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The Existential Moment: Acknowledge Death

“…it is he who is dead and not I.” 

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy is a powerful exploration of mortality. Through the story of Ivan Ilyich, a successful and respected lawyer, Tolstoy portrays the tragedy of a life lived without acknowledging the certainty of one’s own death. Instead, as articulated in the quote, denial is a staunch ally in the process: others die, not me.

As Ivan Ilyich faces his own mortality, he begins to question the meaning of his life and his choices in bourgeois society. Through his struggle, Tolstoy reminds us that death is not an abstract concept but a reality we must all face. The novel serves as a poignant reminder: facing the inevitability of our death opens the possibility of an authentic life well-lived.

Death is an existential given. However, grappling with death in therapy and life creates an opportunity. Recognition of limited time pushes us to examine our priorities and motivates us to act. Paradoxically, facing death teaches us to live. Living as we should potentially robs death of its sting (at least some).

Death is in the therapy, acknowledged or not. Many of us are unsure where to look for death, what to do with it in the therapy, whether we can handle the anxiety ourselves, whether it makes matters worse to address, and so on. However, ignoring it communicates it is too fearsome and misses an opportunity.

Irv Yalom (2002) urges us to talk about death in therapy and to do so calmly, directly, and matter-of-factly. We might look for death in past experiences, current losses, rigid or excessive behavior, etc. Yalom also argues for dissecting the great fear of death (e.g., the dying process, abandoning others, failure, etc.). Notably, taking that journey with others requires us to travel that road ourselves.

“It is he who is dead…,” not us! So be mindful of Ivan Ilyich. It might transform your work. It might even revolutionize the way you live.


Yalom, I. D. (2002). The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients. HarperCollins. 

Links to Related Blog Posts:

Read more posts about existential givens in E-H therapy on EHI’s blog. 

Read more posts about the existential given of death in E-H therapy on EHI’s blog. 

Read all the Existential Moment series posts on EHI’s blog.

Existential Moment Author: 

Scott Gibbs, LMFT,  EHI Board Member-at-Large | Website: | Twitter: @Novum_Organum 

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