An anthropologist once questioned an Eskimo shaman about his tribe’s belief system. After putting up with the anthropologist’s questions for a while, the shaman finally told him: “Look. We don’t believe. We fear.”
In a similar way, Buddhism starts, not with a belief, but with a fear of very present dangers. As the Buddha himself reported, his initial impetus for leaving home and seeking Awakening was his comprehension of the great dangers that inevitably follow on birth: aging, illness, death, and separation. The Awakening he sought was one that would lead him to a happiness not subject to these things. After finding that happiness, and in attempting to show others how to find it for themselves, he frequently referred to the themes of aging, illness, death, and separation as useful objects for contemplation. Because of this, his teaching has often been called pessimistic, but this emphasis is actually like that of a doctor who focuses on the symptoms and causes of disease as part of an effort to bring about a cure. The Buddha is not afraid to dwell on these topics, because the Awakening he teaches brings about a total release from them.
From the introduction to an article called BEYOND COPING by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/study/beyondcoping/index.html)
Thanissaro Bhikkhu clearly describes our situation, and the Buddha’s response to it, above. It may be a long road to accepting the truth of our own mortality, but when we reach that understanding, our fear of both life and death is released. How can we fully love life if a (sometimes subconscious) fear of death is always humming away in the background?
By accepting that our lives are time-limited, we can participate fully in every day – the wonderful and the awful – knowing that this, now, is our one chance to be alive. This is our chance to give our best, to create positive things in the world and learn to tame our own harmful impulses.
It is often said that the best way to help others is to work on ourselves. By acknowledging and facing our fear of death, we can become more grounded ourselves and also be more capable of helping others with their fears.