I was a precocious kid who loved school and my happy place was the library, where I could learn all about the world I knew little about. I was never very carefree and worried about what I thought were impending catastrophes like fires, floods, and tornadoes. Perhaps my love of information and this inclination to dwell on horrific events resulted in the ideal breeding ground for the early awareness of my mortality.
Since I was 6 years old, I’ve had what I would call anxiety attacks when the realness of death hits me.
It’s one thing to know and talk about the fact that we’ll die one day.
It’s another to feel it in your body, for your mind to try and conceptualize the void.
These attacks almost always happen as I’m about to fall asleep. In that space when you’re not conscious anymore but you’re not completely asleep. That space in between. That’s where death comes to visit me. That’s where the in-between death gremlins live.
They make me face the void.
The scary and way-too-real feeling of the nothingness that is inevitable. The only way I can stop the gremlin attack is to jump out of bed, walk aimlessly around my room and scream out loud. My heart races and feels like it’s beating an inch past my ribs. I feel alone and angry. Why is this void, this nothingness something we have to go through? Aaaahhhhh!!!
I was raised Catholic. The idea of heaven didn’t alleviate any of my fears of the void. The idea of an eternal soul, no relief from the fear there either. Maybe it’s because even then, I didn’t believe in these ideas. Or maybe they just weren’t enough to help me be okay with letting go of the only thing I knew – this bodily existence. I mean, that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to be some soul or ghost. What the fuck was that even like?
As I got older and continued to have regular bedtime death anxiety attacks. And when these attacks started happening more frequently, I would also get into very deep death funks that lasted weeks.
While I read my history textbooks, I would stare at dates denoting historical figures’ lifespans – Wilfrid Laurier, 20 November 1841 – 17 February 1919; Louis Riel, 22 October 1844 – 16 November 1885 – and I would ruminate. I’d think, “All these people who had lives, were living, and now they’re not,” “Why does everyone have to die?”, “Such a short time to be alive.” and on and on…
When I was driving, I would look at all the cars around and me and think about the meaninglessness of what we were doing.
Where were we all going? What was the point of it all? We’re all going to have those dates after our name someday too. Fucking terrifying. I felt alone and angry.
So to try and get out of these funks when they happened, I did what I always do when I have a problem I want to solve. I researched the fuck out of it. I headed to the library stacks and sat on the floor surrounded by copies of the Journal of Death and Dying. I quickly found out that this approach wasn’t going to do the trick. This phobia would not be helped by this pseudo immersion therapy. I only felt worse.
I’m not sure what I thought I would find.
There were stories about people coming to accept death and being at peace with it. But there was never a how-to. I wanted to follow a method to help me get to that place too.
I did find one piece of advice that stuck out. It was to think about what it felt like before you were born. And you can then understand that death will be much the same. Not something you’re aware of when it happens and so, nothing to worry about. At first, I thought – ooooohhh, yes, that’s deep, so true! But… c’mon! Before I was born, I didn’t know what it was like to be in a body with thoughts and feelings and experiences and surrounded by other bodies that I love. So, not helpful.
When I would eventually come out of my death funks (I’m not quite sure how I did), I would be able to put thoughts of death further down on the pile of everyday thoughts. But they never completely disappear of course.
I go between wanting to talk about it more, making it more a part of regular life and just pretending it’ll never happen.
As I get older, I’m choosing the former. I also seek out information about death. Not so much to find any answers but to learn more about the different facets of how we treat death in our society and in other societies. This is an important part of being human and I don’t want to pretend it isn’t.
In western society, we’ve turned this final milestone into a huge money-making industry.
In the U.S., the funeral service industry is relatively new. Until the 20th century, funerals in the U.S were organized by family and neighbors and held at home. People were often buried on family property. As communities became larger and more established common cemeteries began to be used. Funeral homes were later established to relieve the family of the logistical problems presented by a death.
With the proliferation of funeral homes and the practices that came with them, we’ve buried (this reference had to happen) a more regular presence of death in our lives. With so many more humans on the planet, it seems we are slowly erasing the stuff that makes us aware of what it means to be human. And I’d prefer not to go along for that ride. I want to face the reality of death and somehow come to accept it. This is why I like the idea of the Death Salon.
There are Death Salons in different cities (none near me that I’ve found so far) – started by Caitlin Doughty of The Order of the Good Death (also a book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – that I have on my wishlist but can’t bring myself to actually get).
Here’s how they are described:
The members of the Order, and the many other death-focused academics, artists, and funeral professionals do not want to see Death put in an ivory tower. After all, what topic could possibly be more universal in its impact?
We are anxious to collaborate with each other to launch death and dying into the future.
Even more, we want to share our work with a wider audience and hear what you think. Death Salon allows that sharing to happen, providing us the opportunity to offer talks and events that are open to the public.
This appeals to me. It’s like talking about sex. I find it freeing and it helps me connect with people. To talk about things that we usually don’t. I love doing that. Even writing this now, it feels like I’m connecting with you reading this. Hi!
But up to now in my life, everything about death has been somewhere in the shadows.
My regular exposure to death is roadkill. I know that I’m lucky to not have had any people close to me die yet. I do think about the possibility of them dying though. That’s a horrendous way to spend moments.
I have had relatives die and gone to funerals with open caskets so I’ve seen death but a fake, embalmed, surreal death. I have never been in the presence of someone dying—I hear that’s quite moving.
I crave a more natural ending, not one that seems to make it something else. The body is no longer needed, why preserve it at all? Especially if you believe the whole soul thing.
Cremation freaks me out but seems more sensible than being buried in a ridiculously expensive box in a plot that could be used for other things. Of course, it only freaks me out because I have no real sense of no longer sensing. I have told my family and friends that I want my body donated to science and I stand by that. Still, I’m not comfortable with it.
There’s an episode of the Only Human podcast where medical students talk about the work they do on bodies that were donated and the memorials they had for those people.
It was lovely.
To give to the living in any way after your death seems like the right thing for me—if it’s possible. Of course, I haven’t taken any concrete steps to get this sorted and made legal. Another thing to put off until…
Hopefully not until it’s too late. I will die. That’s a fact. That’s reality.
What really kills me (oh c’mon – it’s fun) is that the regular visits from the death gremlins ensure that I face this reality again and again. And being aware of my impending end doesn’t seem to motivate me to get off my ass and get living already. At 45, I feel as though I haven’t even really lived yet.
If the brevity and finite nature of life doesn’t help me savour the time I do have in this existence, what the fuck will?
When I think of that 6-year-old girl lying in bed and envisioning her empty bedroom—empty because she was no longer there, no longer existing—I want to give her a big hug and reassure her that she’ll be okay. But that’s not true and I don’t yet feel it will be okay. Still, I know somewhere deep down that I can get to the point of acceptance.
I know that by living every day with intention and by finding ways to regularly bring death out of the shadows I will get to a place where acceptance is possible.