An Update on Death Anxiety

A few months ago, I wrote a piece about my experience coping (or rather, my inability to do so) with death anxiety.

I view everything I write to be a direct line to the Universe. Sometimes I picture it in an almost cartoon-esque mental image, like I’m picking up a cherry red 1950s telephone and asking to speak directly to whoever it is that happens to be in charge of this life thing. The only problem with writing to the Universe, of course, is that they tend to not write back. No matter how many questions you throw out into the ether of possibility, you’ll likely never get back a signed and stamped letter with a few neatly typed answers to your existential inquiries.

And yet, I still always seem to get the answers that I need; if not in written form then in bits and pieces of experience and happenstance in the time after I “submit my request,” so to speak.

In the months since I first publically wrote about my experiences with death anxiety, messages have creeped in. Sometimes at a slow trickle, sometimes like a waterfall. Only  a few weeks after first writing the piece, one of my professors held a lecture entirely devoted to death and how humans cope with it. This was the first waterfall.

I remember sitting in class and feeling goosebumps form on my neck when I saw the topic of conversation for the day projected up at the front of the room. Of course, I thought, Of course it’s death. One of the reasons it took me so long to come out and write about my fears is that I generally attempt to avoid death altogether. It’s uncomfortable, it’s frightening, and if at all possible, I try not to think about the things that compulsively plague me in my free time. I could practically see the Universe shrugging its shoulders at me passively, as though to say, “Well, you asked.”

My somewhat-unconscious decision to avoid death and all related topics was immediately cast under scrutiny with the very first point my professor made in that lecture: we fear death because we hide from it.

Our society largely doesn’t deal with death the way we used to, largely because people don’t die the way they used to. We used to die in what my professor called “The Old Country Way:” at home, in our beds, surrounded by our families. Back then, when we knew someone was dying, we’d go visit, say our goodbyes, maybe even stick around for the final transition out of this world. Nowadays we die in hospitals, or special rooms for dying people. And if we do die in public, we’re covered in a sheet and hidden away as quickly as possible.

Part of this is likely necessary, of course. It’s probably not best to leave someone’s dead body just laying around for even the youngest and most impressionable to see. But even as I type this, I wonder if even that is true. Surely gore and gruesomeness is unsuitable for many eyes, but I have to wonder if it’s natural for me to be able to say this statement without any hint of doubt:

I’ve never seen a dead body.

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I’ve never even been to a funeral, let alone a wake. And should I had gone to such an event, I doubt what I would have seen would have been an accurate presentation of what it’s like to be dead. It would have been prepared in some way, dressed to the nines, dolled up with makeup and accessories to hide away any hints that this person may actually be dead. Although I’ve known family friends and members who’ve passed on, I’ve never actually seen them once the light has gone out.

It’s in this way, I think, that death became a boogey-man for me, even as a child. Death wasn’t ever visible to me, making it just as elusive and terrifying as Count Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster. It was something that was scarier the less you really knew about it; something that preys on the childlike tendency to fill in the gaps of your experiential knowledge with the worst imaginable possibilities. Like a creak in the house heard at night, the things I could not see turned into terrifying imaginations.

Even putting aside the idea of physically seeing death, death itself was a hidden topic. Growing up, and even today, we never said that someone “died.” It was always that someone had “passed on,” or “passed away,” or “was in Heaven now.” We communicated death with a careful avoidance of actually saying its name, as though it was something that could be called upon us like a curse or prophecy.

Back in the days where we died in “The Old Country Way,” we couldn’t avoid it the way we do now. Hospitals were too far down the road or too expensive to die in. If you took a particularly nasty fall out on the farm, you likely knew when death was coming and when it was too late to do anything about it. There was no point in hiding death when it was happening right inside your house, something that was assuredly sad but nothing to try and pretend didn’t exist. The further we get from this face-to-face confrontation with the ultimate reality of our existence, the greater lengths we go to try and turn our backs to it.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about a class I taught where just one woman showed up. As we spoke, I learned that she was, in her own words, getting ready to die. She’d been diagnosed with cancer, and after a long battle, was accepting the fact that the end (at least of this lifetime) was drawing near. I remember feeling simultaneously deeply uncomfortable and oddly comforted by this woman’s story. On one hand, it was like a child bumping into Count Dracula on the street, seeing in broad daylight for the first time the thing that had plagued their nightmares with its mystery for years. On the other, it was like learning that the monster you’d always feared was, while real, very different than you’d once expected it to be.

Yes, she was sad that her time here was drawing to a close. But she also had an air of peaceful release about her. There was no more resisting, no more trying to play God over a fate that was unfolding. There was, in as yogic terms as I can manage, a meditative element to her existence. There was only what was. Not grappling with what “could be” or “should be” or “might’ve been.”

The simple fact was, she didn’t have time for that kind of strife, and she was facing a reality that many of us prefer to turn our backs on and avoid for as long as possible.

Perhaps to understand our fear of death, we have to understand first what it is that we’re fearful of losing to death. Is it a loss of the familiar? A departure from the only kind of “living” we’ve known thus far? Is it leaving behind the people and things we’ve grown to love in life? Is it the potential of missing out on the things we planned on doing or wanted to do?

It seems to me, at least in my experience, that a fear of death is a fear of not living. But this, of course, begets yet another intangible question: Then what is “living?”

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I’d have to frame my own answer in terms of the things that make me feel alive. Teaching yoga makes me feel alive. Traveling to new places makes me feel alive. Taking risks makes me feel alive. Laughing with friends makes me feel alive. Playing with my dog makes me feel alive. Writing makes me feel alive. Making art makes me feel alive. Moving my body makes me feel alive. The moments in time that take my breath away, allow me to laugh so hard my belly hurts, make my heart fill with love, all make me feel alive. 

If death is a fear of not feeling alive, then paradoxically my fear of death does death’s job in this lifetime, too. When I’m consumed by a fear of death, of no longer existing and experiencing the things that make me feel alive, I’m removing my ability to be fully present in the things that make life something worth missing. When I’m paralyzed by fear, I’m allowing the fear of death itself to win over my apparent attachment to living.

Perhaps the conclusion that I’m coming to is that death is not something to be avoided or feared, but rather something to be aware of. Like the woman in that class so long ago, a recognition of death can be not terrifying, but rather liberating. Looking the thing we fear most in the eyes and not going to great lengths to deny it or hide from it could, perhaps, serve only to give us a sense of perspective.

Death, of course, is a companion we’re always traveling with. It’s a possibility in every moment: we’re never guaranteed the next breath or heartbeat. To try and avert our eyes from our only guaranteed companion in this lifetime is to allow fear of the unknown or not understood to win. And if there’s one thing that’s an enemy in any form it takes, it’s ignorance.

Although perhaps not comforting at first, it’s come to me that death is something that must be acknowledged, accepted, and given necessary attention in order to have its power taken away from it. Like a parent peeking under the bed at night to prove that no monster is lurking, turning and facing death for what it is the greatest weapon we have against our anxiety surrounding death. Facing it, of course, without the veils we’ve used to turn our backs on it for too long now: without the avoidance of discussion on it, without the fear of acknowledging its inevitability, without the coy terms and euphemisms that make us feel better in the moment. Instead understanding it for what it is: a closure, an end to a chapter, and perhaps that is all we know for sure.

But who is to say that an end must always be a bad thing? Don’t we, as humans, inherently seek closure in all that we do? Why is it, then, that we strive to pretend that we have an endless existence in front of us? To pretend that death is something we don’t need to think about or understand?

The key, I believe, isn’t to think about death all day long, nor to make it an obsession. But rather simply to be aware of it for what it is. To allow it to be something that doesn’t mean “an end of living,” but instead something that pushes us to find the things that make us live. To give it the power not to obsessively hinder us but instead remind us that all we have is what is. It’s up to us to fill the time we have with the things that make us feel alive, that give a purpose and pleasure and meaning to the time we have here.

I think it’s okay to be scared of what we may never know until death happens to us: what exactly it feels like or what happens after. But I’m no longer choosing to allow it to be acceptable for myself to allow those fears to keep me from living in the present I have right now.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sydney says:

    I just read your piece on the experience you had with this woman during yin yoga, and it made my day. So often, people I’ve known are cynical and bitter about the cards they’ve been dealt, so to know this woman chose not to be miserable is really admirable. It’s easy to have pity parties, isn’t it? I’ve been guilty of it in the past, but really try to pay attention to this tendancy now. One of my favorite quotes is by Pink Floyd: “Don’t help them to bury the light.” This woman you met sounds like she illuminated! Keep lighting up our days, Maris! We need your truth and bravery✨✨✨

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marisdegener says:

      I’m so grateful it resonated! That story will always stick out in my mind as one of the defining moments in my journey, and a connection that has taught me much about the power of perspective. Thank you for being here and sharing that great quote!

      Like

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