I have struggled with a fear of death since I was a child. When I was about 13 years old, I went through a period where death was my first thought when I woke up each morning. I know that fearing death is natural and as close to a universal human experience as exists, but some of us think about it more than others, and I have always been one of those. I used to console myself with the likelihood that I was likely closer in time to my birth than my death – that I probably had more than half my life left. Over the past few years, this consolation has felt less relevant as I crossed the age of 45 and my family has experienced a number of health concerns. Both of these have made death seem closer than ever before. This past fall, I experienced a mental health crisis that I now believe was precipitated by a combination of the stress from my family health challenges, my increasing fear of death, and the relatively limited number of people in my life with whom I would openly discuss these challenges.
Thankfully, the close family and friends with whom I did talk suggested that I get some help – medical, psychological, and otherwise. So I saw my doctor and got some medication. I identified a therapist and started speaking with him every other week. I made a renewed commitment to connecting with other people. But I also felt the need to confront the fear of death more directly. I picked out some books and other readings that spoke to this fear, read them, and reflected on them. One of these readings suggested an exercise in which you meditate on your own death in order to better face and reconcile these fears. Given my history, I wanted to give this a try.
I decided to engage in this exercise early one weekday morning, before my family had risen. The exercise asked that I list out 20 things most important to me in life – 5 possessions, 5 activities, 5 values, and 5 people. Then, it led me through a process of imagining my own death. First I was asked to imagine that I had contracted a terminal illness, to really place myself in that position via my imagination, to experience as much as possible how I would feel, and then to cross any 4 things off of my list. I was asked to imagine telling my family, losing bodily functionality, eventually being confined to bed, and dying, at each step crossing things from the list and reflecting on my own emotions. It was an emotional exercise. Afterward, I decided to post the writing on this blog, took some deep breaths, and went on with my day.
Later on, early in the afternoon, I got a text from a former neighbor. He also called my spouse and left a voicemail. It turns out that he had read my blog post and was afraid that I was suicidal. I immediately felt extremely embarrassed that I caused someone that much worry. I texted him back to explain what he had actually read, and he expressed relief that I was OK. Shortly after that, I got a text from a current neighbor checking in on me as well. My level of embarrassment increased. I reassured her, tool. Then, I went back to look at my post and realized that, without context, their interpretation completely made sense. I pulled the post down so that it wouldn’t cause any more stress or misunderstanding.
Later in the day, with more time to reflect on what happened, I experienced a sense of gratitude. My neighbors, current and former, had seen me in what they identified as a time of need and they reached out to me out of their concern. They took the time to check in when they could have assumed that everything was fine. And although I hadn’t been experiencing the crisis they had feared, even though I felt such embarrassment, even though the whole situation had been triggered by my own ill-judgment…it meant something. And without trying to read too much into a moment of simple human kindness: their actions mattered, and they reminded me that I matter. And I am so grateful that is the case – grateful to the two of them, grateful for human connection, grateful for the gift of collective care of which we are all a part.
I don’t know how, in the final measure, those human connections stack up against the inevitable reality and fear of death that precipitated this whole series of events. Perhaps these two facts – connection and death – are irreconcilable. But in the final measure, I know where I want to place my attention. I want to grapple with my fear of inevitable death, but I don’t want it to dominate that gratitude, those connections, that collective. I hope to situate my very real fear within those connections with others that make the time we have here worth living. And I’m sure it will be a life-long project to do so.
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