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with Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

Celebrity Deaths of 2016: Why We Fear Dying


There is no dying 2016 has been a year marked with notable celebrity illness and death. The world lost multiple superstar musicians, singers, big and small screen stars, some of the greatest athletes of all time and larger-than-life political figures in 2016. Many of us developed a “personal” connection with these larger than life figures, i.e., we grew up watching them on television and in movies, singing their songs, practicing and harnessing our skills to become a comparative or better athlete than them, etc. Some of living our lives vicariously through these figures, as a way to leave out our own unrequited dreams. Often, we laugh with them, cry with them, get angry with them, root for them, and suffer with them, mostly from a distance.

For many of us with the loss of every “larger than life” figure we begin to really take notice of our own fragility, our own evitable passing. Death has a way of forcing us to re-evaluate our own lives, our existence, our purpose in the world. Although, some people think that they know what will happen after death, no one really knows for certain. Those that are certain they know what happens after death often worry that they may be wrong. Some believe that the path to salvation is very straight and narrow, and fear that any deviations or mistakes may cause them to be eternally condemned. This manner of thinking can be very confusing and frightening for those that harbor feelings that they may have failed to live their life, making the “right” choices all the time.

Fearing death is natural, as we typically fear what is unknown, what we are unable to understand based upon our own personal experience. However, when fearing death becomes extreme, consuming most of our thoughts thanatophobia is most likely at fault. Thanatophobia is an extreme and irrational fear of death. While it would be reasonable to say that most people fear death at least somewhat, people with thanatophobia fear death to the extent that the normal operation of their lives is severely hindered. Persons struggling with thanatophobia may be so afraid of the prospect of death and what comes after that he or she refuses to leave home or becomes unreasonably hostile or avoidant when the subject of death comes up.

Symptoms of Thanatophobia Include:

·         Increased anxiety and fear at the thought of death

·         Increased heart rate when thinking about death and mortality

·         Shortness of breath

·         Heart palpitations

·         Extreme avoidance of talking about death and dying, avoiding funerals of a family member or friend

·         Religious issues

·         Automatic or uncontrollable reactions

·         Trembling

·         Failure/refusal to make proper provisions in the event of death, i.e., creating a will, assigning caregiver responsibilities for children in the event of parent’s death, etc.

Unfortunately, many people’s fear of death is tied into their religious beliefs, particularly if they happen to be going through a challenging time in their life or a period of questioning. An individual’s personal beliefs are highly personalized, hence, even people that share the same belief system (Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, etc.), may have slightly different views on what it means when someone’s physical life ends, or fully understand the other person’s belief system.

Likely Reasons We Fear Death Include:

·         Fear of the Unknown

·         Fear of leaving behind unfinished business

·         Loss of dignity during the dying process

·         Fear of loss of control

·         Fear of intense pain, or experiencing a long drawn out death

·         Fear of not knowing what will happen to children or other loved ones

·         Being forgotten

·         Leaving a life without meaning

Although, it is natural to consider our own demise when we witness death and dying around us, it is not healthy or natural to become consumed with thoughts of dying. There is no denying that 2016 has been plagued with the loss of multiple iconic figures, yet with every life brings death, with every death brings life. As human beings, we are all involved in the ongoing cycle of life. We are born, grow and mature, start careers, families, age, and die, allowing the cycle to begin again.

In regards, to the loss of an iconic figure, the ability to share in the grief and loss of on social networks affords us the opportunity to be a part of that life, that era. There is a sense of community in those who are grieving together for the sole purpose of honoring the life of an iconic figure, i.e., posting thoughts and experiences on social media. It is almost as if we are a part of it sharing our own thoughts and experiences for others to read. Stating the connection between yourself and the celebrity maybe through work, meeting socially or as a fan, listening to their songs during a very difficult breakup (you know which one), how they supported something you did for charity, etc. Most of us fear that their talent and contributions to the world will go unmatched. We fear when we think of the happiest or the most difficult times in our lives we can no longer talk about that person we feel are responsible for it. I am sure many of us have had the awkward experience of talking about an actor, singer, political figure, etc., that we looked up to during our youth and our younger companion has no idea who or what we are talking about. When someone we love, or have developed a connection with dies it is like a part of us has gone, and we will never return. It reminds us we all mortal, we are still here, and we have to make the most of our life, at least for a while.

However, when the fear of death becomes destabilizing and we are no longer able to live life because of our fear of death, we aren’t truly living. Fearing what we do not know, is not a new fear, at least not for many of us. Fear that is crippling usually has deeper roots, deeper implications. For some people, fear of death and dying can extend to irrational fears of tombstones, funeral homes, hospitals, and other images that can be associated with sickness and death.

Treating intense and often irrational fears pertaining to death/thanatophobia can be a very tricky process as thanatophobia may symptomatic of other underlying issues or mental health conditions. Depending on the circumstances, a variety of talk therapy solutions may be appropriate, ranging from cognitive-behavioral to psychoanalytic. Supplemental religious counseling, medications, and other therapeutic alternatives may also be used in conjunction with therapy.

While it is normal to feel loss at the death of a family member, close friend, or iconic figure it helps to consider the joy and meaning they have brought to our lives. By focusing on the contributions, the individual has made on our lives, i.e., providing constant support, pushing us to become better versions of ourselves, etc., we acknowledge the loss but appreciate the life we had the opportunity to be a part of, even vicariously.

Celebrity Deaths of 2016: Why We Fear Dying

Tarra Bates-Duford, Ph.D., MFT

My name is Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford PhD, MFT, CRS, CMFSW, BCPC I have a PhD in forensic Psychology specializing in familial dysfunctions and traumatic experience. I work with individuals and families struggling with familial dysfunctions, trauma, rape, and incest. I also have a masters in Marriage, Couples, & Family therapy. I am a certified relationship specialist with American Psychotherapy Association (#15221). I have more than 15 years in the field of mental health, relationships, and behavioral sciences.

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APA Reference
Bates-Duford, T. (2016). Celebrity Deaths of 2016: Why We Fear Dying. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Dec 2016
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