Most days I think about death. And by death I mean my own mortality. I am not one of those people who insists they are only worried about their loved ones dying. Obviously I am concerned about that but when I say that I think about death it’s that I think about myself disappearing. It’s not a constantly on my thoughts about once everyday it crosses my mind.
Usually, I assume like most people, this thought fills me with anguish. When I think about passing away at even a healthy old age it feels like it will happen tomorrow. My breathing becomes shallow and I can feel my throat constrict. I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife so for me death just means that I will disappear. And not being anymore. Not mattering, not existing, not being heard, leaving my husband. These are all terrifying thoughts. Most people would argue that it doesn’t matter since well, you’re not there anymore but it does to me. It matters to me.
I remember visiting my grandmother a few days before her death. She wasn’t fully conscious. But she was talking, fretting, clutching onto my hand. She starting convulsing. I don’t know what was going through her mind but she was clearly gripped with terror. And who wouldn’t be? For all the ways that society paints death as something poetic, peaceful, natural – the circle of life and so on. Death is messy business. It’s scary. It’s hard for those watching and it’s hard for those going through it. Watching my grandmother dying confirmed my suspicion that my fear of death is rational. It’s not fun.
Sometimes after thinking about death I feel soulful, energized and determined to live life to the fullest. What exactly that means is harder to determine. Everyday I go to work, make dinner, do chores. These things are not really optional. Even though working all day staring at a computer screen isn’t exactly carpedium, not having the money to survive hardly is either. I try to do things that make me slow down through the daily grind – go for a walk, write, read, meditate. And I try to do things that break the monotony of daily life, that make time seem longer – go on trips, have sex, go to concerts, party. These things all help but time still passes. I am 33 and I find myself envious of 20 year old since they have more time ahead of them. I have had a lot of good times in my life so far. I’ve traveled a lot, lived abroad, earned a couple degrees, fallen passionately in love with my now husband. But I know a lot of these special moments are memories. They are in the past and I have fewer years ahead of me than I used to. Of course, God willing, I have many many more years ahead and I do keep on making new good memories as well. But at 33, I realize that I am not that far off from middle age. In another 33 years I’ll be 66. Sixty-six year olds can still be active and lead meaningful lives. Most 66 year olds in Canada still have plenty of time ahead of them. But it’s also not an unusual age to pass away. It’s young, but it’s not extremely unusual.
This year my husband and I visited Uganda. There the average age is around 30. It’s a young country where there is a dearth of seniors. To grow old is a luxury. It’s a fortune most people don’t have. We went on a tour with a woman in her mid-twenties who had started her own tourism company. She seemed young and hip and very westernized. I was impressed with how entrepreneurial she was and accomplished for someone that young. But the thing is, she wasn’t actually that young by Ugandan standards. Her parents had passed away and she had seven younger siblings to supper. Of course she was entrepreneurial, she had to be to survive and for her family to survive. My ruminations about death and the fear of my own mortality are first world problems. Most of the world is too busy surviving to worry about the inevitable parts of life.
Some time ago I felt pain in my chest, difficulty breathing, dizziness and a type of outer body-type feeling. I thought I should get my chest checked out. But the feeling was pretty fleeting, it passed pretty quickly so I wasn’t in a rush to see the doctor. My therapist told me I was having panic stacks. She said that the physical sensations were real but that they were precipitated by psychological factors. She described panic attacks as the body getting the wrong cue from our surroundings and reacting as if we were going to die as a response. That the heart rate and the breathing were part of our fight and flight response from times when humans needed more blood circulation to do things like running away from bears. She said that in contemporary society this reaction can come up when we’re not running away from bears but in my case doing completely safe things like picking out a colouring book or sitting up at night feeling lonely. Her explanation was logical – the body freaks out when it thinks about dying. But by her description, the body’s fear of death in everyday situations seems misplaced and illogical. I find that fear of death is often cast as ‘crazy’. My friend makes fun of me because whenever I have a chocking fit I look like I think I’m going to die or because I overreact to health problems instead of just taking it in stride. When I got an irregular Pap test she reminded me that this doesn’t mean I was going to die. She said that getting bad news early was good since it helps you to be proactive about your health. The therapist and my friend are both right. Panic attacks won’t kill me and neither will having a cold. Yet, I am still going to die some day. That is not an irrational thing to say. It’s not an overreaction. It is reality. I am allowed to be scared of that without my feelings being trivialized.
My mom talks about death more than I think about it. Last time I visited her she asked me to euthanize her. Not now but “when the time comes”. She is an extremely healthy 70 year old but she talks as if she is going to croak tomorrow. It’s very upsetting to hear someone you love talk In this way. It infuriates me that she doesn’t do what mothers are supposed to do, and protect me from upsetting things. I guess since I’m an adult she doesn’t feel I need protecting from her upsetting diatribe about death. Or maybe she just hasn’t thought through how her words affect those around her. I hope that my thoughts about mortality don’t escalate to her level when I’m older. I can see that her focus on death isn’t doing her life any favours.
My husband has a much more refreshing approach to death. He doesn’t think about death very often and when he does, it doesn’t fill him with fear. He is a man of faith. He believes in a higher power. He believe that everything will be okay and that even if it isn’t, it’s God’s will. He told me that religion makes him a lot more stable. He doesn’t need therapists like I do like or some of his other atheist friends. When he is feeling down he goes to a beach and talks to God. After that, he says, he feels like a weight has been lifted and that he is reassured about the state and the world and the path of his life. I wish I had that. Unlike a lot of atheists who see religious people as naive and unintelligent, I admire faith. I think having faith is a great asset when doing the tricky business of living.
This is the point in the essay where I tell the reader how I have grown and how now I have a different perspective on death that has helped me lead a healthier, more meaningful life. I tell you how I have found God. Or that I’ve stopped having panic attacks and that my mother’s mental health problems have magically melted away from my newfound wisdom. But I don’t have a solution to this. I still feel scared. The life expectancy is Uganda is still low. My musings haven’t in fact solved anything.
I will just keep doing those profane everyday things that help me. I read novels that make me feel more connected to humanity, I go for walks in the forest or by the ocean and take in the beauty of nature, I have wine with friends and talk about life, I plan trips and outings when I can afford it, I listen to music seeped in emotion, I kiss my husband and hope that I can absorb some of his conviction and I write. I write to untangle my feelings, find peace and connect with other humans. I will die one day. In the meantime I will try to honour my fear as a reminder that my everyday efforts to find beauty in the mundane will one day end. Because one day I won’t have any more days to get through.