Figuring Out Death

Figuring Out Death

Death scares the shit out of me. It always has, since forever. And I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. Too much, if you ask me. But the past four months have involved multiple occurrences in which I have been forced to adjust to death and, for the first time in my life, I think I’m ready to make peace with my fear.


My father died this past November. He was in very poor health, but I thought we had more time. I’d seen him a month before at my wedding, spoke to him two days before I received the call. I was not prepared for it. It was the worst day of my life.


Two and a half months later, I woke up to find one of my dogs had died in her sleep. It’d been less than 12 hours since everything was fine. We went to bed as usual and she was five feet from where my husband and I slept. It was the next worst day of my life.


Now, here we are in the middle of March and nearly every country on Earth—172 out of 195—has reported cases of a coronavirus and the entire world is locking down. More than 11,000 deaths worldwide and thousands more to come. We don’t know who or how many there will be. All we can do is keep our distance and wait.


Anyone with anxiety understands me when I say I don’t enjoy feeling out of control. I think it’s the uncertainty of death that makes it so difficult for me to grasp. I’m an emotional human. I function in a highly emotional state at all times, so logic kind of takes a backseat to emotion. But this whole Social Distancing thing has me wandering around new realms and trying to understand death in a way I haven’t before: rationally. No matter how uncomfortable it makes me feel (and it does), I want to come to terms with the facts of death and, more specifically, my own mortality. I want to stop feeling afraid of it all the time. I am so tired of feeling afraid.


Recently, I was at a storytelling event and a woman shared about her diagnosis of ALS and told us she only has a couple of years left. As you’d expect, there were very sad parts of her story, to which the audience reacted with somber sighs. My heart was heavy for her. Then, my mind spiraled down the rabbit hole: What if that happens to me or what if it happens to my husband? What if I die in a car accident or what if he does? Or what if we get cancer? It happens every day, people die every day. People suffer and it’s terrible and the world is all pain. And you’ll probably die at a young age because it is your greatest fear. You should be afraid of it all the time.


But as the woman’s story went on, I was surprised at her optimism. She talked about the things she’d been doing with her time and how she planned to spend the rest of it. This woman’s story was, of course, very sad. But it ended on an unexpectedly lighthearted note. The last thing she said before walking off stage was, “I am going to die, but it makes me feel better to know that everyone in this room is going to die one day, too.” We laughed and applauded and the woman looked genuinely happy.

The perspective of someone who is actually dying can completely change the perspective of someone who is alive and well and has no diseases other than fear and paranoia. The storyteller was free of fear, because she knew there was no sense being afraid of what is a biological truth: if it lives, it will one day die.


So I’m not fully there yet, but I’m working on figuring out death. I want to get to a place where I can acknowledge it without shrinking away with fear. I’m just so tired of being scared all the time. Death is sad and it’s always going to be sad, but being afraid of it doesn’t help me live a better life. And I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to waste being alive worrying about dying.

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