reducing the glare and perhaps even providing opportunity for greater insight. We can do this by using the liminal space between therapist and client to project onto, or by using metaphor and symbolism through a number of mediums.
I originally wrote this article for the Creative Counsellors Club magazine – Take a Moment. Many of the other creative exercises and resources shared within the Creative Counsellors Club can be adapted to explore issues around life and death.
Write your own obituary
I’d like to invite you to consider your own non-existence and life by writing your own obituary. There are several exercises available online. Here is one from The Liberationist that you can download. Why not use the exercise and try writing two obituaries; make one funny and far-fetched to ease you into it, and a second more serious or congruent.
*Death Cafes are held all over the world. Visit www.deathcafe.com to find one near you. I co-host the Faversham Death Café in Kent and have been to several others, finding the experience liberating and comforting.