My husband has an extreme fear of death. It comes up at night and I’ve generally been able to help by distracting him through talking. What I hadn’t realised was how often it occurs. He hates talking about it – as it makes it more real, which he cannot bear. I should explain that he’s a very solid type of person, very calm, steady and logical (but sensitive) and not in the least highly strung.
His older brother died at a young age, after a year-long illness, and I think this might have influenced my husband’s fear, but he says he’s had it since he was a little boy. His mum agrees – she remembers him crying in his sleep and when she went to comfort him, he’d tell her he was having what he called The Feeling.
The fear is specifically of death (not pain or dying as such) and the emptiness of it (he’s not religious) and the fact that he will no longer be here. We have two young children and he says he is just as scared of them dying, but in a different way; this is an irrational, emotional fear that he has trouble controlling. Recently it has got worse – he’s not sure why – but it has made him feel panicky and the thoughts have been straying into the daytime, which has not happened before. How can I help him? He’s a wonderful, kind and delightful man whom I adore and I can’t bear to see him upset (which he tries hard to hide).
M, via email
It sounds as if your husband suffers from thanatophobia – fear of death. And I’d have liked to have known more about what happened when he was younger. You asked me to take out from your letter the age your husband was when he began to suffer from this fear, but you haven’t told me how old your children are and I wonder if they are coming up to the same age as he was, and if this is acting as a trigger?
I consulted Professor Alex Gardner (bps.org.uk), a psychologist who specialises in phobias. He says phobias are either “caught or taught. If caught, it’s due to something happening that the person couldn’t cope with at the time so it goes into the subconscious.”
He wondered what happened when your husband was a little boy and he first started getting The Feeling?
It sounds as if his brother dying had a significant part to play in your husband’s fear of death. But what happened when he was even younger? Gardner recommends getting your husband to revisit those early years: “I strongly suspect something in childhood is buried in the iceberg of his subconscious.”
If your husband could explore that a bit more, he may well find the root of this phobia. Did he first learn about death at that age? Was it handled insensitively? I still remember learning that everyone dies. My older sister told me, rather brutally, when I was about three. Luckily, my mother dealt with it well, but the moment I learned about it – the shock of it – it was imprinted.
Gardner usually gets his clients to talk about their phobias and introduce an alternative view. It sounds as if you’re doing a great job by distracting your husband at night, but I suspect you can only do so much, especially if he won’t generally talk about it. “Your husband,” suggests Gardner, “may be afraid of losing control or loss of dignity, or afraid for his family – these are usually the emotions wrapped up with thanatophobia.”
Your husband needs to want to do something about this for himself, though; you can’t work on it for him. I suspect that even though he’s distressed about death, he has found a comfort zone within his distress. I know that sounds unlikely, but this phobia serves some sort of purpose. It either helps him to block out other feelings or to transfer them on to the phobia. I think your husband may need professional help but it might not take much to sort this out. Visit your GP and see what therapies are available as a first step.
Gardner asks if there are triggers to your husband’s episodes: “Is he catastrophising his family? Does he think bad things happen in his family and anticipate trouble?”
He may need to work on what he can and can’t control, and do something about the former and let go of the latter. But it is easier said than done. Does he think he could have done something to stop his brother dying? Children often believe they have caused things to happen.
In the short term, Gardner recommends saying something to your husband like: “What would you like to happen? I’m here for you,” when he has an attack. “Your husband isn’t helpless. Make him make the choices.”
This article was first published in The Guardian Family section, on 4th October 2013.