Irvin D. Yalom

Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death

“Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die.”

The most powerful thing we have in common as humans is we live and we die. But what connects us into humanity can also shatter us individually. Death anxiety is the price to pay for self-awareness.

The highly original psychotherapist Irvin Yalom (b. 13 June 1931) addresses this cost in his empathetic book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death.

Each person fears death in his or her own way. For some people, death anxiety is the background music of life, and any activity evokes the thought that a particular moment will never come again. Even an old movie feels poignant to those who cannot stop thinking that all the actors are now only dust.1

Unlike many who try to intellectualize death as a way to deal with its unbearable intensity (Joan Didion and C.S. Lewis come to mind), Yalom carries us through gently, patiently, allowing for pause and feeling. He discusses what he calls “awakenings,” moments of self-awareness when we realize that we are.2

How do you move out of the mode of everydayness into the more change-conducive mode? Not from simply wishing it or bearing down and gritting your teeth. Instead, it usually takes an urgent or irreversible experience to awaken a person and jerk him or her out of the everyday mode into the ontological ones. This is what I call the awakening experience.

Once we realize that we are, we realize that we might not be. As Yalom explains, death is everything, and it is nothing. The nothingness of death, the question of where we exist when we die, will never be answered by conscious minds.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Forging connections while alive, the deeply human connections are the only real antidote to our fear of non-existence (rather than precious things we keep around us and imbue with sentiment), that we touch to feel again as we once did.

Human connection is more than one of passing or proximity; it is being deeply present for another human being in need.

One can offer no greater service to someone facing death (and from this point on I speak either of those suffering from a fatal illness or physically healthy individuals experiencing death terror) than to offer him or her your sheer presence.

The strong presence (my own look at What Is Presence?) and generous openness that Yalom describes remind me of the memoir of nurse Christie Watson, who wrote kindness was sometimes just being next to someone and not leaving.

Ancient seabed. Featured in David Attenborough's "A Life on Our Planet" in the Examined Life Library.
An early dinosaur footprint formed about 200 million years ago. The mounds are exactly what they look like, sand shaped by ocean currents. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Yalom wrote this book at age seventy-five, and, naturally, he addresses his own death anxiety. For him, the pain of his wife without him is what he fears the most.3 Yalom believes that death is nothing we experience, and therefore it is nothing to us.

But to those who love us, our death is everything.

There won’t be any me there to feel terror, sadness, grief, deprivation. My consciousness will be extinguished, the switch flicked off. Lights out. I also find comfort in Epicurus’ symmetry argument: after death I will be in the same state of nonbeing as before birth.

“In order not to feel utterly isolated,” proposed German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, “We need to find anew unity.” Yalom urges: do not let death anxiety stand in the way of human connection.

Loneliness greatly increases the anguish of dying. to often, our culture creates a curtain of silence and isolation around the dying. In the presence of the dying, friends and family members often grow more distant because they don’t know what to say. They fear upsetting the dying person. And they also avoid getting to close for fear of personally confronting their own death.

This everyday isolation works two ways: not only do the well tend to avoid the dying, but the dying often collude in their isolation…Such isolation compounds the terror.

Rethreading our social fabric as a way to mitigate our death anxiety and our existential loneliness is exemplified in Maira Kalman’s generous observations of strangers, Oliver Sacks search for personhood in disconnected patients, and Terry Gross’ life work illustrating the humanity of art.

Rune stone, 1100-1150 Sweden
Rune stone, 1100-1150, Sweden. The carving reads ‘Lidsmod had this stone carved in memory of Julbjörn [his] father.’ Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Reaching beyond our own wordlessness is a theme I return to frequently in my search for human commonalities. Read more in Hands Outstretched and Met, The Word is Not Enough and An Implacable Call for Kindness.

Illustration of Irvin Yalom for Yalom's "Staring at the Sun" in the Examined Life Library.