Fear of death – illustration of two people pictured from behind, standing in front of a memorial featuring a picture and some burning candles and crying.
Illustration: Djanlissa Pringels

I Tried to Process My Fear of Death

Ever since a friend's passing, I've been plagued by scary thoughts about the end of life. Now I'm seeking new perspectives.

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Ten years ago, I saw a corpse for the first time. A friend of mine had died unexpectedly while studying abroad. It took almost two weeks for his body to be brought back, a long wait before I could say goodbye. In the days leading up to touching his cold skin one last time, his death felt abstract to me, hard to grasp. But once I saw him lying there in the morgue, it became crystal clear that he’d never be back.


Early on in the grieving process, I mostly felt his absence. A new year had just started, and he wasn’t there to celebrate it. He’d never graduate, never share any more songs on Facebook – today, his profile is still up, but everything about it remains unchanged. Up until that moment, I hadn’t fully understood the definitive nature of death and how fragile and temporary life is in comparison.

Back then, I had considered my young age to be a sort of guarantee I wouldn’t have to face death again anytime soon. But unfortunately, recently, a friend took her own life. I felt shock and sadness, and the gnawing old fear of death popped back up again. 

First, it came to me in my dreams, then it showed up in the daytime, too – during a quiet moment at work, on the subway, while surrounded by friends, laying in bed next to my boyfriend. Suddenly, I became extremely aware of the fact that one day, I’ll have to say goodbye to the people I care about and vice versa. Of course, I’m not the only person dealing with this.

Eight months ago, at age 35, Charlotte Nierynck found out she had an incurable form of cancer – Neuroendocrine tumours (NET), which occur in the cells responsible for releasing hormones into the bloodstream. They have now spread to her ovaries, liver and bones.


“From the moment that doctors saw something in my ovaries, I entered into a very dark mindset”, Nierynck tells me. Further tests confirmed the prognosis wasn’t good. “I cried every day for months,” she says. “I thought about dying every second of every day – I’m not exaggerating. I didn’t know your thoughts could be so consumed by one thing.” 

Nierynck compared her emotional state during those months to heartbreak. “I tried to distract myself with stupid shows on Netflix,” she says. “Sometimes it worked, but the sadness always caught up with me.” Slowly, the gnawing question in her mind morphed from “How will I survive this?” to “How much longer do I have to live?”

Nierynck has confronted death multiple times in her life. She’s lost both her older sisters to cancer – the oldest, Melanie, died of leukaemia, while Emilie, the middle child, died of a brain tumour at 18. “People would always ask me if I was also going to get cancer,” Nierynck says. “I always thought: Three out of three, what are the chances?”

With so much illness in the family, Nierynck has always feared her luck could run out at any moment. At least now, she doesn’t have to worry. “I have my answer,” she says.


Nierynck was only 15 when Emilie passed, but remembers her last months very well. “She swelled up due to the medication,” Nierynck says. “She was paralysed on one side, and her short-term memory was gone.” Seeing her sister get worse and worse left a deep mark on her. That’s why she decided to take the legal measures to opt for euthanasia if her condition worsened. “I want to fizzle out, not decline,” she says. 

In the Netherlands, euthanasia is legally available to patients above the age of 12 who experience unbearable and hopeless suffering and who have been evaluated by an ad-hoc committee. In the UK, Italy, France, Ireland, Portugal and all of Eastern Europe, no forms of assisted dying are legal, and the same goes for the vast majority of countries across the world.

“I don’t think my sister was afraid of dying,” Nierynck says. While she was still lucid, she quickly accepted this was the end for her. “She mostly felt bad for mum and dad.” This helped Nierynck realise death is much harder on the people left behind than on who’s dying. “The sadness I’m feeling now is actually much less than the pain of losing someone,” she says. 


Christiaan Rhodius is a hospice care worker in the Dutch town of Hoofddorp. He works with people who are terminally ill and had his own brush with his mortality in his 30s, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He called the complicated feeling experienced by Nierynck and other dying patients “the palliative paradox”. What gives life its lustre, the love of the people around you, is also what makes saying goodbye so very challenging.

One of his patients, Marja, once told him about how her time at the hospice made her aware of the beautiful and deep connections she had formed in her life. “This also increased her suffering because she knew her departure would hurt people”, Rhodius says. In his experience, the most beautiful antidote to that pain is seeking connection, even if that feels daunting. “Talking about death won’t kill you, just like talking about sex won’t get you pregnant,” he says.

As for Nierynck, her priority right now is living life as it was before the diagnosis while doing things she and her husband have always wanted to do, like taking special trips, for instance. “It’s bittersweet. I’m constantly being confronted with the fact that I’m wrapping up,” she says. “But, on the other hand, it’s also creating phenomenal moments.”


Sometimes, the worries and doubts creep in, like the fear that her son might forget her or the painful realisation her husband will probably have another partner after her. But overall, “I actually mostly feel grateful,” Nierynck adds. “Imagine focusing on work your whole life, thinking you’ll do things you like later on, and then suddenly, you get into a car accident. That’s really scary to me. Now I can say goodbye in my own way.”

Fear of death – illustration of a tomb with two skeletons, one in blue and one in white.

Illustration: Djanlissa Pringels

For me, the process of dying is only one part of what I’m afraid of – I find what happens to your body after death equally terrifying. When I was allowed to say goodbye to my deceased friend in the morgue, I could recognise his lips, his nose, and his eyes, but he was no longer the boy I had loved so much. He looked bigger and bulkier than I remembered. His skin felt icy. He wasn’t sleeping peacefully – it was clear to me that I was looking at a dead body. 

I felt something similar when my grandmother was dying. The doctor said one way to know approximately how long she had left was by feeling her hands and feet. The closer the cold crept to her heart, the closer death was. My grandmother's fingertips were no longer a part of her body, they became ticking clocks announcing her death. This image made me think more and more about what will happen to my own body after I die – an oppressive and eerie idea. 

Frank van de Goot is a forensic pathologist, a doctor who investigates people’s causes of death. Over the course of his 30-year career, he’s examined about 5,000 bodies. Van de Goot is on the autism spectrum and believes that helps him in his job. “For me, it's like this: When a body is dead, it's just a thing. It’s emotionless,” he says.


Van de Goot feels this way also about examining someone he knew in real life – he examined his own mother together with his brother. “That body is your mother, but on the other hand, it is also just a thing that resembles her and nothing more,” he says. “I find that very logical. My mother turned 93, and she was a jerk of the worst kind. It was about time.”

That’s also how Hayley Mickleburgh sees dead bodies. She’s a forensic taphonomist, which means she studies corpse decomposition. That might sound grim, but she genuinely believes seeing what happens to a corpse with your own eyes can be comforting in its own way. “When a body is decomposing, the tissue discolours and maggots sometimes get into the body,” she says. “But then, suddenly, white bone appears. It's like something pure and clean emerges from something uncanny." 

Mickleburgh is interested in the liminal phase between life and death – when someone is no longer alive, but their body still has meaning for the next of kin. “A lot of the things we do when someone dies are actually about processing transformation,” she says. “In the West, we try very hard to postpone that transformation, for example, with make-up, which makes it look like someone is asleep. But there are also cultures where that transformation is exaggerated.”


As a student, she was particularly fascinated by cultures that put a lot of emphasis on the transformation of the body from a loved one to an ancestor. An example of that is the Tibetan sky funeral tradition, where bodies of community members are cut up into pieces and laid in open spaces for the vultures to strip clean. “The physical transformation is then accelerated, and very abruptly,” Mickleburgh says. “They are no longer who you once knew but a completely different being.”

For Mickleburgh, there is beauty in that in-between phase, and studying it is also a way of accepting that everyone will disappear one day. Van de Goot recognises this too. “Everyone looks the same in death,” he says. “No matter how big someone is, there is always a small skeleton in the middle, the rest is tissue. Quite a fragile image, isn't it?"

All the people I talked to found it difficult to say what happens after death. Although she’s not religious, Nierynck believes she’ll rejoin her family after she passes, and that brings her comfort. Rhodius finds it important to keep an open mind about this topic and just focus on connecting with people – even when they have different beliefs. Mickleburgh is particularly fascinated by the physical image of the skeleton and how that marks the end of the dying process. That’s also why rituals like funerals can be so comforting – you reflect on the phases of someone’s life. 

Van der Goot has asked himself many questions about whether there is something beyond the material world. “Think of magnetism or infrared light, for example. As human beings we cannot feel, smell or see them, but they are there,” he says. “That may also be the case when we die.”

Death seems especially cruel if you look at it from an individual perspective, focusing on the suffering and the emptiness someone leaves behind. But even if you don’t believe the soul can survive the flesh, there’s something truly beautiful about the idea of our bodies rejoining nature and becoming part of a bigger whole.

“The carbon I consist of has already walked around in another life form at least once,” Van de Goot says. “I’m 70 percent water and the rest is lime, junk and carbon. If I die at some point, I will be absorbed by a tree that will turn me into leaves, for example. And when those leaves fall off, the carbon will be released again and someone else will breathe it in. And that makes it something new again.”