3 Things to Do If You’re Terrified of Your Parent Dying

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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My deepest fears love to show up right as I’m trying to drift off to sleep—anxious brains are fun like that—and lately, a recurring theme in my after-dark intrusive thoughts is my mom dying. I’ve been straight-up terrified of losing her since I was a little girl (for a bunch of sad, childhood-trauma-related reasons I won’t hit you with here—this topic is dark enough already). But I haven’t been this anxious about it in years, and I know why it’s haunting me again: I’m watching her age.

She’s in her seventies now, and while she’s relatively healthy, active, and sharp (shoutout to my Wordle buddy!), there’s no getting around the fact that her body is getting older, and she’s not going to be around forever. In other words, my formerly irrational fear of suddenly losing her isn’t all that far-fetched. And I know—from talking to other friends with senior parents, listening to mental health podcasts like it’s my job, and using common sense—that my experience isn’t unique.

Parents are typically the first adults we attach to as babies, and who we first rely on for survival, so of course the thought of them dying is going to bring up bone-deep, primal terror for a lot of us. And while an occasional My parent is going to die! freak-out might feel manageable, if that fear is regularly causing you to spiral (or, like me, lose sleep), it’s worth finding ways to manage it.

That’s why I asked Beverly Ibenh, PsyD, a therapist at Thrive Psychology Group who specializes in anxiety and grief, for her best advice on what to do if you’re overcome with anxiety and existential dread at the thought of losing your aging parent(s)—both so you (and I) can feel a bit better now, and in the future.

Examine your underlying fears—and then fact-check them.

Often, our biggest fears stem from imagining the worst-case scenario instead of the likely one. “Feelings are usually never logical, so make sure to understand where your worries stem from, and then look into how based in reality they are,” Dr. Ibeh says. Yes, your parent(s) will die at some point, as we all will, but your anxiety about that fact likely comes from what you imagine will happen after they pass away, she explains—and fact-checking this fictional future can make it look less bleak.

If I question the root of my mom-death fear, I can see that it’s not just about the fact that I won’t be able to call, hug, or do crossword puzzles with her, but that, without her on the planet—the only person who accepts me fully, 100% of the time—I won’t be okay. The thing is, I don’t know that, because she’s still here. But I do have plenty of evidence to the contrary: I know that people have been losing their parents and surviving the grief since the beginning of time—and that I’ve gotten through other very dark, seemingly hopeless periods.


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