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What’s Driving Your Physical Distancing: Death Denial or Death Phobia?

May 26, 2020

In the realm of end-of-life education, two terms come up very often: death denial and fear of death. We talk about fear of death and death denial as kind of the same thing and we use the terms interchangeably. But are they really? I’m wondering if the varying ways that people think about and respond to the coronavirus pandemic, shed some light on the differences between the two terms.

When I googled the phrase “death denial versus fear of death” (and a bunch of variations) I got, “no results were found.” Instead the two terms are lumped together as if they’re synonymous. But I’m starting to see it differently.

It’s been fascinating to watch and read about how community members respond differently to government advice, guidelines or regulations around physical distancing. People’s behaviours fall on all points along the continuum between total compliance and non compliance. Might it be that one of the factors guiding our actions is our attitude and beliefs about death?

Death denial and non compliance

It seems to me that if I can’t imagine death ever happening to me (and to people I care about) then maybe I would be less concerned about physical distancing. This may seem more obvious in younger people who are less susceptible to the virus. But I think there are folks of all ages who—consciously or unconsciously—believe that “it” (aka death) will never happen to them. Is this belief is guiding their behavior? Are the non compliers actually a group of death deniers?

Does fear of death make us comply?

On the other hand, I’m afraid! I don’t want to die anytime soon, mostly because I have a daughter for whom my death would be traumatic. I think my fear of infection for myself and others makes me take all the precautions very seriously. Are the physical-distancing compliers more death phobic than the non compliers?

While there are a host of factors that influence people’s behavioural patterns, I wonder if there is something to this proposition about death denial versus fear of death as a guiding force. 

What about you?

How do you distinguish between death denial and the fear of death?

Has either death denial or the fear of death been guiding your actions with respect to physical distancing?