An Extract From Tolstoy Therapy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy for a Fear of Death

This is an extract about The Death of Ivan Ilyich from the bibliotherapy book I’m working on, currently entitled Tolstoy Therapy (is this too predictable?)

I hope to give you more information about it soon, but I have a first draft written and I’m looking to publish it to begin with as a Kindle ebook in the upcoming weeks. It’s been a really exciting project so far, and I’ve had so many great stories to write about!

It’ll be wonderful to hear your opinion both on this extract – taken from the chapter on fearing death – and the book as a whole when it’s complete. It will include stories (with all names changed and people consulted, including in the extract below) and book recommendations from both myself and others, tips for making the most out of your reading, and a celebration of the favourite hobby I share with most of you: reading!

Tolstoy and his wife, Sofia
Sofia and Leo Tolstoy. Image from The Guardian. 

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” – Mark Twain

We will never find out what is to come after living, no matter how hard we try. We may decide to dedicate our lives to trying to find out, but I have a better suggestion: reading great books that help us to  make the most out of life and come to terms with the inevitability of death.

A keen reader from Sweden, Åsa, got in touch to tell me about the positive impact that reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy had on her after her grandmother’s death. Åsa told me that her grandmother’s death took her completely by surprise as, in her own words, her grandmother was an extraordinary woman: “strong in every way, smart, a born leader”. She had been diagnosed with a tumour, but had decided not to tell Åsa and her wider family. Åsa was left with a lot of unanswered questions in her mind, but reading Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich did much to console her and provide answers.
Åsa told me that while Ivan Ilyich is a book about death, it’s also about a man who overcame it. Reading Ivan Ilyich helped Åsa to think from her grandmother’s perspective and understand that she probably didn’t tell her family about her tumour for fear of burdening them. Although her grandmother could have lived a little bit longer with chemotherapy and medicines, Åsa realised that her grandmother didn’t want to choose this path, but rather accept death and its inevitability. Åsa concluded by saying, “Reading Ivan Ilyich opened my eyes, I understood something about my own life.”
Leo Tolstoy was a writer who frequently struggled with thoughts of death. During the autumn of 1869, when he made a trip to the Penza province in Russia to inspect some land he was thinking of buying, he found himself awake at two in the morning, exhausted but unable to sleep. Despite feeling physically well, Tolstoy was suddenly gripped by a fear of dying more intense than any he had experienced before, and this produced in him a state of existential anguish he found terrifying. He drew on this memory when he started writing an autobiographical story called Notes of a Madman, although this was never completed. However, a short story entitled The Death of Ivan Ilyich was finished and published, and allows us not only to understand better the author’s thoughts towards death, but also consider our own.
Ivan Ilyich lives a carefree life that is “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Like everyone in his social circle, he dedicates his life to climbing the social ladder and seeking the bliss that he believes is found at the top of this. Although he is in an unhappy marriage with a wife he finds too demanding, Ivan frequently ignores his family life and focuses his attentions on becoming a magistrate. He is primarily concerned with his own status and the influence of his friends, until he one day falls awkwardly upon hanging curtains for his new home. Being the workaholic that he is, Ivan does not think much of this at first. However, he begins to suffer a pain in his side, and his discomfort increases day by day. This is accompanied by great irritability, which culminates in his wife insisting that he see a physician. A diagnosis that is devoid of hope follows, and Ivan is forced to face his own mortality. 
Ivan’s main source of comfort becomes his servant Gerasim: the only person in his life who does not fear death, and the only one other than his own son who seems to show compassion for him. As Ivan’s friendship with Gerasim becomes closer, Ivan begins to question whether he has, in fact, lived a good and moral life. Gerasim guides Ivan in his final days, and allows him to realise the difference between an artificial life and an authentic one. At the moment before his death Ivan has several realisations, and a highly moving, philosophical account of mortality is rendered.
This short story not only allows us to confront our own fear of death, but addresses an accompanying concern: the fear that we have not made the most of our life or found meaning in it. We realise that if we make changes now, if we check up on our neighbour or act kindly towards our spouse, we will grow old without the hefty fear of dying on our shoulders. Mindfulness is key in this respect. 
Leo Tolstoy died from pneumonia at the age of eighty-two years old, at Astapovo train station in Russia. His death came only days after he had finally gathered the nerve to secretly leave home and to separate from his wife, renouncing his aristocratic lifestyle in the process. The police tried to limit access to his funeral procession, but thousands of peasants lined the streets at his funeral. 

By reading Ivan Ilyich, we can learn to make the most of our present, understand death’s inevitability and our powerlessness over it, and accept the attitudes of others towards dying.
My Top 5 Books for a Fear of Death:
1. The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy
2. The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
3. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
4. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
5. The Rain Before it Falls – Jonathan Coe


Retreat Into The Sanctuary & Find Your Way With Comforting, Gentle Wisdom

Love books, feeling a little lost right now, and looking for some comfort and guidance forwards? I made The Sanctuary exactly for this.

It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard