What Is Death Anxiety?
There have been substantial changes in the way Western scientists have interpreted or understood the concept of death anxiety. Early writings, which were heavily influenced by psychodynamic theory, stressed that fear and anxiety about death were universal, and, in an attempt to deal with their neurotic concerns about death, most individuals repressed or denied their true, negative feelings. In other words, everyone feared or was anxious about death, no matter what they said or how they acted. As death research matured, however, investigators discovered not only that some people actually had little or no anxiety about death, but also that the term death anxiety was really a misnomer for a variety of related negative reactions to death. These reactions include elements of fear, anxiety, concern, threat, worry, and confusion, and they can be focused on different death-related issues. For instance, distinctions should be made regarding anxiety about one's own death or the deaths of others, reactions to a painful dying process, uncertainties about when and how one will die, and concerns about an afterlife.
Another major transformation that occurred in thanatological theory and research involved the recognition that individuals can also have positive views and feelings about death. Death is not always viewed completely negatively. For instance, death can give life meaning and can accentuate a positive philosophy of life. People can view death positively, for instance, if it brings relief of pain and suffering, gives loved ones a chance to come together and express their care and concern for each other, or if death and dying helps to refocus attention on important personal values and needs. Finally, dealing with death can reveal strengths in terminally ill individuals, their family members and friends, and health care professionals. In sum, attitudes and feelings about death are multidimensional, and people can simultaneously have both positive and negative sentiments about a broad array of death-related phenomena.