Living in Death Denial

The unavoidable fact of life is that it will end—no single person has ever managed to circumnavigate this fate. The moment we first become aware of ourselves as being alive coincides with our first encounter with our own mortality. What happens after death is a mystery, and anxiety is a natural response to the unknown. But who wants to live an entire life incapacitated by anxiety? Will anxiety go away if we deny the inevitability of death altogether? 

The Denial of Death

Ernest Becker argued that this dilemma is the onset of death denial in his 1973 book, The Denial of Death.1 Becker proposes that engagement in “immortality projects” provides fulfillment and indulgence, even if transiently, in the feeling of immortality that humans crave.2 These projects range greatly from person to person—some feel immortal through spirituality and devotion, while others choose to dedicate their lives to philanthropic altruism, the accrual of wealth, or the creation of art. Overall, they share the common end goal of affirming death denial where the individual creates something that they feel will last forever and, therefore, render them immortal in some way. We seek this immortality by proxy because it alleviates the anxiety, stress, and despair that living an impermanent, fugitive life can cause.

We go through elaborate means to affirm our denial of death, but something as ubiquitous as death cannot be so easily negated.3 The media we consume is saturated with the topic of death; it permeates as a common theme in film and television, and the 24-hour news cycle overwhelms viewers with constant displays of death in its most woeful forms. The media bridges the divide between ourselves and the fragile lives of people whom we would otherwise never be aware of, but it’s a fallacy to believe that we and the people we love are somehow absolved from such fragility. Witnessing ourselves and our loved ones as we age and endure sickness highlights the ultimate flaw in our denial of death: it will sooner or later be proven wrong. 

Towards Death Acceptance

“The way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with greatest depth is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost” — Yalom, 2008

Dr. Irvin D. Yalom beautifully articulates what can be distilled down to the idea of death acceptance. Adamantly denying death, and consequently suffering from the anxiety that this dynamic causes, prevents us from fully reveling in life; the innate value of our well-being is enough to demand an alternative to this approach.3 The death acceptance movement rose out of positive psychology, and it encourages us to shift our outlook on death and dying. 

Meaning-Management Theory (MMT) proposes that managing the most foundational aspects of our inner lives—such as our hopes, dreams, fears, perceptions, and beliefs—and attributing rich and fulfilling meaning to them is a step toward better accepting the reality of death.5 By engaging in such inner awareness, and characterizing different levels of importance to personal aspects, the individual should feel a clearer sense of purpose and direction in life, which in turn paints death as a less frightening outcome. This is a deeply personal journey; it requires careful introspection, but ultimately the key to a more fulfilled life may lie in strengthening the meaning we see in our condition and working to perceive death as an occurrence instead of a limitation or punishment. Perhaps a starting point is finding solace in the commonality shared by all people, one that is indiscriminate of faith, nationality, or social status—we will all die.


1. Hughes, G. The Denial of Death and the Practice of Dying. https://ernestbecker.org/lecture-6-denial/

2. Becker, E. (1997). The Denial of Death (1st ed.). Free Press Paperbacks.

3. Wong, P. T. P., & Tomer, A. (2011). Beyond Terror and Denial: The Positive Psychology of Death Acceptance. Death Studies, 35(2), 99–106. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2011.535377

4. Yalom, I. D. (2009). Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.

5. Wong, P. T. P. (2008). Meaning management theory and death acceptance. In A. Tomer, G. T. Eliason, & P. T. P. Wong (Eds.), Existential and spiritual issues in death attitudes (pp. 65–87). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. 

Image Reference

1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hopfer, D. (1515). Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women [Etching]. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/336272