Several weeks ago I was having a conversation with someone and somehow we started talking about death. She told me that —since she didn't share the belief that you existed after it— death was something she was very scared of. And who wouldn't be. When you live, you think about the great amount of things you would like to do, all the places you would like to visit, everything you could learn along the years… You wish you had as much time as possible to do all this. Therefore, the perspective that you might cease to exist one day, that all those potential actions would suddenly vanish into nothingness with no chance to rectify so you have another opportunity to fulfill them, is something that, at least, can be disturbing. At first I agreed with her, and meanwhile I thought that this reminded me of the song Thoughts of a Dying Atheist, from Muse:
However, since the fist time I listened to that song, it seemed to me that something in it wasn't quite right. Was it possible that if you refused to believe in the afterlife –something for which there's no empirical evidence– fear was the only remaining reaction when faced to these thoughts? That certainly isn't what it causes on me, and I felt a bit uncomfortable listening to those lyrics. They seemed to imply that the way to go through those moments remaining calm is not to be an atheist, or something similar.
So, still in the conversation, I decided to recover a phrase I came up with when I was a kid, and has been my approach to the problem since then: 'once dead, it's impossible for you to care about it' And this is a key point. You won't be there to regret being unable to enjoy your existence. If you don't believe in the afterlife, it's consistent to conclude that you're not going to remain as a spectator, remembering all those things you won't in the entire eternity be able to do again. The only source of concern would be to think about the things you're not doing when you're still alive, the only possible suffering related to the period after your death would be to be scared of it when your existence hasn't yet finished. Therefore my recommendation would be to to make the most of the time you have by doing those things you've always wanted (or at least the ones allowed by your resources), and not to leave everything for later. In the case death was sudden, you don't even have the chance to worry about this.
The problem would be in the case of a slow death, being aware that the end is coming, having time to think about it. The longer the agony, the more time you spend bedridden by whatever causes your death –and it could just be your own old age– the more worry would mean not being able to enjoy those things you planned. I suppose it's in this scenario where Muse's song would be more meaningful, but it may actually not be death what causes that fear, but the disability itself. As I already told this person some time ago, to be left incapacitated (especially if it's some mental faculty) is something that I personally find more terrifying that the simple act of dying. The inability to do tasks and being fully or partially aware of this, seeing how you lose faculties and are not able to carry out certain activities no matter how hard you try, going blind, suffering brain damage, Alzheimer's disease, are among the things I could answer if someone asked me to tell something that would scare me. But not dying. You can suffer while you're alive, but there's nothing you could experience after your own death.
Yet aging until death is something lots of people will still have to suffer, so all this doesn't seem like a great consolation. Nevertheless, there's hope in that sense –this may not last much longer. Many people are working on it.