Unveiling the Roots of our Fear of Dying and Dead Bodies

Unveiling the Roots of our Fear of Dying and Dead Bodies

Guest Contributor: Misha Butot

Given that dying and death are as natural as birth, why do people become fearful about being with a dead body or providing care for a person’s body after death? Even mentioning these topics here is likely to have some readers shivering and feeling some distaste. Where do fears of death and being with a dead body come from?

I recall an older man that I provided care for as he was dying. His daughter and grandchildren were there as he died. The granddaughter, Katya was 4 years old. As a naturally curious child, she wanted to see his body, touch his face and hands, and had many questions for her parents about how they knew he had died. Her brother, who was 8 years old, felt more uncomfortable and didn’t want to see his grandfather’s body, preferring to stay outside the room. Fortunately, their parents allowed each child to make the choice that felt best to them.

Fear of being with a dying person or of being with a dead body has many origins. For some people, as in the story with Katya, she was not fearful while her brother was. Our fear of caring for or being with a dead body may have its origin in childhood experiences. For example, if a child is required by adults, either because of tradition or customs, to see and touch their dead loved one, this may normalize being with a dead body, or it may traumatize a child about being with a dead body, leading to adult fears of being present when a person is dying or with a dead person.

Other people may develop fears based on traumatic experiences as adults, as is the case with Aaron.

When Aaron was 22, his single mother died suddenly. No one in the community spoke about what happened, and he had to deal with the grief and the fallout from her death by himself. He decides to close the topic of death and dying in his mind, believing that it is just part of his mom’s sad death.
Aaron works as a care aide and begins to notice that he is really uncomfortable as the people he cares for approach their dying. In fact, when working in LTC he found himself trading shifts to avoid being assigned to a person who was actively dying. He decided to change jobs and he is happy now working in community care.
Today he arrives at a house where the person’s health has suddenly declined, and they are now actively dying. Aaron finds himself feeling anxious and nauseous.  His supervisor informs him that he is to stay with the body until the funeral home staff arrive. In that moment, Aaron’s fears of dying and death feel huge and he doesn’t know what to do!

As you may have guessed, Aaron’s unresolved grief from his mother’s death traumatized him and he is now unable to face being with a dying person or a dead body.

Cultural beliefs can influence a person’s level of comfort with dying and being with a dead body. One PSW shared that she was afraid that if someone died while she was working, their spirit might haunt her. Some societies hold a belief that only certain people are allowed to touch the dead, or that certain people should not touch the dead due to issues of purity or other spiritual concerns. A person with these cultural beliefs would be uncomfortable providing care for a body after death.

A person’s fears may also arise from the beliefs of others surrounding death. For example, when the mother of one of Katya’s friends heard that Katya had seen her grandfather’s body, she was shocked. The mother stated emphatically, “Children should never be exposed to death! I can’t believe you’d let her do that!” Whether this was a cultural belief or the mother’s own fear of being with a dying person, her need to protect may have instilled beliefs in the children that being with a dying person was something to be feared. Katya’s friend might grow up with fears about death and uncomfortable being with a dead body.

During their lifetime, people may hear myths about dead bodies that can develop into fears. For example, they may think that the person might sit up or move following death or may believe that death is always smelly or that the body is always incontinent of stool.

So, for all the reasons stated here and many more, we come to work as healthcare providers with different levels of comfort in caring for the deceased. As you saw with Aaron, fear of caring for the deceased can interfere with your degree of comfort with your job, or your abilities to fulfill your responsibilities when caring for the dead body is part of your job description – and that is completely normal

We invite you to January 2024 webinar Facing Mortality: Gaining Confidence in Providing Care for the Body After Death.

In the webinar, we will look at childhood experiences, myths, and societal taboos that may have caused discomfort in being with a dying person and caring for a dead body. We will discuss the ways that individuals might increase their comfort and provide practical tips on ways to become more comfortable, as well as explore ways to support the family following the death.

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for the invite, I am a HCA worker and an very interested in Hospice work. I look forward your webinar

  2. This sounds very interesting. Having been with numerous people as they have died each experience has been unique.

    1. Nancy
      A colleague of ours used to say, “If you see one person die, you have seen one person die”. Meaning that every person is unique and you cannot think that because you have seen something that you will see it again!
      All the best to you in your work.

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Courtney Murrell is a PSW who works in hospice palliative care.

When she is not at work, she is spending time with her family, going on hikes or writing. Courtney is a lifelong learner and loves to share her passion for writing as a wellness practice.

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