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Cover image of Nothing to Fear by Julie McFadden

One of the reasons we find death so frightening is that a lot of us refuse to talk about it. We’ve made it such a taboo topic, I think half of the fear we feel is just from avoiding it. Avoiding talking about it. Avoiding learning about it. If we did those things, it’d be less scary. The more willing someone is to talk about and accept the fact of their death, the better they’ll live, and the better they’ll die.

You’ve heard the way people talk about someone who’s died.
“She’s gone.”
“He’s no longer with us.”
“They passed on.”

I get it. It’s gentler. But as we think about shifting the way we look at death and dying, we also need to look at the words we use and start getting comfortable with saying the words: he’s dying, she’s dead, they died.


I understand that not everyone’s there yet. But we all can start trying it on a little bit. Try saying, “Mom died.” Try saying, “I’m dying.” Try saying those words; it’s actually really therapeutic. Plus, by using them yourself, you give others permission to use the “d-words,” too.

Specifically, I think it’s important to talk about death with the person who is dying, when they’re lucid. I see that my patients who are willing to talk about their death and what they want before they die have more peaceful lives and far more peaceful deaths. It helps their loved ones, too. Often I’ll begin, “We all have an end-of-life journey. All of us. Right now, yours is a little clearer than other people’s. So what is that going to look like?” Then I talk about death and dying. When I model doing it, the patients and their family members are usually a little more comfortable talking about it themselves.

Some people ask me, “Why is it so important for people to know that they’re going to die?” It’s a great question. When people choose to learn about their particular illness and what their death might look like, their fears often are eased as they acknowledge what’s happening. The people who are willing to discuss end-of-life issues and to accept that they’re going to die seem to carry about them a certain type of freedom, and they truly live their last days well. Their fear tends to decrease, and they tend to be freer and more full of life, even though they’re dying.

I’ve also seen the opposite. When people are unwilling to look squarely at death, the last few months of their life are usually filled with fear, anxiety, and stress. There seems to be a lot of existential suffering and chaos. That’s why I want to normalize talking about death and dying and spread the understanding that we’re all going to die.

painting of woman on her death bed

Ria Munk on her Deathbed, Gustav Klimt

One of the reasons I’m so passionate about educating people about death and dying is because I’ve seen firsthand how our culture sanitizes the topic.

We hide it.
We embalm it.
We put makeup on it.
We photoshop it.
We don’t say the d-word.
We get a babysitter for the kids while we attend a funeral.

And even if we do allow the body of a person who’s died to be viewed at a funeral or memorial service, we make 100 percent sure that it looks as alive as possible.

If you feel scared of death—if you don’t even want to think about it or talk about it—I have really good news for you: you are totally normal. But I want to change what normal is. I want conversations about death to happen, even if they’re uncomfortable—especially if they’re uncomfortable. That’s one reason I started a TikTok channel where I talk about death and dying. Social media eases the conversation in a way that makes people feel safe.

Most people think they don’t want to talk about death. But here’s what I’ll tell you: after they get introduced to it, they’re on board. I receive hundreds of messages from people who have watched my stories online telling me that I’ve helped them with their death anxiety. Learning about death and understanding it a little more has eased their fear.

That’s exactly why I want to help everyone understand what’s happening at the end of life. Because we’ve largely avoided death so successfully, we don’t understand what we’re seeing when we are near death. The most natural process in the world, which every one of us will face, feels foreign to us. I’m convinced that it doesn’t have to be this way.

If you haven’t spent time around people who are dying, you may feel anxious about being on hospice, having a loved one on hospice, and death in general. If you’re seeing things you haven’t seen before and hearing sounds you haven’t heard before, you may be wondering, “Should that happen? Is that normal? Are they suffering?” This can be confusing and even scary. In this book, I want you to discover what a body looks like when it’s dying. What it sounds like. What it feels like. What it smells like. When we break the taboos around facing and discussing death, we also break the power of fear around it. As we begin to understand death and become more comfortable with it, we can not only die better, but also live better.

Excerpted from Nothing to Fear: Demystifying Death to Live More Fully by Julie McFadden, RN with permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Julie McFadden, RN, 2024. To Buy: Nothing to Fear: Demystifying Death to Live More Fully 

Julie McFadden, BSN, RN, is a hospice/palliative care nurse with more than fifteen years of experience. Passionate about normalizing death and dying, she has more than one million followers on TikTok as @hospicenursejulie. She has been featured in Newsweek, USA Today, the Atlantic, Business Insider, the Patient Story, and many other media outlets worldwide. McFadden lives and works (and films and edits videos for social media) in California.

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