Fear of Death Among University Students. A Study

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2016

31 Pages





2.3.1 Literary Definitions



5.1 The three hypotheses tested in the study are:








The study aimed at investigating fear of death among university students of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka Campus, Nigeria. The study will help to understand the value Nigerian university youths attached to human live, even when some of their life patterns are life-endangering. Through paper shuffling randomization, the Faculties of Social sciences, Management Sciences and Law were sampled for the study; from where a total of 96 participants, with an average age of 26 years, were further systematically and evenly sampled. The hypotheses of the study were (1) “There will be a significant students’ Faculty related differences in terms of fear of death”; (2) “There will be a significant gender differences among university students in terms of fear of death”; and (3) “There will be a significance difference in fear of death for students’ marital status”. The study had a static-group survey design, of three-group, and two-group sub designs for hypotheses 1, 2, and 3 respectively. Again, One-Way ANOVA, and Independent t-tests were used for the three hypotheses’ analyses at p<.05 respectively. From the analyses, it was observed that university students have Faculty related differences in fear of death. Again, it was found that the students significantly differ in fear of death for gender and marital status.

KEYWORDS: Fear, Death, University, Students



Death! What are you? The omnipotent victor who robs what it owns. Death! You own all that is living and human beings in particular, yet, you rob human beings their lives when they need them most. For children, death means a confusing departure to an unknown destination; and for the elderly, it is a retirement to the final and anticipated “home”. However, for the youths and university students in particular, death is associated with the end of that is desirable in human life. The universally held human values of beauty, love, friendship and achievement are threatened in the face of death. It reminds us that all we treasure will end – the tragic, the noble, the significant and the insignificant. We appreciate life most when we honestly struggle with the idea of death. The prospect of death haunts our life because it forces us to question the very nature of and value of that life. Death makes life “a life” – life that will be lost – and that is its importance, extending far beyond its sheer physical description.

Like a huge debts which make the debtor unease when he remembers them, death in itself is a great debt which everybody must pay unlike an ordinary debt which could be avoided somehow, death on the other hand cannot be avoided. It reaches an individual any place he may be and by any means it chooses. University students who think that they are immune to death because of their youthful age easily make themselves available to the scourge of death, through their actions like violence, constant traveling and exposure to diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and cancer. Death is an unseen and unforeseen external reality, which conquers human being. University students are more aware of this fact when they witness the death of their fellow students or any other cherished persons. Since death cannot be seen, it is this awareness about the external reality (Fraud, 1933) of death that makes university students afraid of death. This fear of death is so enormous that university students reduce it with some defense mechanisms like projection – “it (death) cannot happen to me”. “It happened to him/her because s/he deserved it”. Heider ((1958) called this projection an attribution. Another defense mechanism university students frequently use to lessen their fear of death is suppression. Here, they are comforted momentarily by the fact that nobody knows when s/he will die.

Fear of death among university students can also arise from cultural socialization. All known human cultures see death as distasteful. University students being members of different family units originating from different cultures acquire this view about death as an unwanted event. Thus, in cultural beliefs, one can joke with almost everything except death. Similarly, locations of cemeteries, the funeral and burial rites are all done in regard to fear of death. In some of those cultures, it is believed that if the dead are accorded adequate respects, that they will not become hostile and vindictive to the living. All these arise from the value people place or at least expected to place to life. This cultural belief in keeping the dead away from harming the living is incorporated in the student’s subjective personality, in being afraid of death.

In spite of all the considerations or factors that are associated with fear of death among university students, however, the overriding factor that induces fear of death among students most is the fear of individual’s final and absolute extinction. This particular fear of death is so immense that it seems to totally engulf the psyche. Unlike fear response that subsides when the stimulus is removed – a fear of heights for example – fear of death based on extinction gives the experience of being immersed in fear itself, leaving the person feeling trapped and helpless. This basic fear of death undermines our mental and emotional life and can lead to pathological conditions in some students. English biologist, Charles Darwin (1969) emphasized that an organism that survives (stays alive) does so on the basis of struggling which is continuous. This therefore defines death as a biological “fact of life” which haunts our imagination and therefore poses or becomes an existential problem. Hence, all that university students do in order to stay alive a minute longer are based on the fear they have about dying, and it involves a continuous struggle to avoid death.

Why should university students harbour this fear of death in them since they are living with death every day of their lives? Only for a creature advanced enough on the evolutionary scale to have developed a split between “mind” and “body” does death become a problem, in fact, the central problem in living (Szasz, 1961). Elsewhere in the animal kingdom, life and death form a natural continuum because animals are their own bodies. Death is a purely physical event happening to a purely physical system. But for human beings (university students), death seems unnaturally discontinuous with life because of the gap between “I” and “my body”. “Soul” and “body” are not self-identical. It pains to accept cognitions like “my body failed me”, and “I” cannot accept the ultimate betrayal of “my” body that is death.

Human beings develop from early cellular stages to that of complex individuals. What is so much striking is that so much has developed out of so much little. Perhaps this piece of “magical mechanics” should have prepared university students for its reversal, the completion of the circle, the story of our lives coming to a full circle as we return to the same dust, “dust” out which we arose. So much has developed out of so little only to become, once again, so little. “That is just nature”. It is said. But the neat symmetry of all this does not persuade us that “nature” is natural, not for us, anyway, otherwise university students should have realized that death is natural, and should not fear it. What happens in the natural course of things seems right for physical things, like bodies, but not for the detached, disembodied, subjective “I” that normal human beings acquire in time.

This “I” is the part of university students that is very aware of the valour, prowess, and victory of death, and it (“I) is enshrined in self and only the self can become afraid of death. Thus, the self is the organizer of our thoughts, feelings and actions, and is a pivotal aspect of personality (Markus & Wurf, 1987). It is this free-floating, seemingly independent “I”, not the body that comes to seem the essential self that is very anxious about lapsing into extinction to become food to worms. Fear which is an adaptive mechanism to threatening situation is associated to death based on individual perception of death. Through biological and medical expedition, man has sought to terminate this fear of death by trying to create life, by freezing a human body only to reactivate it into life centuries latter, and the latest process of cloning which will be aimed at removing the diseases in a dying parson’s genes and re-growing the genes to a normal, healthy and active living person again. Until this is achieved, death is philosophically, religiously, culturally, biologically, medically and psychologically regarded as a point of “No Return and Final extinction”. This must elicit a great fear in the university students since their journey towards self-achievement and fulfillment are about to be quenched (Maslow, 1970).


“Life has no duplicate.” Credence is laid to this statement when we look at the fact that some students are too careful about their lives. They avoid any behaviour like smoking, going out at night and violence that will make them susceptible to death. Thus, it can be said that in their pyramid of motivations and needs as living individuals that security overshadows others (Maslow, 11970). Hence, they pray to God for general security. Contrarily, some university students do take life for granted. However, the intriguing development is that some university students even make themselves available to death through their behaviours like being in secret cults, armed robbery, and even career choices, which demand less fear of death. Therefore, the above facts raised the researcher’s interest to insist on carrying out the research.


No material acquisition in the world has got the value comparable to that of life. The struggle to stay alive is the personality most university students have in common, despite their gulf of individual difference. Therefore, this study will find out as its purpose of study whether students are afraid of death based on their course (faculty) of study. It is important to know that some courses due to their value for life treat individuals’ life like a treasure individuals posses, while some course treat life based on codified and rigid mode of conduct. This variability in courses demands different levels of fear of death among university students.

Again, genetic predisposition makes it imperative that university students differ in their being afraid of death. Thus, the purpose of this study is to find out whether female student are more afraid of death than male students. Other consideration that can lead to fear of death among university students is the marital status of the students. Those who have dependent persons like wives, husbands and children are likely to be more careful about life and fear death more than unmarried students, who tend to be exploring in their behaviours. This can also be brought out in the study as the third purpose of study.


At the end of this research, the researcher and the reader will be able to answer the following questions very pertinent to the research.

1. Do students’ faculties determine their degree of being afraid of death?
2. Do students’ gender predispose them to being afraid of death?
3. Are students’ martial status prerequisite for their being afraid of death?


1. Hypothesis One

There will be significant differences among students from the faculties of social sciences, management sciences, and law in terms of fear of death.

2. Hypothesis Two

There will be significant gender differences among university students in terms of fear of death.

3. Hypothesis Three

There will be significant differences between married and unmarried university students in terms of fear of death.


The importance/significance of this study can be seen in the following reasons.

Social Importance

The social importance/significance of this study stands out clear, if one views the fact that university students form a society within the school system. This makes it imperative that socialization processes go on in the campus. Therefore, this study will help the university administration understand the categories of students that are likely to be lesser afraid of death. These categories of students that are lesser afraid of death are more likely to be prone to engaging in violence, and this violence due to lesser fear of death is what Fraud (1920) called Tanatas (death instructs). The unrest (violence) will disrupt academic calendar.

Economic Importance

This study will also make it clear to the university authority that when these students that are lesser afraid of death are greater in population in the university, that economic goods will be destroyed through violence. This is not surprising because awareness about death checks man’s excessive behaviour. Similarly, destruction of human lives is likely when students are lesser afraid of death. This will be a waste of human manpower. On the other hand, students who are more afraid of death are likely to preserve the university academic calendar, economic goods and human lives.

Psychological Importance

This study will also help the students realize that the more careful they are about their lives, the more they will make good planning, adaptation and have better control of their lives; thus overcome the problems of living in fear of death. They will also understand that the prospect of our own death and death of a fellow students demand a difficult personal adjustment which is more rational than demonstrations and arson for some students, and suicidal tendencies for other individuals.


An exhaustive evaluation of this research cannot be claimed without a comprehensive and thorough review of the previous work done, both theoretical and empirical, by different people regarding the impressions and affects people have about death. These impressions and affect are the resultant variables why some people are afraid of death and others are not. It is important to note that most of the empirical studies reviewed here fall within what Erikson (1963) called the young adulthood with the age bracket of 20 to 40 years. In other words, all the literature reviewed here are made in comparisons or in reference to the age bracket 20 to 40 years, which is the age bracket most university students used in this research fall within. Any deviation from this age bracket is stated in the course of the review.


Death is a very mysterious construct with many concepts surrounding it. Thus, it is viewed differently by different groups of people, and from different perspectives. From the cultural perspective, death is the departure from the physical world to the world beyond in order to meet the ancestors; and it is believed that if one dies a youthful death, that the person will not be accepted by the ancestors. On the other hand, religion views death as the departure from this world in order to meet God, the creator, and account for one’s living (behaviour) here on earth, However, medical or biblical school views death as the uselessness and non-functional state of an entire organism which will be wasted or decay away in a short period (Okoye, 1998).

All in all, the main fact about death is the individualistic evaluation of it, which goes a long way to determine the level of fear an individual has of death. This individualistic evaluation is completely psychological. Okoye (1998) stated that death has been a puzzle to the living since time immemorial. Death brings human material life to an end, and at the same time opens the gate for a new and higher spiritual life. Death instills fear into the living and triggers off cold tragic feeling of the great unknown future of life as to how and when a particular individual will die. Normally, premature and unprepared for death sends cold waves through the spine of the individual involved. And it has been observed that depressive mood and dissatisfaction with life and living predispose one to suicidal attempts.

First hand accounts, supplemented by the findings of social scientists have recently provided a poignant look at what life is like for university students faced with the prospect of death (Caine, 1974; Glick, Weise and Parkes, 1974; Lopata, 1973). For married university students, their fears of death will depend on the state of marital relations in the period immediately preceding death, but in nearly all cases, the suddenness of death will have a profound effect in the trauma that follows. Berardo (1970) stated that married university students who are females are more afraid of death than their male counterparts. It is also stated that the emotional and adjective possibilities associated with death of a spouse is a function of the financial security of the surviving spouse. Thus, married and working university students are lesser afraid of death than non-working students (Atchley, 1975).

Glick et al. (1974) and Lopata (1973) emphasized that the level of year of death a students has about death depends on such factors as ethnicity, personality and family ties. Therefore, a university student who views ethnic origin as a wall of survival and is highly socialized in this, dreads the death of an influential ethnic member. On the other hand, students who have high needs for achievement personality, may look on death as an examination and challenge to his or her existence to achieve something worthwhile in the passing world. Similarly, students who have strong family attachments dread death, both of a family member and or himself or herself. In their studies of time estimation as it concerns imminent death, Cottle and Howard (1972) maintained that people within the age bracket of 20 to 40 years or a little beyond this upper limit overestimate the time left for one to live. This is because underestimation of the time reflects a quickened tempo. However, it was found that intelligence, socioeconomic status, education, activity levels and morale have also been found to exercise discrete influences over subjective temporal estimates.

Contrarily to popular opinion, those people living in nursing homes or retirement housing, were death is an obvious fact of life, are not more disconsolate over their impending death, than their counterparts in the community. In fact, youthful individuals faced with terminal illness, who are taken care of in nursing homes, display lesser fear of death because of the social interactions they have with others (Marsahll, 1976; Swenson, 1965). Fear of death among university students can also arise from the psychological implications of religiosity. According to Jeffers and Verwoerdt (1969) undergraduates who are not free of fears of retribution may not experience any greater calm. As earlier stated, the causes of fear of death among university students are numerous.

In their studies Kubler-Ross (1969) and Sudnow (1967) maintained that patients labouring under sickness and long-term ailments may actually accept death more and perceive it as a welcome relief. What may be interpreted as fearfulness perhaps results from the situations in which most people die. Nobody dies at home anymore. Hospitals that were initially believed as places for saving life have become places for dying. The vast majority of people are banished to demoralizing impersonal wards where their questions on whether they are going to survive are met with conspiracy of silence. As death draws near, the terminal patient is literally avoided, for the priorities lie with those who are living. Physicians visit less frequently and for shorter periods. No wonder the dying are afraid, though, it is not death they fear, but abandonment, pain and confusion. What most people desire is someone to talk with, to tell them their life’s meaning is not shattered merely because hey are about to die.

Another psychological attributes university students face in respect to fear of death is conditions under which death will occur; whether it will be a peaceful, quick or painful one, the condition of the surviving ones and even the funeral, considering the fact that the university students have different backgrounds. According to Riley (1970), three-quarters of individuals who are capable resolve these conflicts. In their own study on why university students and individuals at large exhibit wide variations in their fear of death, Gerber (1975), and Heyman and Gianturco (1974) stated that female students are generally more afraid of death, than male university students, and that the emotional reactions associated with death depend on the grief, guilt, confusion and hostility of the passing time. In spite of the above, some people still see death as something not to happen to them. This is brought out by Wahl (1958), when he emphasized that though some people see themselves as not to encounter death, yet, when they see the strong and the brave people die, they begin to question their supremacy over death, and thus fear develops.

Ignorance about death is not all that universal. In this, Childers and Wimmers (1971) argued that the concept of death starts from childhood, expands at teen and by mid-twenties (university age), the realities of death and its consequences have become crystally clear. According to Mcintire, Angle and Struemplar (1972), “why” and fear of death are functions of socio-economic status of individuals and socialization process. However, it is stated that those with frequent thoughts of suicide most often deny death as final. The emotional affects of death are so overwhelming that it even disrupts suicidal urges. In this, Neuringer (1970) and, Orbach and Glaoubman (1977) reported that the distorted and idiosyncratic perceptions of death serve as defense mechanisms against the fear of death that arises from suicidal urges. Similarly, some individuals who lost a family member can be so emotionally disorganized that it leads to psychopathology. Therefore, grief becomes a permanent affair such that they are unable to live a normal life, leading to pathological manifestation. For these people suffering from “unresolved” mourning, there can be neither growth, change, nor recognition that the dead must be buried and a new life begun by retrieving their emotional investment in the deceased (Pincus, 1974; Schuitz, 1978). This inability to cope with loss apparently results from denial of loss, among other factors. For example, such individuals may often go into depressive state particularly during anniversaries of their loss.


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Fear of Death Among University Students. A Study
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death, fear of death, Nigeria, university students
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Okechukwu Dominic Nwankwo (Author), 2016, Fear of Death Among University Students. A Study, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/341558


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