Listen to an audio version of this article on our podcast, Death in the Afternoon.
I was six-years-old the night death took up residence in my brain. I was sitting in bed with my mom and she had just read to me from a book of Greek myths. I don’t remember the story she read me, I don’t remember who was punished or pardoned. But I do remember that in the story a character died, a character who felt important to me.
Death was not described as especially violent, cruel, or gory, but something about my mom’s voice and the demise of a character I had conjured into being shined a light onto something I didn’t know was there.
I began to cry. It was the first time I remember crying over sadness that I’d seemingly picked out of the ether. Nobody had pinched me, nobody had stolen my special frosted birthday cookie (a travesty that had happened earlier that year) – I was just suddenly overcome with the type of sadness, a panic, that made my heart race, my breath catch, and my stomach lurch.
Was this fear or was this sorrow? Should I scream or should I faint? The only thing that made sense was to cry.
My Mom, who was never one to coo or coddle asked, “What’s wrong?” Usually her cool, assuredness made the monsters go away, but this time…maybe not.
In the moments I spent turning over the death of a character I had briefly willed into existence, I realized something about life: it ends.
Death was real. It was like a light turned on or innocence dimmed.
It wasn’t just a plot point in a story or some unknowable thing that happened to grandparents or Mr. McFarson next-door.
My grandfather had DIED.
Don McFarson had DIED.
That guy from the Greek myths story – whether he was totally made up or had actually lived a long time ago – had DIED.
Even scarier, one day my young life would be an old life, and one day my life would be no more.
“Everybody…dies?” I asked.
Saying things out loud makes them really, really real. Children know this. Saying “everybody dies” or repeating the name of a ghoul in a dark mirror — two things that will make the amorphous material.
My mom didn’t miss a beat. “Yes. Everybody dies.”
My stomach twisted, my heart fluttered, my head felt like it might fly away.
“Will you?” I asked. I had to hear it.
Again, no beats missed, just a few that were supposed to come from my heart.
And like one of those mythical Greeks I felt my body turn to stone, as my mother softened.
“But not for a long, long time. And when I do, I’ll have you to remember me. So in a way, I’ll always be with you.”
I wept. I couldn’t stop. No – weeping is too elegant of a description. Weeping is what ladies in silk dresses do when their gentleman caller does not show. I bawled and whimpered and howled. I could go through all the synonyms I just looked up on the Internet for “cry”. I think I bleated at one point.
My mom held me until she fell asleep but I don’t remember sleeping that night. I was racked with a fear I’d never known before. Unlike my previous fears of ghosts, Gremlins, and Willy Wonka, death was absolutely, without a doubt real, and it was coming for me – and it was coming for my mom, and my dad, my dog, Punky Brewster and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
The realization that “Me. Louise. One day, I will be dead. It WILL HAPPEN.” kept rippling through my head and taking my breath away.
Since that night death anxiety has been a constant companion. A companion that is sometimes my muse and sometimes my captor. Many people are surprised to hear this, considering that my days are largely spent writing about and grappling with issues surrounding death and the funeral industry.
To be clear, my death fears are not the cause of my mental health issues — specifically intense anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — but they do influence them.
A quick aside for those of you who aren’t familiar.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or “OCD” is a disorder I live with that compels me to well, obsessively, repeat behaviors lest SOMETHING terrible happens to me or my loved ones. You may remember it from the time Jamie at work (erroneously) said, “OMG I’m so OCD, I ONLY drink oat milk in my latte!” Maybe you do have OCD Jamie, but oat milk isn’t the problem in this scenario.
Often the behaviors, though stressful – counting everything, tapping doorknobs – are relatively harmless. Other times – like the urge to pick at the skin on my hands until my fingers are bloody flesh nuggets – my compulsions are my tormentors.
This is how I live with OCD. It may not be how you live with OCD. It may not be how Jamie lives with OCD.
My big beautiful brain is a cocktail of all sorts of chemical imbalances, experiences, and probably a Q-Tip or two. Death fears are a part of that cocktail. It’s the vermouth in my compulsions. The bitters in my dermatillomania (the skin picking). The seltzer in my depressive episodes.
But I’ve always been a person who runs toward what frightens them. If it makes me uncomfortable I want to look at it. Hiding from the THING that is plaguing me feels like I’ll always have to be looking over my shoulder. I’d rather have it in my sights. Make peace with it, if not befriend it.
Such is my relationship with death.
Which doesn’t mean I feel TRIUMPHANT over death. Oh no, it’s a constant battle. There are days I feel paralyzed by the impending deaths of the people I love. There are days my own mortality feels cruel. Sometimes fear invades every thought and every action and though I want to make the most of my time allotted I feel relegated to focusing on the next breath and then the next and then the next…
Sometimes my brain tricks me into thinking I can ward off death by going through a complicated series of tapping, counting, or repetitive actions. I won’t steer you too far down my compulsion path, but odd numbers are better than even numbers and if on a rough day, I say, turn the faucet on and off 5, 7, or 13 times, my brain tells me that I may have singlehandedly warded off death for another day.
Of course I don’t think for one second that I’m actually cheating death (honestly that sounds like its own sort of hell), there’s just the inescapable question that’s always lingering in my head: “But what if…?”
Despite my death anxieties making me count, tap, fret and sweat, I don’t want to eliminate them (entirely). The constant turning over and examining of my death fears makes me acutely aware of what I do and do not want in regard to my death and the deaths of my loved ones. It makes creating death plans and Advance Directives not just important, but ways in which to quiet my anxiety.
Perhaps it’s less that I’m afraid of death, but rather I’m afraid to die without having at least made the effort to care for the people (and let’s face it, cats) that I love.
But more than anything, I find death anxiety to be something that bonds all of us.
HOT TAKE: We’re all afraid of death – whether it’s the actual state of BEING DEAD one day, the pain of dying, or how your remains will be treated after death. I think there’s a direct correlation between how much a person protests and how afraid they are.
No judgement, we all have different ways of raising up fences to protect ourselves – “I’m totally not afraid of death!” is definitely one of them.
Here’s something that happens to me very often when new people find out I work for an organization called, “The Order of the Good Death”: “That’s amazing,” they say. “I think it’s so important we talk about death. Can you believe people are afraid of dying? You can’t fight it! I’m not afraid of death. When it’s your time, it’s your time! Am I right?”
I smile and I nod, and usually, I offer ways for them to engage further with death acceptance. But generally I leave them to go on their merry way. A gathering of friends to eat pizza and watch a movie about humanoid cats singing and dancing is not the time to dig into someone’s death hang ups. That’s for Thanksgiving.
But what I want to tell people is that being unafraid of death is not a prerequisite for being death positive. It’s not the goal that we are all working toward. I mean, it would be nice, but making it the prize we get after 200 Death Positive Proofs of Purchase is not sustainable or helpful.
What is helpful is understanding that death fears and anxiety are what we all live with and that a way to calm those fears is by confronting them. Contemplate them. Hold them in your hand like a precious little potato and consider the best way to cook it (the answer is tater tot – the answer is always tater tot).
We’re all contemplating the mysteries of the death potato.
Death is multifaceted. It’s not just the fear of non-existence. It’s the fear of suffering, of our loved ones suffering, our bodies and identities being disrespected, and the the burden of our end of life that might weigh on the people we love. Fear of death is not indisputably self-centered; it can be a compassionate fear.
This is the part of the essay where I’m supposed to give you some directive or advice that confidently sends you off into the world. “Conquer thy death fears! Here’s how!” I’m supposed to say.
I’ve been sitting here staring at the bottom of this essay for a long time and, in good conscience, all I can offer is this:
Death is scary but you are not alone.
People often talk about death as lonely, that last leap you have to take all by yourself. In that regard, yes, I can see the loneliness in that.
And anxiety, depression, a lot of mental health issues can feel very lonely. Like you’re the only one who ever had a panic attack or couldn’t get out of bed for days; like you’re the only one who ever cried and bleated for seemingly no reason.
But knowing that every single one of us will experience death is the least lonely thing I can think of. Every single one of us – you, me, my mom, my dad, Punky Brewster – will know death, will have to think about what our death will look like. It takes the edge off my fears knowing that I’m not “broken” or irrational for being afraid.
There’s a whole world of people out there staring at a death potato, wondering how to make a tot.