Overcoming The Fear Of Death

grave

Photo: Fiona MacGinty

In January of 2007, I developed a mild stomach ache and general feeling of being unwell while at a Sunday brunch.  Initially, the pain sat in the center of my abdomen just above my belly button, but gradually over the course of the day inched its way down into my right lower quadrant, causing me to wonder briefly if I’d developed acute appendicitis.  However, by evening the pain had actually begun to improve so I dismissed the possibility; I’d never heard of a case of appendicitis resolving on its own without surgery.  But mindful of the adage that the physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient, the next day I asked one of my physician friends to examine me.  When he did, he found a fullness he didn’t like in my right lower quadrant and ordered a CT scan.  To our mutual surprise, it showed that I had, in fact, developed acute appendicitis.

Later that afternoon, I saw a surgeon who began me on antibiotics and scheduled an elective laparscopic appendectomy, which he performed two days later.  The surgery went well and I was back at home that night with a bloated stomach but minimal discomfort.

At 3 a.m., however, I awoke with projectile vomiting, and after a particularly violent episode, briefly lost consciousness.  Panicked, my wife called 911 and an ambulance delivered me back to the hospital where I was found to be anemic.  My surgeon diagnosed an intra-abdominal bleed and began following my red blood cell count every few hours, hoping the bleeding would stop on its own.  By late afternoon, however, it became clear that it wasn’t, so I was taken back to the operating room where the surgeon found and evacuated approximately 1.5 liters of free-flowing blood from inside my abdomen.  All told, I’d bled out half of my blood volume over the course of sixteen hours.  Over the next few days, however, my blood count stabilized and my strength returned, so I was sent home four days after I’d been admitted, slightly less bloated than I’d been after the first surgery but four units more full of a stranger’s blood.

Three weeks later, my wife and I took a four-hour flight to Mexico—a vacation we’d planned to take in Cabo San Lucas prior to my illness—spent three days on the beach, and then flew back home.

Two days later, I developed diarrhea.  Because I’d only had bottled water while in Mexico, I thought I’d contracted a viral gastroenteritis that would resolve on its own within a few days.  While driving home a few days later, however, I developed right-sided chest pain.  I called my physician friend who asked me to return immediately to the hospital to have a chest CT, which in short order showed I’d thrown a large pulmonary embolism.  I was taken immediately to the emergency room and placed on intravenous blood thinners to prevent another clot from traveling to my lung and possibly killing me.  Luckily, this time my hospital stay was uneventful, and I was ultimately discharged on an oral anti-coagulant called coumadin.

A week later, the diarrhea still hadn’t resolved, however, so a stool culture was sent for clostridium difficile.  It came back positive, undoubtedly as a result of the antibiotics I’d been given prior to my first surgery, so I was started on Vancomycin.  Then I developed an allergic reaction to the Vancomycin, so I was switched to Flagyl.  Within a week the diarrhea resolved, but then a week later it returned.  Relapses are common with clostridium difficile colitis, so I tried Flagyl again, this time with a probiotic called Florastor.  The diarrhea resolved and never came back.

A week later, however, the nausea did.  It was absolutely crippling—as was the anxiety that accompanied it.  What could possibly be wrong now?  I longed for the blissful ignorance of a non-medical mind that had no knowledge of all the terrible diseases I now thought I might have.  I called my physician friend who suggested, after listening to my symptoms, that the nausea might be due to anxiety.  I told him that idea hadn’t occurred to me, that I’d supposed the anxiety was present as a result of the nausea, not as its cause, but that I was open to the possibility he was right.  The next day I had a conversation with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with mild Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

DENIAL OF DEATH

I’m always surprised by people who say they’re not afraid to die.  Most are usually quick to point out they are afraid to die painfully—but not of  the idea of no longer being alive.  I continue to be mystified not only by this answer but by the number of people who give it.  Though I can imagine there are indeed people who, because of their age, character, or religious beliefs, truly do feel this way, I’ve always wondered if that answer hides a denial so deeply seated it cannot be faced by most.

Certainly, this has been the case with me.  I love being here and don’t want to leave.  I’ve always spoken openly of my fear of death to anyone who’s ever asked (not that many have—I suppose even the question is uncomfortable for most), but I’ve rarely experienced moments where I actually felt afraid.  Whenever I’ve tried wrapping my mind around the concept of my own demise—truly envisioned the world continuing on without me, the essence of what I am utterly gone forever—I’ve unearthed a fear so overwhelming my mind has been turned aside as if my imagination and the idea of my own end were two magnets of identical polarity, unwilling to meet no matter how hard I tried to make them.

THE SHATTERING OF A DELUSION

The true significance of my denial wasn’t made clear to me, however, until I was diagnosed with PTSD.  The anxiety that began to envelop me at that point was of an entirely different order than I’d ever experienced before.  It began to interfere with my ability to function, which made plain to me that what my brush with death—twice—had taken from me was my ability to believe I would never die.  Knowing intellectually that death awaits us is quite clearly a different thing from believing it, much in the same way knowing intellectually gravity will make you fall is a different experience from actually swooning at the edge of a parapet at the top of a tall building.  Ultimately, being ill brought me to the realization, contrary to what I’d always believed in my heart, that there was nothing special about me at all.  Like everyone else, I was only a piece of meat that would eventually spoil.

From that point forward, whenever I’d feel a minor twinge in my chest or develop a rash on my arms or my hand would shake for no reason I would become paralyzed with anxiety.  Even though I recognized intellectually that my reaction was overblown, every new random symptom I felt caused my doctor’s brain to leap to horrifying conclusions simply because I now knew in a way I hadn’t before that bad things could actually happen to me.  I felt like one of my long-time patients who for as long as I’ve known him has been consumed by an anxiety so great he’d become like a child in his need for constant reassurance that he would be all right.  His anxiety had made him inconsolable and his life a joyless nightmare.

PTSD is often diagnosed in men (and now women) who return from the battlefield, women who’ve been raped, people who witnessed the Twin Towers come down on 9/11—in short, in anyone who either has an intense traumatic experience themselves or witnesses one occurring to someone else.  In my view—completely unsubstantiated by any psychiatric literature, I should point out—PTSD results when a person has their deluded belief that they’re going to live forever stripped away from them.

WHAT TO DO NEXT

I’d always considered the shattering of delusion in my life to be a good thing, something that’s always brought me more happiness rather than less.  And yet here seemed to be an example that contradicted that rule, for around the time I was diagnosed with PTSD I was surely suffering to a degree I never had.  Frankly, I was happier before living in denial.

Over time, though, the crippling anxiety of PTSD resolved and I returned to my previous level of functioning.  However, even minor injuries or transient symptoms that I would have ignored before now stir up vague feelings of worry.  I remain acutely aware to this day that my ability to believe in my invulnerability has been irrevocably ruined.

I’ve decided, however, that this is a good thing:  I’ve been given the opportunity to challenge my fear of death without actually having to be actively dying.  Many others aren’t so lucky.  I began practicing Nichiren Buddhism 20 years ago because I was intrigued by the notion that enlightenment might actually be a real thing, attainable if only the correct path was followed.  I’ve continued because I’ve had experiences with the practice that have convinced me it has real power to shatter delusions about life.  But now more than an intellectual curiosity, my desire for enlightenment has become synonymous with my desire to relieve myself of delusions about death.

For me, three things are certain:  First, my experiences with Buddhism so far have inclined me to think that enlightenment is a real thing, and that it might be the solution to my problem with fear of death.  But, second, for me to become convinced that life is eternal (“there is no beginning called birth or ending called death”), I must have an experience that proves it to me beyond a shadow of a doubt.  I need to know it the way I know gravity is real.  I must confess I can’t today even conceive of what that experience could be.  Yet I must remember that every time I’ve gained real wisdom from my Buddhist practice and become genuinely happier, it’s always come as a result of having an experience I could never have predicted.  And lastly, because I hope the establishment of indestructible happiness based on a belief in the eternity of life is possible, I must remain on guard against the seductive tendency to convince myself of it.  Belief that arises from a desire to believe is usually, in my experience, too flimsy to withstand a genuine challenge.  And I can think of no more genuine a challenge to a belief in life after death (whether through reincarnation or an ascension to Heaven or anything else) than the actual imminent approach of death itself.

I fully recognize that my current belief about death—that it is truly the final end of the self—is likely to be correct.  Which makes me wonder if I wouldn’t be better off throwing my energies into re-embracing denial and simply accepting that when it comes my time to die, if I’m given the chance to see it coming, I’ll suffer however many moments, hours, days, or weeks of fear there are to suffer and then be granted a final release.

If only I could.  Once a delusion has been shattered, I’ve found there’s no going back.  And even if there were, at some point I’m certain to be re-confronted with a denial-eradicating sickness or injury.  Everyone will.  Depending on your current life stage this might not seem like a pressing issue.  But shouldn’t it be?  An experience like mine could become yours at any moment.  And even more desirable than being able to die peacefully is being able to live fearlessly.  In fact, one of the supposed benefits of manifesting the life-condition of the Buddha is freedom from all fear.

I’ve tried to resolve my fear of death intellectually and come to the conclusion that it can’t be done, at least not by me.  Some kind of practice that actually has the power to awaken me to the truth is required (assuming, of course, the truth ends up being what I hope it to be).

Thus, my grand experiment continues.  What about yours?

NEXT WEEK5 Steps To Changing Any Behavior

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204 comments to Overcoming The Fear Of Death

  • janet lickerman

    This is the best of all so far. You should get it published.

  • Susan Shurtleff

    All I can say is wow!!!!!!!!! This is great!

  • Norah

    Janet is right! You should have this published. The mystery of death is something that everyone wonders about, whether one believes in re-incarnation or life after death. Could it be that the life after death spoken of is actually that you live on in the life of your children and grandchildren?

  • This is a great post, Alex.

    I’ve been pretty certain that I may have suffered from PTSD after a particularly bad breakup…looking back, it’s entirely possible (though embarrassing that something like a breakup could cause such a thing) and why it lasted so long.

    And it is a shattering of a delusion, we like to believe we know exactly how our life will play out, but no one really envisions the end time…because it’s too hard for us to really look straight at. We’re blinded by the self, which doesn’t want it to end …

    Anyway, nice writing, sir.

    Joshua: Thank you, sir.

    Alex

  • This is a really interesting piece—you have had life experiences which really lend themselves to writing interesting articles! I don’t know much about your particular kind of Buddhism but I was surprised to read “I fully recognize that my current belief about death—that it is truly the final end of the self—is likely to be correct.” I know you said “self” and not “soul” but how does this fit with the Buddhist ideas on reincarnation?

    Julien: In mentioning my current belief I was simply being honest. The form of Buddhism I practice, Nichiren Buddhism, does have as its central doctrine the notion that life IS eternal and that we continue to reincarnate. However, I don’t yet believe it. The idea makes a certain amount of sense to me, but it’s by actually practicing Buddhism and going through experiences with it that (supposedly) one can awaken to the eternity of one’s own life. I just haven’t gotten there yet. Or perhaps life isn’t eternal, truly, and no matter how hard or long I practice Buddhism I’ll never get there. But as this practice has enabled me to break through so many delusions about life, I have a reasonable expectation it will help me with my current belief about death representing the end of the self (which Buddhism would view as a delusion). I suppose you could describe me as a skeptic who believes in what he’s experienced so far.

    Alex

  • Russell

    You should consult the books by Irvin Yalom including his latest Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. Dr. Yalom approaches the problems of death anxiety from an atheist, philosophical, and rational point of view. He provides practical methods for alleviating death anxiety as well as solid philosophical grounding for viewing death without terror, including Epicurus’ quote, “Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not. Why fear death?” I know Irv myself and a more humane man who has worked harder or more courageously to alleviate humans’ suffering and give them guidance on how to live their lives fully and happily cannot be found. As he notes in the Staring at the Sun: leave nothing for death but a burned out castle.

    Russel: I know Yalom’s writing well and find it compassionate and often brilliant. I will definitely check out his latest book. Thank you for the suggestion.

    Alex

  • Carolyn Africa

    I read your piece from linking from the nurse Theresa’s story.

    What if physical death is the end of the self? As far as I know I didn’t exist before my birth and I don’t dwell on that. I have spent time dwelling on the fact of death…or the other end of the life experience that began with birth.

    I began thinking about this pretty early because I had a grandmother I loved dearly and I knew she was terrified about death. She had lost her first child when he was three and her second child at 6 months. My mother was an unplanned pregnancy and was born eight years later. The baby had died after being taken to see Santa Clause and my grandmother always grieved most at Christmas season. I still don’t like Christmas because of the dark cloud that hovered over us all every season.

    I couldn’t comprehend my grandmother’s fear. As a mother I could understand her grief and I did fear losing a child to death. It has to be worse to lose a child than to die oneself. And even harder, I’m sure, to die before one’s children are grown.

    Once my children were grown, I was thankful we had all survived. I have loved being part of my grandchildren’s lives. I’m newly married at the age of 71 and look forward to sharing these closing years of my life with my long time best friend who is now my husband.

    I have lived a good life. I enjoy life and wish to continue life so long as my health is reasonably good and my mind is intact. My mother and her father both died of Allzheimers. I no longer fear that Alzheimers is likely to be my fate, but if it were you can be sure I would exit this life before it was too late and I became a living vegetable.

    I was raised to believe we live on the in lives we’ve touched and then through to lives those people touch, etc. Maybe there is eternal life in some form, perhaps as stardust, or if we’re lucky we can recycle ourselves and contribute to ongoing life.

    I don’t think I’m in denial. I can understand fearing pain, as I’ve had a fair share of pain and of illness. My worst fear was when diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis before it had come under control. I was bedridden two years and came to understand how much worse to have a disease that can steal your life without giving you the blessed relief of death.

    As an adult I have spent a lot of time in Mexico and have also lived long term in a village. Here death is intimate, the body lies in its coffin in the home. Family and friends pay respects and sit vigil with the family. Someone stays at all times with family members, taking turns throughout the night. All the family away from home fly in to be together (I’ve seen this twice in one family). In the morning the coffin is moved to the church for mass. Following the mass the family follows the hearse on foot to the cemetery. There is much angst but no denial of the finality of death. In earlier days when bodies were buried in the ground instead of above ground in crypts, family members dug the grave, removing bones of earlier burials.

    In other words the death is part of life and is experienced intensely by the family. The corpse is not handed off to a funeral parlor leaving professionals to make all the arrangements.

    While I am sure there will always be persons who fear death under any circumstances, I think the greater problem in the United States is a great denial of death and a distancing from death.

    As a corollary let me add I think the great expense incurred in preventing death in those over the age of 60 or 65 is wasteful and sinful. We need to concentrate the funds for the men and women who are parents of young children.

    We will have to come to terms with rationing health services, whether we like it or not. Death is real and life is better lived when one knows one’s vulnerability and lives as if each day may well be the last.

    Thank you for sharing your own intimate feelings with your readership.

    Carolyn Africa

    Carolyn: Wow, so many thought-provoking thoughts in your comment. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a detailed response.

    Alex

  • Holly

    I enjoyed this article as well. I am 41 and watched my mother die in January 2008 from a sudden illness. Her death also shattered my denial-based assumptions that we would all die…someday, not now (not ever). I also continue to struggle with missing someone who is gone forever. I have been diagnosed with mild PTSD, which I believe stems from my forced acceptance of my own mortality. I have been on a religious journey, searching for something I believe in my heart rather than believe out of fear of 1) hell or 2) nothingness. I had to face down my fears and peel them to the core before I could find spiritual truth. I’m still looking and wondering…

  • Mary Carlisle

    This is an amazing article Alex. One of the benefits of Buddhism for me is that it has helped me see life and death in a much different way and VERY interconnected.

  • Carolyn, I’m in complete agreement with you. I know death is the end, and I do accept it. It doesn’t mean I’m never ever afraid of it (I’ve sometimes had that cold feeling in the pit of my stomach from thinking about NOT-being since I was a small child) but that I accept it’ll happen one day, both intellectually and emotionally. I’ve been trying to live a useful, varied life, and have, at times, actually suceeded! ;->

    Whenever I hear someone ask, “Am I going to die?” (usually, on a TV show of a TV doctor), I always think the proper answer is, “Yes, but probably not immediately.”

  • Pete

    This is too heavy and complex for me. I think the fear of death is more a function of age and the fullness of one’s life. I’m 73 and have been fortunate to have dodged a couple of life threatening events or diseases. They frightened me at the time–not the possibility of dying–but the fear of being incapacitated and a burden to others. That same fear exists now. I have no fear of death itself; just concern that the process not be lengthy, stressful, and painful to those who care for me. An important function at my age is to “have my house in order” so that no personal relationship or business be left unfinished or unclear. That remains an ongoing activity that gives me purpose at my stage of life.

    There aren’t many other items of interest I have to do before I leave this earth for the next stage of my life cycle.

    Pete: I think your comment underscores the point that how one feels about death is often largely determined by one’s age. On the other hand, my grandmother’s boyfriend died in his 90′s very much afraid.

    Alex

  • Bruce

    Laurie,

    That’s the answer House has been giving everybody, his patients and his TV audience, for the last five years. Reality can be brutal, and Carolyn has described it with a loving candor. Hope others get it, too.

  • I’ve always admired people who have such a strong sense of faith that they find comfort in the thought of an afterlife. That this is just part of our journey. But I’m not one of those people. I think we’d all sleep better and worry less if we just knew.

    Susan: I’m actually more like you. The only difference between what I am now and what I used to be is that now I’m open to having an experience that could prove to me life does continue in some form after we die. But it would have to be some serious proof…

    Alex

  • That’s why I like yoga. It reminds me to be more present. The philosophy and the physical. The only problem is I would need to go every day three times a day to really get out of my own head!

  • Hedevig

    What is wrong with death followed by nothingness?

    Hedevig: I honestly wish I knew. Must be in my DNA or something to fear and loathe nothingness. I so much prefer somethingness.

    Alex

  • K DeTitta

    Alex, I just found your blog and am so intrigued, because much of what you’re writing about are things that I’m pondering myself.

    I have to say that I used to be afraid of death, but after experiencing my son die just hours after he was born, I’m not so afraid of it anymore because I hope and believe that I’ll see him again in another life. But I admit I struggle with maintaining that hope and belief without any proof.

    I also the fear of death is also tied up in the sense of “missing,” if possible, those whom you love and who need you, those whom you leave behind in this life, as well as the worry of how they will adapt after you’re gone.

    Re: Carolyn’s comments, I found it heartening how death is handled in Mexico; I wish it was more like that here in the US. There really is too much distancing from death here in the US. Since my son died, I can (and want!) to talk about death quite a bit but it’s not the “topic du jour” among people who I socialize with.

    Thanks to everyone who has shared their thoughts on this topic.

    K DeTitta: I wonder if people in this country are uninterested in discussing death especially with people who’ve been touched by it closely because they feel so inadequate in trying to provide solace, which they feel obligated to attempt. That and because no one’s ideas about what happen after death, no matter how strongly believed, are provable to anyone else. I agree with your idea that the issue of being missed by others and missing them as their lives progress has something to do with the fear of death. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I have a close friend who’s recently gone through treatment for breast cancer (with an excellent prognosis!) who was for a time absolutely paralyzed with fear that her infant son would grow up without a mother.

    Don’t know how long ago your son died, but please except my condolences. I have a one year-old son and when I sometimes imagine him harm coming to him, I find myself utterly overwhelmed. Some attachments are extraordinarily difficult to part with even in our imaginations.

    Alex

  • Genevieve Fire

    Dr. Lickerman, I found your article through a link at the the NY Times Well and wanted to thank you for your interesting and very reassuring thoughts. A few months ago, I was diagnosed with a mild case of post-operative, iatrogenic PTSD. I had spent the previous 9 years struggling with an undiagnosed heart condition and was experiencing significantly reduced abilities to function (in my case, as an engineer, parent, wife, daughter, and friend). I was somewhat relieved when the PTSD diagnosis finally came. In past few months, I have had some talk therapy and done lots of reading on the condition, but your article really touched me.

    Genevieve: I think PTSD is far more common than most realize. I, too, felt relief to be able to put a name to a cluster of symptoms I found quite mystifying and scary. I’m so glad you found the article helpful.

    Alex

  • Charlene

    I just discovered your site today and have devoured everything that’s available…I love your mind and the commentary…I can’t wait to read and reflect on what comes next…thank you.

    Charlene: Thank YOU for such high praise.

    Alex

  • Karenza

    Alex—very thoughtful post. Thank you. I am sort of an amateur death philosopher. The process began in earnest when I was 12 and read The Diary of Ann Frank. Learning about the Holocaust humbled me and I began realizing on a deeper level that I am going to die. For real. Fortunately, I do have a strong faith in God and in heaven. But that doesn’t mean I have never doubted. When I have doubted whether or not there is a heaven, I have often thought, “Okay, so what if there is not? There is nothing you can do about it.” It makes my life happier in a deeply profound way to believe in heaven and to believe that we will be reunited with our loved ones there. My father and I were very close. Best buddies. He died in 2007 after a long illness. He often spoke of and joked about his death. Once after a heart attack, he joked, “I thought I was a goner and you’d be visiting me in Warwick (where the cemetery is).” Now, I do visit him in Warwick and it is so weird…it has led me to feel very deep in the heart, “Oh, man. We are all so going to die. . .”

    Karenza: Yeah, I feel exactly the same way with respect to your last line. I wish I could believe in Heaven or reincarnation without having to have the truth of either proven to me. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

    Alex

  • Heena Santry

    Alex,

    Got to the blog from the NYT post. I remember seeing you in the ER that night and ordering a CBC b/c you were so tachycardic and diaphoretic (like a bleeding trauma victim rather than someone with poor post-op pain control). But to read again after a few years about how much you went through after what we so cavalierly call a “routine operation” is powerful. I hope more surgeons read this. I also hope that you and the family are doing well.

    Heena: How fantastic that you actually found my blog and read about a story in which you were involved! Giving me the opportunity, by the way, to thank you in a public forum for bothering to come down to the ER that night to see me just because you heard I was there and ordering that CBC! We’re all doing great. I hope you and your family are thriving as well. Rhea will be so tickled to hear about you seeing the blog.

    Best,

    Alex

  • Cassandra Arnold

    That was an extraordinary piece of writing and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you. When one taps into the reality of the finality of death for the first time as a cognizant human being, it seems as though he/she sees beyond the edge of life; it changes a person. And when incomprehensible illnesses (aren’t they all to a certain extent?) claim the body, it opens another aspect of reality. I too was trained as a physician, now work as a writer, and have had some frightening medical issues in which I cursed my knowledge, yet also was grateful for it. I remember as a child lying in bed and trying to comprehend the meaning of FOREVER and EVER and EVER and EVER continuing after I died…just endless black space without me on the earth. The fear is incredible. So I choose, for my own sanity, to believe in something more pleasant, a reincarnation, a peaceful eternity…because thinking of the alternative is too difficult. What is the harm in believing–(rhetorical question)?

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

    Cassandra: I did just the same thing as a child (as I’m sure many have). Though your question was rhetorical, I’ll answer it anyway: no harm at all. In fact, I think it’s the real answer. But just how do you get yourself to believe strongly enough in some form of life after death for that belief to relieve you of the fear of nothingness? I wish I had the power to willfully decide to believe things that give me comfort but I find I have little conscious control over the criteria that must be met for me to believe anything. It’s a real conundrum. :)
    Alex

  • k

    I think that this essay helped me (or validated my feelings/fear of death) more than 2 years of therapy after a traumatic experience w/c.diff that occurred when I was 30 (I still have stomach problems 4 years later). My therapist, in an off-hand way, mentioned that I might have a mild case of PTSD when I explained to him my absolute fear of stomach/GI illnesses. When he asked why I was so scared—since I would just get better if I got sick—and I responded that I was scared that I would die—his response was, “What’s so bad about dying?” I understand what he was trying to do, but it was absolutely unhelpful and felt dismissive.

    Things have improved for me with the help of Xanax—which actually really helped my stomach. But I’m tapering off of it, and hope that I don’t revert to that panicky, obsessive girl that I became after my hospitalization.

    And yes, I know that I need to find a different therapist. Maybe an 80-yr-old Freudian wasn’t the best fit for me.

    Best regards—and good luck w/your grand experiment.

    Kendra: I’m so glad you found the post encouraging. It’s really for people who’ve had experiences like yours that I’m writing this blog. Best of luck to you as well.

    Alex

  • Oli

    Alex,

    I just finished reading your post and it brought tears to my eyes. That part about your patient whose life is overtaken by anxiety and fear was my story once. For a year or so I was paralyzed with fear; it was so intense that I cannot remember anything from that time period other than being terrified and waiting for something to happen to me. Of course nothing did, and I feel better now; I got my life back. But just like you, I do know it’s there and every ache or pain reminds me of it and it’s okay I guess. Dying is what happens to all of us; we were born and eventually will go; this is what I know, but what I also know is that I don’t want to be thinking about this today. I choose to be happy, I choose to enjoy my days, I choose to have great times with family and try to focus on right now. I know I can potentially increase my days by taking care of myself physically and spiritually and that’s what I choose to do. I take time to learn my body and when it aches I try to keep it cool. Instead of turning on the panic mode I pause, take a deep breath, and reason. This is how I deal. I don’t think this is something you can just get over: as life goes on there are triggers that go off, family members passing away, friends and so on, but if you focus on making your life meaningful I think it might not be that terrifying to enter the unknown in the end…thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Oli: Thanks so much for stopping by and for your comment. Everything you say is true about triggers that go off. You can’t avoid them. I continue to believe, however, there does exist a fundamental solution to the problem of fear of death other than denial. I also agree that a life well-lived, full of meaning and value-creation, can likely provide a tremendous sense of fulfillment at the end, but I wonder how well even that would insulate you against fear of non-existence. I guess I’ll know when I get there. Luck to us both.

    Alex

  • Chase Cross

    Alex-

    This post is very old, but it’s a specific issue that I’ve been dealing with lately. The fear of death, especially one that inhibits daily function significantly, is something that’s very difficult to negotiate. Unlike irrational fears and anxieties (fear of snakes or impossible scenarios), this one is based on something that certainly is going to happen, and right soon. If one assumes that there is no afterlife (which doesn’t necessitate atheism, but the two often coincide), then death is indeed worth being very upset over. All other conditions in life are in the field of time. Death isn’t.

    Though I am only 21, I already feel overwhelmed by how much time has passed. There is a wonderful saying about the hours: Omnes vulnerant, ultima necat (all wound, the last kills). Very few people seem conscious of how little time they have. Being 21, I have maybe around 20,000 days of life left. How few!

    I don’t know if you still struggle with this—it seems doubtful anyone could ever really stop—but there are some things that comfort me. One is to feel privileged rather than cursed. Yes, non-being IS terrifying beyond reckoning, but after all the things you’ve seen and experienced, would you rather not have lived? Some people say life (or every day), is a gift. That’s not true. What we have on our hands is on loan. The atoms that comprise us have been traveling for 13 billion years, and for one very brief moment they coalesced into your consciousness, creating a miracle that has never existed before and will never exist again. This is not a matter of gathering rosebuds while ye may, but rather a perspective; a perspective that is thankful for having been rather than troubled by the inevitably not-being.

    The other thing that comforts me, oddly enough, is the very fact that death is inevitable. It is horrible to consider non-being, to be sure, but it will come in its time. There is a wonderful stanza from the poet Algernon Sinburne:

    “From too much love of living
    From hopes and fears set free
    We thank with brief thanksgiving
    Whatever gods may be
    That no life lives for ever;
    That dead men rise up never;
    That even the weariest river
    Winds somewhere safe to sea.”

    It is important, I think, to consider how small we are, and how little we can comprehend. We would never be able to “know,” anything outside of our universe and sense experience, even and particularly God or the afterlife. What we have, then, is this life, and at least a little bit of wisdom accumulated in the face of death to live it decently. From whence we came, and to where we go, that we cannot rightly know.

    Of course if you don’t want to accept death, there are plenty of plucky cranks, futurists and scientists trying to solve the problem. With your medical training, they’d be happy to have you on board:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryonics
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aubrey_de_grey
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_kurzweil
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/3489881/Scientists-take-a-step-closer-to-an-elixir-of-youth.html

    Cheers,

    Chase

    Chase: What a well-articulated comment. I think everything you said is true. And unfortunately this post isn’t so old that I’m not still struggling with the same fear. My attempt to deal with my fear of death informs every aspect of my life and is the driving motivation behind my Buddhist practice. For whatever reason, I’m driven to seek answers to questions that may not be able to be answered. I comfort myself by thinking that even if that’s the case, at least I tried everything reasonable I could. Best of luck in dealing with your own fears.

    Alex

  • Beatriz

    I just discoverd this blog and it’s very timely for me since I’m facing surgery this summer. In the past, when I was younger, every time I faced surgery I just thought, “well, here goes nothing!” and took my chances lightly. This time, at middle age, I feel differently about it and value my life more highly.

    Even though I feel like I’ve had a full life up to now and I have peace of mind, I don’t feel prepared to die in a stupid, senseless way. The news about swine flu is intensifying my feelings.

    Chase Cross–that is one of my favorite quotes from Swinburne of all time–I always thought it encapsulated the way I felt about death. If I believed in tombstones, I would want that written on mine!

    Beatriz: Thanks so much for stopping by. And best of luck on your upcoming surgery! I don’t know the Swinburne reference. Do you have a link?

    Alex

  • krysia

    I am in awe of your humility and honesty in confronting your fear, Alex. I am equally mindblown by the similar humble posts from your readers. I found you through the NYTimes. I will now continue to borrow from your wisdom and the wisdom of your readers.

    I have had a long and generous life, too. I had a near death experience once—like you, I nearly bled out after childbirth. But unlike you, I found it peaceful. So, from that I learned that it CAN be peaceful…

    I have a daughter who was suicidal for a time, and from that “death” experience, I learned that I had to let go—that I could not prevent death if she really wanted it.

    I have baptized 4 dying babies over the past 2 years in the NICU where I work. I don’t know exactly why I am always being asked, in the middle of the night, to baptize. Again, the letting-go lesson…

    It is only when I think about my son who will never live independently that I resist or fear my own death. I find that I don’t want to leave my son to the unknown. I want to be his rock.

    I let go of someone whom I loved dearly and would have married. My response was entirely physical: I couldn’t eat and there was the feeling of falling into a great depth beneath my feet…and it went on a long time. Months. There was no mind over matter. I was simply physically falling and starving.

    I haven’t heard anyone mention coping by living one day at a time—as a very specific strategy. I find I have had all other options fall away, and am left living one day at a time as a last resort.

    There may or may not be a Hereafter. I don’t know and I find I don’t need to know/believe. Religious doctrine about eternity and heaven has failed in my life, and I don’t count on it. Buddhist principles are the closest to comfort: detachment, letting-go, in particular. I have not had to work hard for these (with a practice of meditation, for example)—these have just been given to me as a gift.

    I am just a grain of sand on the beach—except when I think of my son to whom I am the prime mover. As a grain of sand, I am willing to be swept away (and return to the shore some day perhaps). I just wish I knew that my son would be well taken care of.

    Krysia: You seem to have achieved a wonderful degree of peace and wisdom. I totally get the feelings of protectiveness for your son, though. I have a friend who’s just finished treatment for breast cancer (successfully) who’s fear of dying wasn’t, she said, so much for herself, but for her infant son who she was afraid to leave motherless. I also like the strategy of coping by living one day at a time. By chunking up the challenge of living itself into bite sized pieces, suffering of whatever kind does feel easier to manage. Thanks for sharing your comments.

    Alex

  • Joan

    Having read some of the fascinating work of Peter Levine, “Healing Trauma,” Foundation for Human Enrichment, and Somatic Experiencing, I suggest that the PTSD you are experiencing may be rooted in the body rather than the mind. Check out his work—it is fascinating.

    Also, for another perspective on life between life read the work of psychologist and hypnotherapist Michael Newton, “Journey of Souls” and “Destiny of Souls.” Also fascinating.

    Joan: Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll check them out.

    Alex

  • Mary

    I have done many web searches on the fear of death, hoping to find a way to rid myself of the overwhelming feelings of panic that I sometimes experience when I think of my eventual death. I can make myself just as crazy if I dwell on the question, “Where is the end of the universe?” My brain just can’t get around it. I came to your blog not through a search but by coincidence. It helps to know that I am not alone having these feelings. Like you and others here, I am also searching spiritually, and I have found many answers that seem to “feel right,” but I still go back and forth about death and what might or might not happen afterward.

    I am concerned in that my fourteen-year-old son also has this fear of death. I had not talked to him about my experiences nor have I modeled it to him, as far as I can recall, but the panic was there. I asked him what was was going on and I am thankful that he was able to talk to me about what he was experiencing. I told him to try to slow his breathing and to feel the world around him with all his senses. It can happen at the younger end of the spectrum, too. My son had a serious surgery when he was seven and may face more in the future. He knows that his medical condition is potentially life-threatening, if not life-changing. And then his grandmother (my mother) died not too long ago, also. Any suggestions for how to support my son in dealing with his feelings when I am not to sure about it myself?

    Mary: I have no easy answers, for you or for myself. My practice of Nichiren Buddhism is the main focus of my quest to come to an understanding about what happens when we die. In my heart I believe such an awakening is possible, that a life-state can be reached in which we truly have no fear of death having achieved the ultimate understanding of the nature of the core of our lives, but it seems to me such an understanding would have to be subjective, non-provable to anyone else (though still eminently provable to ourselves). I don’t believe such an understanding will come through introspection or intellectual understanding but that the certainty with which we must have that understanding must be equal to the certainty with which we believe in with our intellects (like, for example, gravity) in order for it to have fear-removing power. I’d encourage you and your son to check out the link to the SGI on my “About” page to see if Nichiren Buddhism resonates with either of you. The only other piece of advice I have is always be utterly 100% honest with your son in every discussion about death you ever have with him. Even if you must acknowledge the possibility of terrible things happening, if he learns he can’t trust you, he loses something even more important than an ability to deny he is mortal. The very best of luck to you.

    Alex

  • Henry Benjamin

    Well, shoot. I thought I had death figured out. This one time, I slept over at a friend’s house before we went skiing the next day. He keeps it at a rather cold temperature, so when we woke up to go skiing, he asked me how I slept and whether the cold had bothered me. I replied, “No, I was asleep, I never noticed it.” I then got hit by a realization that didn’t quite shake me but made me think to myself—at least on an intellectual level—that this is what death is like. All the experiences of life cease for a time when we are unconscious or sleeping, unless they’re disturbing enough to wake us up. I thought I was done with my fear of death, since, although it is inevitable, it is not so bad. It is merely a never-ceasing sleep, and if I could deal with that, then I could deal with death.

    Yet after reading your post, I’m pretty sure that while I, like you, have realized it on an intellectual level, I have not had a very-near brush with death (I did have an appendectomy once when I was 12, but it went rather smoothly). Your article got me thinking that I’ll probably need to get very close with death to not only further appreciate life, but to also experience the removal of the delusion that I will live forever.

    I’m only 22, so this delusion is very fixed in my brain, like it is for most if not all young people. The closest I could ever come to death would probably an intense experience I read about in a book entitled, “Buddha in Your Backpack,” a guide that introduced teens to Buddhism. It stressed that once you attain a certain level of proficiency in meditation, you could undergo death meditation. I don’t have the chapter with me, but the procedure would be to meditate and then imagine that it is your last day alive. You draw your final breaths and contemplate that right now, you are going to die. You slow your breathing until SOMETHING hits you. Naturally, we remain alive, but come very close to a subconscious understanding about death.

    My meditation proficiency is still in its infancy, but continual practice does me a lot of good. I indulge in cannabis more than I’m comfortable admitting to most of my friends (the ones who are on the right track, not the ones who support my bad habit), and recently meditation has helped me significantly reduce my consumption. I wouldn’t call myself Buddhist, at least in terms of spirituality. I have a very scientific, logical view of the world and have too much of an emotional connection to the concepts of existentialism to change my worldview to the degree that I believe in the paranormal. However, the benefits of meditation, chanting, and the logical accuracy of Buddhism always struck me as very true wisdom, and so while I may not bow with incense in my hands, I do know that most of the tenets espoused by Buddhists about better ways to live are right and true.

    Thank you for writing your blog; you demonstrate clear intellect, logical thinking, and a willingness to consider every aspect of any scenario. I’ve bookmarked it and read nearly everything you’ve written. The high level of wisdom and lack of an overinflated ego you posses is extremely rare these days, especially on the internet.

    Kind regards,
    Henry Benjamin

    Henry: Thanks for such kind words. I applaud your willingness to seek out different methods for developing your worldview. I, too, was attracted to Buddhism initially because it seemed so logical and meshed so well with what I already believed. Deciding to practice it, however, was a difficult decision for someone like me who is naturally skeptical of anything that isn’t reproducibly objectively provable. But if we don’t challenge our own assumptions continually how can we grow, right?

    Best,
    Alex

  • Wendy H

    I’m sorry you had such a horrible experience! Sometimes I think about how fragile life is and it seems like a miracle that we live long enough to have these rich inter-twined lives that we have. I have been in poor health since 1999; I was very afraid of death at first. One thing that made me more at peace with it was reading Charles de Lint’s novels—that probably sounds weird. I was thinking if I could isolate what it is about them, and I’m not sure I can—but there is a lot of philosophy in them, and he includes a lot of North American native philosophy. Many other posters mentioned the Mexican attitude towards death—I think other cultures may deal better. His characters have also learned who they are inside through hardship and experience.

    I find small things to enjoy every day—the sound of the wind on the leaves, the eternal beauty of the ocean. This helps too. I will not let death steal my joy.

  • Just happened on your blog and Overcoming The Fear Of Death & really appreciate your thoughtfulness. Oddly, I’m glad to know someone else experiences this terror of oblivion. I asked my husband why it doesn’t seem to bother him and he answered, “When I’m dead, I won’t care.” I guess our agony about non-existence is all experienced in the present. So I try to relegate those thoughts to a single corner of my brain and fill the rest of my head with conscious instructions to enjoy every day of life while I have it. Not always easy with a job, tax notices, bills, injustice in the world. Some days it’s just appreciating someone’s warm hug, a bird song, the ever-changing art gallery we call a sky. The upside is that all problems seem small—compared to death anyway—and fall away like rain.

  • Billy K.

    This article speaks to me, so I wanted to offer my own experience.

    I first felt “the fear of death” during spring break of my sophomore year in college. I agree that Freud was wrong in thinking we were all born with a death wish—I think most people are not afraid of death simply because they can’t, or refuse to, imagine it. Almost by definition, you can’t imagine death—because either you believe in God, so death is just a transition (so “death” for you is not really death), or you don’t, so death is a state of nonexistence, which can’t be imagined.

    In my case, the fear wasn’t the result of a brush with death—it was the result of infinity.

    My line of imaginative reasoning was this—space MUST be infinite. Travel at the speed of light a trillion years in one direction, and you can because there’s no wall or anything. And even if there were a wall, what’s behind it? More space. You can continue this forever and never reach the end. Therefore, space is infinite.

    The same can be said for time. Go back a trillion years into the past, and yet there’s obviously a trillion years before that—and so on. Time MUST be infinite (incidentally, I realized, even from the beginning, that there must be paradox here—time can’t be infinite, but somehow it must be—and space can’t be infinite, yet somehow it must be)

    Just following either line of reasoning and actually imagining the infinity brought on the fear of death. I could do it on a sunny day at a picnic with the best of friends, suffer this paralyzing anxiety, like suffocation.

    Over the years, I had to consciously stop myself any time I started thinking about either of these twin infinities because I could feel the tightening of my heart and the tingling anticipation of the dread.

    This may all sound very odd to anyone else. But what’s perhaps odder still is that I somehow resolved my fear (it’s too early to be certain, though).

    Since infinity brought on my fear of death, I kept my eyes open for any news on infinity of time or space. I slowly figured out, mainly through astrophysics articles, that these infinities are actually illusions.

    In a very real sense, neither time nor space actually exists without matter. “Space” without matter is simply nothingness—and an infinity of nothingness is still not an infinity (I think of it this way—the number 1.0 has an infinity of zeros after the decimal place, yet it’s still a finite number). Similarly, time IS the rate at which events occur—but if no matter exists, then nothing occurs, so there is no time. Matter has not always existed (at least, as far as physicists can tell)—don’t ask where it came from, no one can figure that out yet—so neither time or space has always existed. Before the Big Bang (if that’s how matter came into existence), there WAS no time, nor space. The universe (and with it, time and space) was born.

    On the other end, once all matter dies out (and apparently, even subnuclear particles like protons will, one day far into the future, spontaneously decay back into nothingness—which implies that all energy, heat, too, will eventually decay) space and time will cease to exist too. This is the death of the universe. So, neither time nor space is actually infinite in either direction, they only appear so because, and back to the nonexistence thing, human minds can’t imagine nothingness.

    I think that’s why I conflated infinity with death—somehow, the one was the closest I could get to imagining the other. Ironically, finally understanding (in my own limited way) that the illusion of infinity is actually hiding the reality of nonexistence, freed me from that fear.

    I offer this as my own personal resolution of my fear of death. I realize I probably make no sense, but I encourage anyone paralyzed by this fear to pursue their own understanding of infinity, and (hopefully) free themselves of this fear by realizing that there is no infinity (which is, in a way, accepting the inevitability of death).

    Billy: A very thought-provoking comment. I, too, have wondered if my fear of death was really a fear of the apparent infinite nature of time (a possibility against which the human mind rebels, having no experience of it) and the idea of being non-existent FOREVER. I’ve not yet come to an understanding that infinity is an illusion, as you suggest, but rather remain open to the possibility that it’s not. Becoming enlightened is in some way supposed to involve awakening to the truth not just of one’s own life but of all existence and would presumably resolve this conundrum, if enlightenment is actually possible. In any event, the idea that fear of death is really a fear of the concept of infinity is intriguing and worth mulling over.

    Alex

  • Mark E.

    Oh man, I just wandered into your blog from God knows where and was reading with fascination. I was hoping you were going to end with the “ultimate” answer and then my hopes were dashed (now laughing at my foolishness).

    As a 41 year-old male striving for a second career in medicine (finally) as an RN or a PA and volunteering much at the local hospital, my realization of the unavoidability of death seems to be taking hold. I believe I have found something here in your blog that resonates with me. I will return often. Thank you for this.

    Mark: Glad the posts resonate. But you think YOU were disappointed :) …once/if I awaken to the ultimate answer, I’ll be sure to share the experience.

    Alex

  • I read your article (as well as a majority of the comments) and I wanted to share my experience.

    In September of 2005, I think it was (my memory is shoddy at best), I got a phone call from my brother. Some time before this phone call my father had gone to the hospital to be tested for several illnesses because he was feeling tired and his flesh was actually turning a yellowing color.

    My brother was calling to tell me my father’s diagnosis: blood cancer, also called leukemia. I literally stopped talking, stopped listening…I stared into the distance at nothing. My girlfriend asked me what was wrong and I didn’t look at her or answer. After moments passed I dropped the phone and latched on to the nearest wall and just began crying uncontrollably. My head was spinning, my stomach was sick and in knots. I felt as if my own life was about to end…I couldn’t fathom my father being deathly ill.

    My girlfriend took the phone and told my brother how I reacted. He immediately came over to my apartment with his wife and along with my girlfriend, the three of them helped me gather my things to head to the hospital to see my father.

    The hospital visits in the next few weeks weren’t too bad, but every day my father got thinner and thinner…and sicker. The blood transfusions were keeping him alive but draining his life from him, as were the other cancer treatments.

    After a few months my father was moved to a specialist hospital in Boston where they cared for him intensely and started him on an experimental drug for cancer. Finally my father received a bone marrow transplant.

    During these 16 or so months of treatments my life went on as usual and by the end of my father’s second year of treatment I had rarely thought about him dying anymore. I told myself he’d live and that everything would be okay.

    Before long I got a phone call—my father was in complete remission (he had fought cancer and actually won). This miracle assured me more so than ever that “everything would be okay, hopefully forever.”

    After 2 more months my father finished physical therapy and was living back home with my mother. I rarely visited my parents and, since I am often ill with some sort of cold or some mild sickness, I didn’t want to get my father sick, so i visited even less.

    My father finally started driving again and he had even come to my apartment one day to give me a ride to work because my car died (I had called my mother to ask her to do it—some how my father came and I was very upset about this fact, and I still am although I have never said anything to my mother and probably never will).

    A few weeks later I discovered my father started smoking again (he didn’t have lung cancer, but it still sure isn’t a good thing to do after a fight with cancer).

    My father was immunocompromised and this behavior actually made me angry as well and I told him how mad I was, though he brushed off the comment. My mother was angry when she found out too…no, I didn’t tell her either.

    About 6 months after my father recovered from cancer he fell ill again. He had developed double pneumonia (that means he had an infection in both of his lungs).

    The pneumonia was fungal and it would be almost impossible for his body to fight it with or without drugs. Before long he got so bad he couldn’t breathe at all without machines and barely with them. They even put a tube in his throat so he could breathe and talk, but by this time he was so sick he couldn’t talk. He got worse and worse until one day my family was summoned to the hospital to sign papers to agree to take him off the life support—the hospital had given up on trying to save him…they said he was in too much pain and the damage was irreversible. He was going to die.

    I felt like hell and refused to go, but again I was forced to go by my family. I was more angry than I was scared or sad this time. When we got to the hospital we spent some time with him before signing the papers…he was alive well enough to hear. My mother told him she loved him and he actually mustered the strength to say the first words he’d said his whole stay at the hospital. “I love you” he whispered with all his strength.

    After about twenty minutes my mom was stressed and needed a cigarette and one of my brothers went outside with her to talk.

    My other two brothers had to go to work and left me in the waiting room alone (all of our girlfriends/wives were at work also).

    I sat in the waiting room loathing this whole experience when suddenly a pair of nurses barged out of the ICU saying:

    “Are you here for Tony Johnson?”

    “Yes,” I answered.

    “He is actively going; someone needs to be with him.”

    The nurse touched my arm and guided me to my father and literally put his hand in mine. I kept telling him I loved him and I fought the urge to beg him not to go. I said I will always love you dad, you are my hero and you always will be.

    He stared at me and I could see the life leaving his eyes, his mouth wide open as if in either disbelief or trying to speak or maybe both…it pained me so much to watch him go like that and for him to see me last…holding my father’s hand and watching him die and I was only 20 years old, barely an adult myself. I am the youngest of my family and I think it unfair that I had to watch him go.

    After this experience I was depressed for a few months and then I was fine, until recently. The last few weeks I have been paralyzed with the fear of my own death and it’s been years since his death. Why am I experiencing this on such a delay? I don’t know but I can say I know for a fact the experience of both losing my father and being the one there and watching him die was earth shattering and destroyed my confidence and caused me such a deep depression that nothing can get it out of my mind for more than a few minutes. I can’t function like this and I feel myself ceasing to care about others around me. I am distancing myself from my girlfriend and keeping a distance between myself and others. I am tired of feeling like this and I don’t know what to do about it—I have no money for doctors or therapy and for someone physically fit and young where I live it takes between 2 years and forever to get any kind of assistance or free counseling.

    To sum it up, I understand the fear of death and am still currently experiencing it. It is actively and currently destroying my life and my future and sometimes I don’t even care that it is because in the end I’m headed to the same fate no matter what—at least I think that way.

    Truly what used to cause me to lead a good life was the belief that the life I lead would affect my afterlife or at least the lives of those I would succeed, but now I don’t care about that. I just don’t want to die.

    James: I was gripped and deeply moved by your experience. I can only imagine how horrible it must have been. Though making a diagnosis over the internet from a comment like this is fraught with risk, I think it’s entirely possible you’ve developed post-traumatic stress syndrome, which often arises sometime later after a traumatic event. Even if that’s not it, depression and/or anxiety sounds like it’s become a major factor in your life. All three problems are treatable. You say you have no money for doctors or therapy but I would encourage you to think about your current emotional state as your number one problem and to make a determination to get professional help for it no matter what, no matter how. If you can’t solve this problem, how can you solve any others or have a satisfying life? The very best of luck to you. I’d really like to hear from you again.

    Alex

  • Alex,

    It seems like every waking moment I feel myself nearing death, as if death is not only imminent but seeking me. I fear the non-existence and blackness of unfathomable nothingness as it envelopes me, or what was me, so completely and utterly. I am absolutely devastated by the thought of becoming nothing or ceasing to be something. What could nothingness possibly be like? I fear it more than anything. The pain and the act of dying does not scare me a fraction of the amount that this fear of nothingness scares me. I shudder at the thought, and unfortunately the thought keeps coming more and more on its own. I am sad to say I have sought therapy and council and there are no places around here willing to see me. They have me fill out papers because I have no to low income and they tell me I am too physically and mentally fit to require the help I seek, but I am not. I am “sane” sure, but this fear is attacking the very sanity I am failing to protect on my own. I fear more than death living my life afraid of death and maybe just maybe if I could get the help I needed then I may be able to focus on the things I should be doing in my life or the things I want to do. I have been being told I cannot get low income therapy since I was 18 and I’m not getting any younger (or healthier).

    I myself also have a number of health problems that I cannot afford to take care of and this makes me worried about dying at a young age. This is really becoming a very serious issue; it’s becoming the only issue that I care about at all and that in and of itself is a big problem.

    James: I completely understand your deep-seated fear of nothingness as I share it. I am taking you at your word that you’ve tried every way to receive professional care and failed, that Medicaid isn’t an option for you, that there’s no county hospital in your area that will see you for free, and that you’ve tried contacting a social worker to ensure you’ve exhausted all your options. If there truly is no way for you to access the medical system (and I know many, many people in America fall between its cracks) then I would suggest you investigate the practice of Nichiren Buddhism. The best book explaining it I’ve ever read is called The Buddha in Daily Life by Richard Causton. You absolutely have the power to help yourself out of this spiral of fear if you can embrace a practice or a method that really does unlock it. The very best of luck to you!

    Alex

  • Hi,

    I just Stumbled on your blog this morning and enjoyed this article very much. I realize too much time has lapsed for you to give this a lot of attention, but there are two comments I’d like to share, for what they’re worth.

    First, this is a topic I struggle with tremendously, and while I have found no satisfying resolution, it has occurred to me that those of us who OWN the inevitability of our death are the lucky ones. We are the ones most likely to value and appreciate and make the most of our time. Shattering delusions and ever-increasing self-awareness is cold comfort, but that is the only comfort I find myself able to be interested in.

    Second, here is what I’ve gleaned from a decade or so of studying Buddhist philosophy. Fear of death is an attachment, and attachment causes suffering; this is the First Noble Truth. The way to overcome fear of death is to overcome attachment. How do we do that? By–and this is my intellectual understanding, not my emotional experience (yet)–understanding the True Nature of life, the universe, and everything, which is that only Emptiness (aka Nirvana, Heaven, etc.) is permanent, but that we are all manifestations of Emptiness. Thus I will continue, but as Emptiness, not as Kitty, because the body (and therefore the ego) is impermanent.

    I think that from the perspective of consciousness/ego, we tend to look at the issue backwards (how could we do otherwise), and that it’s more the case that my ego (this life) is a temporary condition superimposed on Emptiness, which is my True Nature, and that “enlightenment” is little more than realizing this.

    I read a great little book recently called What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, a Tibetan monk. In it he tells the story about how the Buddha’s brush with death brought him to his realization about the True Nature of life. The Buddha struggled with all the same issues as in your post and on so many of our minds (that is, if we’re lucky ;->). The only difference is that the Buddha sat with it until he fully realized the truth of the situation. Enlightenment. And from this he was able to give up all attachment, including fear of death. Not because of some mental discipline or emotional desire, but because lack of attachment was his True Nature, as it is for all of us. We need only realize it.

    Thanks for the post, and for this opportunity to share such a private fear in such a public forum.

    Kitty: I’ve had a similar intellectual conception that this thing I identify as the core me, Alex, is only a dream being dreamed by the universe itself, a thing itself alive, manifested as countless living creatures, all ignorant that they dream, until occasionally one awakes and realizes the truth (“buddha” in fact literally means “awakened one”). What, though, makes this one, Alex, different from that one, Kitty, that continues in future manifestations without memory of its past existences? Don’t have the answer to that one yet.

    Also, I don’t entirely agree with the First Noble Truth. It’s a principle of Hinayana Buddhism (literally translated, “lesser vehicle”) and has given rise to the Zen notion that suffering is caused by attachment so that if we free ourselves from attachment (our attachment to life itself, for example) we can free ourselves from suffering. I would argue that, first, not all attachments are bad and therefore freeing oneself from them would be a mistake (the desire to do good, for example)—that without desire there can be no value creation. Secondly, Mayahana Buddhism (literally translated, “greater vehicle”) argues that suffering arises not from attachment but from delusions about our attachments. To attain enlightenment, I have always expected and hoped, means to see live with your attachments from a perspective that grants you control over them without being entirely free of them (admittedly a more difficult and nuanced approach, but the right one I think), that enables you to walk effortlessly away from the negative ones and embrace fully the positive ones. Why else would the Buddha have spent his entire life spreading his teachings if he didn’t care about (wasn’t attached to) eradicating the suffering of others?

    In the end, though, we agree: attaining enlightenment seems to be the final, best, and perhaps only, answer. I only hope it’s not a fantasy but something actually attainable.

    Alex

  • Thanks for your response to my response, Alex. I think you’re completely right: Mahayana is more accurate that delusion about attachment is a main cause of suffering, as there is no way to not have attachments (and why would we want to try?). So the opportunity, then, is to uncover the nature of those delusions, no? Whether about attachment or anything else.

    And yet, maybe it’s all just semantics, helpful only in that different personalities will grasp things from different angles. I think that once a person realizes their true nature, as the Buddha did, they may see things in terms other than attachment, terms we can’t quite comprehend from our perspective. That is, he wasn’t necessarily “attached” to eradicating suffering. He was doing something else entirely. Maybe. Just a theory.

    I promise you, enlightenment is real. As Ken Wilber says, you don’t have to take anyone’s word for it (as in most religious beliefs). You can do the experiment yourself, and arrive at your own conclusion. But I also think that it isn’t the big whammy, total-peace-and-serenity, everything’s-going-to-be-okay experience that we idealize it to be. It’s just waking up to our true nature. I realize psychiatry would probably classify the experience as a break with reality, but there is just too much evidence for me to believe that. And I don’t mean sages and books (although that is certainly evidence, too.) Just look around you! It’s everywhere, all the time. All we have to do is notice it. We are all striving and struggling toward it because it is as natural and necessary as breathing, most of us just don’t know what “it” is. At least, this is the “peek” experience, the awareness, I’ve had.

    Are you familiar with Wilber’s Pre-Trans Fallacy? In it, he makes a clear distinction between what he calls pre-rational beliefs, such as the belief of a cosmic daddy in the sky, and post-rational beliefs, which include yet transcend rationality; enlightenment belongs in this camp, and he explains, eloquently and logically, why that is the case. Google it; it might be right up your alley.

    Anyway, thanks again. Your blog was an exciting find for me, and I thank you so much for putting it out there!

    Kitty: I’ll have to check out Wilber’s book, thanks. I’ve actually had moments of what I retrospectively believe to be the experience of enlightenment in which the entire universe seemed perfectly ordered, including my place in it, and I felt a vast and powerful sense of love for everything and everyone. I felt like my absolute best self, invincible despite a complete awareness of my own mortality. It’s due to these few experiences that I, too, believe enlightenment is a real state we can achieve (and then have to work to maintain!) in which whatever feeling of peace comes occurs not from having achieved detachment from worldly affairs or some inexpressible cosmic perspective, but rather from a sense of perfect knowledge of the way things are and from the unassailable confidence and strength an enlightened life-condition brings to solve any problem with which we would ever be confronted. Wouldn’t that just be a great way to experience life?

    Alex

  • Doug

    I know the original post for this thread was made long ago, but your story really resonated with me and I wanted to share. I am 30 years old and also had appendicitis this year. I had a chronic course that lasted about 4 months with many doctors visits and tests. I am a scientist, so I share some of the anxiety that goes with being sick and having knowledge of what could be wrong. In any event, I was finally correctly diagnosed and the surgery went mostly well.

    My experience brought me closer to death than I’d ever been before and made me think hard about my life. Many of the commenters here described their own experiences and, for some, it seems like the realization of mortality happened suddenly. For me, it is a journey. I can remember seeing my dead grandfather as a teenager and realizing that death happened. I have had a few close calls and have come to appreciate that my body is slowly decaying. The appendix surgery brought home the fact that I am mortal and will die. Still, I hope that death is an event in the far future. I think that, as death draws nearer, I will work to accept it and perhaps even to see it as a natural conclusion to a life well-lived.

    Doug: I hope so, too.

    Alex

  • Eva

    After a couple of pneumothoraces in 1999 and a resection and biopsy, I was diagnosed with sporadic pulmonary lymphangioleiomyomatosis. At the time, my Internet research repeatedly assured me that I would be dead within 10 years.

    My doctors recommended that I have my ovaries removed, take Tamoxifen, have a lung transplantation, or do nothing. Since I was pre-menopausal, I decided not to have the ovaries out, after some research about Tamoxifen I that there was no scientific evidence that it helped, but quite a bit of evidence that it harmed women with LAM, and transplantation seemed so be too big a “thing” just to keep little old me alive. So I opted to do nothing. Of course I was terribly worried about the future held for me—fighting to stay alive, slowly dying of suffocation.

    However, a few months later I had another pneumothorax, had another lung surgery, and started on oxygen 24/7. I started to consider transplantation. And a few months after that, I was listed.

    In 2001, I had another massive pneumothorax, another chunk of lung needed to be removed, and I subsequently needed 7 l/min of oxygen. The love of my life died of a heart attack, and I was no longer able to take care of myself. In mid 2002, I was admitted to the hospital as a high-urgency patient to wait for new lungs. I waited for 7 1/2 months.

    In early 2003, my new lungs arrived. I remained on the vent for two months. During that time things were pretty rough, and I realized that I might very well be dead the next day. The realization was not painful. I reviewed my will (in my mind), and regretted that I had not written it a little differently. And in my imagination I walked the winding path in my father’s garden. I was at peace.

    At some point I was taken off the vent, but was quite miserable. There wasn’t a part of me that wasn’t suffering—my body ached, I had diarrhea, my vision was impaired, the nasal-gastric tube was misery, I couldn’t talk because my vocal chords were paralyzed, my digestive system was at war, I had slight polyneuropathy. I wanted to die—in fact, I became frustrated with my doctors for not letting me go!

    I’m sure I am still suffering from PTSD—there’s still a lot of anger towards doctors who let me suffer needlessly—whenever a new problem comes up, it is all “in my head” until I can prove otherwise. In the last 10 years, I have been an inpatient for a total of about two years—with endless diagnoses (including gastric bleed—I know what it feels like!) and a total of eight surgeries.

    I write all this simply to demonstrate how experience can change one’s perspective on death. Of course I am “glad” that the doctors kept me alive, but being so close to death was a rewarding experience. It is liberating to have the knowledge that when the time comes, I will be able to let go.

    Eva: What an experience! I only hope I’m able to reach the same kind of peace with my own mortality as you have. Thank you so much for sharing your unbelievable story.

    Alex

  • Shannon

    I have no enlightenment to offer, just the questions from my 5 year old echoing through my mind along with my own, but it has been an interesting and somewhat comforting read—including the comments. I found you through the NYT and this is the third or fourth post I’ve read as I’ve wandered through your blog. Thank you for your openness and willingness to share and to listen. I can see that this will be a strong resource for me. I will be back again. And again, thank you.

    Shannon: My pleasure. Glad to have you along.

    Alex

  • Caterina

    Hello, Alex,
    Like other readers, I found your site through the NY Times. Thanks to you and others for sharing your experiences. I feel like my experience is minor compared to others’ stories—but nonetheless, I empathize with the feelings of anxiety and wishing for one’s former “more carefree” self. I had endometriosis & fibroids throughout my teens and 20s, and had surgery in my mid-30s. About 10 days post-surgery, I woke up with vomiting and severe abdominal pain—thought it was a stomach virus, eventually went to the ER (my doctor was out of town). Adhesions had caused an intestinal obstruction…resulting in an NG tube, another surgery, and the realization that if I had waited longer to get help,the outcome could have been worse! Now, it’s years later and although I’m healthy (a positive outcome was I’ve become quite diligent about diet and exercise, and have managed to remain largely symptom-free)…I still worry when I have pains and twinges—that I’m missing something serious. Most times I ride it out, and it turns out to be nothing. Ironically, in my younger days I often had significant pain but didn’t worry so much—I didn’t know anything different, and hadn’t experienced any health “crises” up to that point. (I now work as a medical writer, so as others have noted, sometimes having some background knowledge makes you worry more!). I’ve been to a therapist and have begun practicing yoga…and most days I feel fine, but inevitably my anxiety starts to ratchet up in the days before my annual gyn appointment. My current doctor knows my history, and I think she understands, but I really wish that I didn’t get panicky in the waiting room (causing my BP to rise, which makes me even more anxious!). My therapist reminded me that life is “a work in progress,” so I guess I need to keep that in perspective. I also know that I very blessed with a loving network of family and friends, and am quite fortunate to be as healthy as I am today. Thank you for listening, and thanks to you (and everyone) for sharing their journeys.

    Caterina: I have the same problem now with new symptoms myself. Before I worried very little, never really taking seriously the possibility that they might represent something life-threatening. Now, depending on what it is (and as a result of my medical brain working overtime), my anxiety is triggered much more easily. Luckily, as you point out, most of the time it really is nothing.

    Alex

  • Dulce

    I’m another one who found your site through the New York Times. And I’m glad I did. Lately, after the death of both parents, I’ve been very anxious about death—not so much about dying as about the state of being dead that others have so well described here. While I was raised as part of a faith community and have spent much of my adult life formally studying religion, I haven’t had much luck drawing upon my personal background or my studies to quell the fear. I’m too modern, too practical and rational, to buy into ideas that aren’t empirically testable.

    But, you know, I think that in itself is part of the problem. It goes without saying that science, medicine, technology, etc., have made vast improvements in human life. But I also think there’s a sphere of being that we can’t directly know, a spiritual dimension that we’ve managed to marginalize in our modern world. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: we can’t know whether there is an afterlife, but the conditions of our contemporary experiences sure make it harder that it’s been in all of previous history to believe that it exists.

    Take Johann Sebastian Bach (just as one example among hundreds). Here was a brilliant musician, a composer whose music brings one out of oneself into a realm of transcendence. His music is complex and sophisticated, the product of rare genius. This brilliant man was deeply devout. He was a faithful Christian, a believer.

    So I say to myself: who’s wiser, me or J.S. Bach? Who knows more about the human condition, who can better express the needs of the mind and soul? If this exceptional man had faith, doesn’t that suggest that faith isn’t necessarily irrational, suboptimal, primitive, delusional, and all the other pejorative words we hurl at it these days?

    Thinking about Bach gives me comfort—and there are so many other examples. We live in a skeptical age, and cynicism has become our plausibility structure. It’s harder for us to have, and to justify having, faith than it was for our ancestors. But that doesn’t mean it’s in error.

    Dulce: I agree it is harder to believe in things not provable because, as you say, we’ve become so good at proving things we tend now to think anything that we can’t test can’t be true—when in reality, of course, the truth of any non-testable hypothesis exists independent of our ability to prove or disprove it. The question then becomes is there another way to know something is true other than through objective, empirical evidence? I would answer that there is certainly a way for someone to become convinced of a truth enough that it effectively enhances his or her life (eg, beats back the fear of death), but that ultimately we must accept as an axiom that our subjective wisdom and objective reality are indeed linked. It’s reasonable to assume they are as we ourselves are products of objective reality, yet I honestly don’t know how we’d ever prove that. Thanks for a really insightful comment.

    Alex

  • Mary Ann

    THANK YOU! It is so refreshing to read about this emotional issue/experience, which I, at 59, have been dealing with more and more since my father’s (87) apparently peaceful death about 2 years ago. I will look more deeply into Buddhism and meditate more…I know how to and don’t do it often enough, and I think it helps.

  • Ronald E. Maxson

    Humans stand alone among all life, as far as we know, in the knowledge of death. This knowledge births the fear of death in most individuals. This fear has plagued humans for as long as anyone knows. Is there a way to banish fear of death, instantly and from that moment onward?

    In fact, the information regarding how to do this has been available for thousands of years: what the individual must do is bring psychological time to a stop; bring thought to an end; silence ego (the “I,” the “me”).

    Once a person does this, the person comes into contact with the realm beyond time and measure, therefore timeless and deathless, infinite and eternal.

    When individuals do this for the first time, however, some experience the unpleasant surprise of having feelings ranging from mild discomfort to stark terror. This is because ego does not like to be silenced!

    But once one understands this, one is utterly transformed: All fear is instantly and from that moment onward brought to an end, replaced simultaneously by the understanding of the true meaning of love. This does not mean an individual, when confronted by a tiger, would not attempt to escape. That is intelligence in action, not fear. In the context of this comment, the fear being discussed is anxiety, often referred to as “existential angst.”

    The understanding previously mentioned, as stated, reveals the true meaning of love because a person understands that oneness is the actuality, not division—with the latter constituting an illusion which occurs when a person does not place ego in its proper perspective, which results in fear of death.

    But don’t just take my word for it. Don’t just take my word that enabling yourself, as described, to be in communion with the ultimate dimension will banish the fear of death. Do it and find out.

  • Joseph

    Hi, thanks for sharing your experiences. There are things I can really relate to. I had a similar anxiety/nausea feedback condition when I was a kid, and looking back on it as an adult, I suspect it had a lot to do with my mother’s illness and death when I was a kid.

    When I was 4 years old, I saw my mother have a seizure, and it was a disturbing thing to watch: I was alone with her in the living room, and she was lying on the sofa, and her body started to shake side to side violently, and her eyes were rolling in the back of her head. I asked her what was wrong over and over, but of course she couldn’t answer. Shortly afterward my aunt came in and made me leave the room and closed the door while she called the ambulance.

    After that, she spent the next few months deteriorating in the hospital until she died (I learned later it was a rare type of cancer). I hardly ever saw her as much after she went to the hospital. During that time I started kindergarten, and I had issues riding the early morning bus. I mean, getting intensely anxious is a normal thing for a 5 year-old when they have to leave home to go to school on the bus at 6:00 am, but every morning I pretty much had an anxiety attack, and I would vomit on the bus. It wasn’t motion-sickness, it was nervousness, and the bus driver made sure I always sat in front so he could slide the garbage can over my way when I started to gag.

    This was every morning, and it became a feedback thing, where eventually I was no longer nervous about leaving home, I was nervous about throwing up. And just being nervous about it made the nausea worse, which increased the anxiety, and so on. I had to put up with the illness and anxiety and humiliation for years. And not only that, it became my normal reaction whenever I was going to a new place like camp or something.

    As a kid I tried everything, repeating mantras in my head, praying, thinking of whatever I could to keep myself from throwing up. Sometimes I was successful, and eventually over the years it became less frequent. It didn’t stop completely until I was about 10 or 11.

    Thankfully I no longer have such problems, although it’s likely that seeing my mother become ill and losing her probably had something to do with that. I’m not sure exactly how though.

    I never really started contemplating about death though until I was in my late teens. After my mother died when I was 5, my dad sat with my sister and I in the hospital courtyard and told me that she was in heaven, and that I would see her again when I die. This is what I believed for a decade afterward, and so the way I saw it, she was never really “dead.” She was in heaven waiting for me and I would think about her every night.

    After my parakeet died when I was 17, I started questioning what really happens when you die, and all the illusions I had sustained about death started crumbling. I remember being 17 and being consumed by death anxiety, being confronted with the possibility that my mother, my relatives, everyone I loved who had died and who will die will actually disappear forever, and I will no longer see them again. Although I never officially saw a psychiatrist or anything, I’m pretty sure I was clinically depressed. That turns into a whole other story though, which is thankfully over.

    About 7 years later now (I’m 24), I acknowledge that when we die we really might just disappear forever, and that after death, that is it. However, I still have a need for belief in some type of permanence, in being reunited with the loved ones you have lost—because the alternative would be just too psychologically despairing for me.

    For now though, I no longer believe in “heaven,” but hold out hope for some spiritual idea that when we die our life force, including our consciousness, separates from our bodies and reunites with nature, or some “universal life force” which is comprised of the past energies of our loved ones as well. It gets me through the day, at least.

    Joseph: When I read about you losing your mother at such a young age it broke my heart. If it’s any consolation, the Buddhist idea about death is quite similar to your hope for how things really go when we die. If we can only find a way to awaken to this truth in a way that really convinces us, we can definitely allay our anxiety about death.

    Alex

  • Ann

    How come you pathologize something so very normal—the fear of death—and call it PTSD? If anything, this is an existential crisis.

    I’m 60, still highly engaged in life. Yet I get those moments that have made me sit up in bed with a start: there may not be 20 more years! I’m going to die! And I see the chasm: those of us facing it and those still youthful enough to think it’s too far ahead to worry about. I know what they cannot—their time to fear dying will happen.

    But face it we must and by facing it, we learn lessons. We cannot turn away with delusions of fairy tales like heaven or spirits joining some enormous infinite universal party. When have we ever found in life the best lessons come easy? It is time we who have been educated and have intelligence face the facts: learning to die well is an honor and a final journey we should not cloud with fairy tales because we are afraid.

    If not now, then never. I shall work at dying as I embrace living. I want to feel the fear and what it can teach me. I reject PTSD as inane. And Buddhism is so not where it’s at and you fool yourself thinking spiritual is better than religious. It isn’t. Both are escapism. Death is coming and there is no escape. As always, living well is the best revenge and also the best way to enter our last moments if possible. PTSD is more escapism. Don’t make death any more of a profit center than it already is by giving it the PTSD label and turning it over to the psychiatrists and psychologists.

    Ann: How wonderful that you have such clarity and courage around death. Many others, however, do not. To “reject PTSD as inane” is to only betray an ignorance of a very real syndrome that has an epidemiology that is recognizable, a symptom cluster that is stereotypical, and a course that is predictable. People don’t choose to come down with PTSD any more than they choose to get cancer, so I’m not sure how it could be considered escapism, as you claim.

    Alex

  • Julia K.

    I have found it very interesting reading this conversational thread that has been taking place bit by bit for over half a year now. The original posting by Alex seems to me to be specifically concerned with describing and ameliorating the PTSD that can result from unexpected contact either with near death oneself or as a witness to death.

    Alex’s formulation was very helpful to me because previously I had been maintaining a mental distinction or in Alex’s language a “delusion about an attachment” that his post dissolved for me. My delusion had been that in my life there was a causal chain: traumatic events lead to PTSD, which exacerbates physical problems creating illness, thereby causing near-death experiences. What I realized from this article is that for me it became a feedback loop, where any experience of great physical pain tends to re-trigger the PTSD that was attached to previous physical trauma. In other words, it is not the original situational traumas outside of my body that still have a hold on me, but rather the reverse linkage to my bodily pain that serves as a trigger.

    Having gone through extensive therapy for the initial triggers, I found some relief, but was nonetheless occasionally re-traumatized, with little insight as to how to improve things. The insight being the commonality of the proximity of death to both situational trauma (in my case being criminally assaulted) and physical trauma. Thank you so much for this insight, Alex.

    Part of my reason to write was in response to Ann who wrote on Oct 16. I understand the frustration of living in a world where people’s normal behavior’s and attitudes are being pathologized left and right. However, PTSD, when you are inside of it, is a pathological state. One minute you are going about your business and you are fine, and then the next, for example, somebody accidentally bumps you with a sharp object (in my case) and then the room is spinning, the lights go dim, my temperature rises, etc….This happens instantaneously upon being triggered. This is very different than leisurely contemplating death at one’s discretion. Initially consciousness of death is not at the forefront of your mind. It’s more like there’s a physical response; in Alex it was nausea, and then as you start to recover from it, you then have some capacity to analyze the associated emotions and thoughts. Upon reflection, someone with PTSD starts thinking “the reason this is/was so stressful is this could have killed me, or this might in the imminent future kill me.”

    For me, I think the panic is caused by “this could have killed me and I’m not ready to go” that sets it off. When one is soberly contemplating the possibility of dying “there might not be 20 yrs!” as Ann said, then one can imagine the idea of death, but the possibility doesn’t seem real, imminent, and unwelcome. It’s one thing to imagine peacefully dying sometime in the future, and quite another to feel like “that idiot nearly ran me over with his minivan going 20 mph above the speed limit.” The instantaneous physical fight-or-flight adrenal hyper-reaction that is triggered in situations wherein one lacks control provokes the stress response, even though one has intellectually knowledge that ultimately death will come. In some people with prior trauma, the response can be on occasion disproportionate to the actual level of threat that a non-traumatized person would perceive.

    For example, I would bet that in the days following 9/11 when air traffic resumed, you and most people in the US were were a little more conscious and nervous at the sound of a jet engine overhead.

    I hope that helps clarify things for Ann or others who might have thought some of the same things that she did.

    Julia: Thank you for contributing to this discussion with such an articulate comment.

    Alex

  • Lori

    I like your writing style and find your topic intriguing. I am not afraid of dying and came to that state of peace through some trauma. Here is my shattered delusion.

    Julia K writes that your original posting seems “to be specifically concerned with describing and ameliorating the PTSD that can result from unexpected contact either with near death oneself or as a witness to death.” I also suffered a bout of PTSD brought on by the unlikely event of the birth of a child.

    The rest of the story is that I was in an emotionally and verbally abusive marriage and while I was at work (in a hospital), my 14-year-old step-daughter whom we did not know was pregnant (really) came in through the emergency room and I was paged to Labor & Delivery stat to help deliver her baby.

    My own toddlers gave me recent experience that helped me in my role as labor coach, but it was such a shock to my system that I had panic attacks driving back to the hospital to work a few days later. I took my step-daughter to counseling immediately where they suggested that I should return as well. I eventually did as there was far more to deal with than the new life.

    Alex’s formulation was very helpful to me as it was to Julia K. because I also had been maintaining a “delusion about an attachment.” I thought that if I just worked hard enough, prayed often enough, and ignored reality that I could make things right even in a wrong situation. Giving up that delusion meant facing an abusive marriage with escalating confrontations. The spoken and unspoken threats created such a deep fear in me that I couldn’t even identify it.

    The only way I could face the risks involved in getting my children and I to safety was to deal with the fear of death—by the man who had vowed to love me who also, by the way, was a veteran suffering from untreated PTSD.

    With help over a period of about 5 years, I came to the realization that being so fearful of everything I did was no way to live so I was actually more afraid of living than dying. I was then able to focus my strength and love on my children and make their life safer, happier, and better.

    It is now 10 years later, my story has a happy ending and I am very aware of how lucky I am. I had a good education, a good job, and was surrounded by wonderful friends and family just waiting to let them help me where they could. Not everyone has that.

    It has certainly not been easy but compared to life that wasn’t really living, or worth living, I am very grateful for the counseling profession. I know there are a lot of critics of counseling but I feel that counselors are to the depressed and oppressed as insulin is to the diabetic, except with counselors their success is defined by your eventual lack of need for them.

    Lori: What a story! Thank you so much for sharing it.

    Alex

  • Ruth

    Alex and Commenters: During the recent end-of-life stages of illness of seven close family members, I saw that each person’s struggle was very internalized, always causing these persons to have their eyes continuously closed. I now know that each one was experiencing their own, intensely-waged battle inside their heads and bodies; it was theirs, not ours. They used up what was left of their lives during their battle. I now know what happens at the end of life, to the last breath, and how the body shuts down. Nothing very dramatic. All of them cried at about three days before death about leaving, though my mother said “You’re all leaving me!” All of them uttered a comment or premonition about one or two days before death. These were people from age 21 to 94, and the comments always were about a loved one being imagined (usually ‘mother’). No matter the age, this process was identical, a dissipation without fear at the end, a sense that “this is the way it is.” It’s less of an unknown for me now. Not a nightmare. But sad and sweet for “us.” I suspect I will not be fearful.

  • Angela Greenslade

    I have just finished reading the comments and find at least some comfort in the fact that other people feel the same panic and dread at the fact of dying. I think I have always had anxieties about death and suffering from cancer particularly. When I was 5 I lost my grandmother and grandfather and then my father was diagnosed with bowel cancer so I thought I was going to lose him as well. I started clinging to my mother and developed a life long habit of worrying and dependency on her. I am now alone at 62 having not been able to form any other close relationships because men found me too “needy.”

    Angela: I’ve found it a great comfort to know others feel the same way about death, too. We’re all in the same boat, struggling with the same core issues, aren’t we?

    Alex

  • Jackie

    Hi,

    Great article. I try to be as unfussy about death with my kids as possible; we also go to our Lutheran church regularly, and there we keep getting reminded that, as Jesus put it, we can die any minute and worrying about it will not prolong our lifespan by an inch—so live and love here and now. So much for the intellectual approach.

    I really got hit in the guts by fear of dying in the last few months when my son turned out to have a severe speech delay, which may or may not respond to treatment. We will know in 5 years or so. The thing was—if he cannot ever live independently, what happens if i die tomorrow? That was the first time I REALLY cared. And then we found competent clinicians, are now in the diagnostic process, and are cautiously optimistic. There is a also a competent special needs school in sight.

    Then I stumbled across a quote by the great Janusz Korczak (for those of you who haven’t heard of him: Warsaw doctor who chose to be gassed with his orphan charges under Nazi occupation, although he could have left): “Every child has a right to their own death.” And this opened up another point I had blissfully ignored until then: we are not only sure to die ourselves, but so are our children! They only represent our potential immortality (biologically speaking), but the line may stop with them any time. AND THAT IS THEIR AFFAIR, NOT THE PARENTS’. Talk about a hard lesson that makes me cry as I write this. However, I do try to absorb it—if not, I will just turn into one of these overprotective horror mums. And ruin whatever fun we can have despite this helplessness. So, everyone—SEIZE THE DAY! (Horace actually says: pick the day (like a flower), and trust in the coming of the next one as little as possible) (carpe diem quam minimo credula postero).

    Take care. Cry as much as you need, and no more.

    Jackie: Wise and moving words.

    Alex

  • Shafi

    Thank you, Mr. Alex Lickerman. We know we have to die, but I do not wish to know how & when. Religions put it: you remind yourself that today, tomorrow, the day after, it’s going to happen. Just go about your life, do the best you can. Reminding yourself of death is a great deterrent from wanting to be the richest or the most powerful man or woman or earth.

    Thanks for your time.

    Rgds

  • Edie

    My brother died twelve years ago. He had a very strong personality.

    When he died, many things happened in which he showed his presence. He directed me to say and do various things on his behalf. He appeared to several friends and left the message that he was fine, and happier without the need for his body, which had been a burden to him. He played a joke on his daughter in order to cheer her up.

    His gift to me is knowing that we go on. I don’t know how, but we do go on.

    The sadness is leaving the people we love and knowing that their lives will never be the same after the loss of a loved one.

    SO MANY PEOPLE (ESPECIALLY CHILDREN) HAVE HAD SIMILAR EXPERIENCES OF HAVING CONTACT WITH A LOVED ONE WHO HAS DIED. I AM SURPRISED THAT NO ONE HAS WRITTEN ABOUT THIS. BEST WISHES TO ALL

    EDIE

  • Julia

    I’m a breast cancer survivor who suffers from undiagnosed PTSD due to brutal treatments (bilateral mastectomy) and insensitive medical “caregivers.” Prior to diagnosis I was phobic of blood, needles and had never stepped foot in a hospital. No need as I was a light-weight, vegetarian marathoner. After being blindsided by cancer I developed extreme anxiety especially after a traumatic lumpectomy surgery failed to produce clean margins. My Stage 1 BC may not be a death sentence but it was a sentence to an unending series of unpleasant treatments. And it stole 2 years of my life as I underwent several reconstruction surgeries fraught with complications from a seroma. Finally cancer free with new breast “mounds” I failed to find much anticipated peace. Fears of reccurence and mets haunt me day and night. Friends with cancer are dying. A routine eye exam revealed a new mole behind my retina. Eye doctor feared I might have malignant melanoma, so I went to NCI center for scary check-up! The cancer diagnosis on my chart now makes every lump, bump, bone ache a potential new cancer diagnosis. And breast cancer mets, though treatable is not curable. We are talking GAME OVER if cancer rears its hydra head again. I’ve been forced to accept my mortality, vulnerability and anxiety at a young age. And mortality is no longer a philosophical concept but a daily reality. But because of my PTSD I can’t embrace the moment. No! I have panic attacks. Nightmares! Extreme anxiety. Now I avoid beloved activities such as cycling because I can’t face an accident. Another ER or bleached XLLL smock. My former good health has been replaced with stress related high BP, cholesterol, cortisol hypothyroidism …in 2 years! Thus, I’m glad to find this website. I’m hoping that by “studying death” I’ll fear it less because living in fear is no way to live!

    Julia: Boy, do I relate to your nightmarish story. Please don’t give up hope that your symptoms can be controlled or even eliminated. If you truly have PTSD (and it sure sounds like you might) please, if you haven’t already, seek professional help. There really are many things that can be done to minimize these symptoms.

    Alex

  • Julia

    Hi, I’m the cancer curmudgeon with PTSD and medical phobias. :-) I have an excellent therapist who helped me through my 6 surgeries with hypnotherapy. However, progress is slow because we only have 1 hour per week. I’m searching for a program that specifically treats (non-warfare) PTSD. Or a cancer clinical trial that addresses PTSD. I believe that cancer patients and soldiers have a lot in common. We don’t know when or where the next “bullet” will strike but we feel endangered. We’re watching our backs and the rest of our vulnerable bodies. And we’re dealing with a unpredictable, slippery foe!

  • As a survivor of a near-death experience, I will add it is a sad moment when one’s human innocence and faith of a sort are smashed by the reality that physical death is real. When I was diagnosed with cancer 9 years ago I felt shell-shocked, literally, as cancer was something that happened to other people.

    The beauty of this experience, however, lies in what it does to the quality of life once accepted. I likened it to peeling the dirty solar paper off a window. Suddenly everything in life is so very clear. What is right, wrong, important, insignificant, whom we love, whom we have no time for, etc.

    The obsession with self by all of us—as humans are above all filled with enlightened self-interest—is the one element of which we cannot rid ourselves. It is this quality that makes death such a villainous monster. I just turned 60, which I now find a miracle looking back at my childhood, the risks I took in my life, etc., and I am surprised every time I wake up with what a blessing health and wellness are.

  • Kay

    This post reminds me of my experience when I was 17. I had a bad bout of a PTSD-like thing after attending the first funeral in my entire life. I started wondering how it “felt” like to be dead, to be lying six feet under the ground, a million feet trampling over my grave, stuck in nothingness for eternity. And eternity is such a hell of a time. The thought made me dizzy and gave me very bad panic attacks. I couldn’t believe that I could cease to exist…to just be nothing. The ego in me violently opposed this. How could I not exist? It was almost…cognitive dissonance…and I started worrying about losing my loved ones, my relatives…etc.

    Nowadays I too find solace in Buddhism because it gives me so much wisdom to cope with my fear. Reading Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie helped a lot too. But I wouldn’t have traded this harrowing experience for anything. It gave me awareness on top of everything. Although now I’m still battling this mild fear.

    Kay: I sometimes wonder if fear of death is really fear of eternity in disguise.

    Alex

  • Hi Alex,

    Sorry to comment on a post nearly a year old but it seems to continue generating interest! Perhaps it has already been suggested but a few things that have eased my mind about reincarnation and thus fear of dying are past life regression hypnosis (with a licensed therapist), a reading of the Akashic records from the School of Metaphysics, and a book called Journey of Souls by Michael Newton, PhD.

    While none of these things will be compelling to a skeptic, each is a good start for someone with a desire to accept reincarnation as a possibility. Best wishes!

    Rainie: Never to late to comment on a post! Thanks for your suggestions. I’ve long been interested in past-life regression hypnosis but have remained skeptical enough about it not to investigate it seriously. I read Many Lives, Many Masters in fascination and even dabbled in some experiments with self-hypnosis (which led nowhere). I really have no good reason not to try to find a legitimate hypnotist who’s also interested in such things.

    Alex

  • Dear Alex,

    I have just finished reading all the wonderful posts listed above. I have another thought about PTSD to add.

    I have just returned from a visit home over the holidays. When I got home, I was consumed with anxiety for several days regarding some comments my father made. He has always been critical and negative about me and my brothers.

    I was finally released from this psychic pain when I realized that I had to distance myself from him and communicate that fact to the entire family. The relief that flooded over me after I came to this realization was immense, and it has lasted. I cannot even summon up the anxiety I felt before.

    Now I think I may have suffered a kind of PTSD. Putting this name on it makes me feel more “sane” and normal.

    Thank you for putting this discussion out on the web, and maintaining communication with your readers.

  • Julia

    Here I go again. Phone rings and it’s a nurse with a lab report. Her voice on machine. Stomach churns. Feel sick. Heart skips a beat. This time it’s not radiologist calling with bad cancer path but an endocrinologist I consulted for sub-clinical hypothyroidism. My OTC “Thyroid Energy” pills have apparently worked and my TSH levels have dropped. Great news! BUT PTSD has already wrecked havoc with internal organs. Body is awash in cortisol. I go to bed trembling with upset stomach. Rest of the day ruined. Cancel plans for dinner…I’m left wondering: is there a treatment center for PTSD that is not war related? Anyone out there that treats medically related PTSD/hyperchondria and phobias? I have (not to brag) great insurance and many FF airline points tho’ I’m just middle class. Still I’d sell my house to get relief. I don’t want to live in constant fear that my body is in danger or that my cancer will return. It’s to the point where I might have a heart attack with a blood stick or nurse/MD phone call. Can any one out there recommend integrative treatment centers (Mayo?) or is that permitted on this blog? At the very least I’d like an “executive physical.” The 10 min check-up at FP did more to induce than reduce anxiety. Thanks!

    Julia: Many psychologists and psychiatrists specialize in the treatment of PTSD whatever its cause. I don’t know of any specific centers but I imagine they exist. My recommendation would be to call whatever academic medical center is near you and inquire if anyone there specializes in it. And/or use the Internet. If anyone else has any good suggestions, please post them. PTSD is an intense area of research right now, but even with much unknown there is much that can be done to help!

    Alex

  • Julia K.

    This is a message from Julia K. to the Julia who wrote on January 20:

    My experiences and symptoms are close enough to yours that I’ll venture to post some advice.

    In the last two years I’ve had the same sort of hormonal stress issues that you mention, but to a slightly lesser extent. It culminated in the formation of gallstones and attack of gallbladder inflammation. Once I had the gallbladder removed with laparoscopic surgery, it alleviated both chronic fibromyalgia pain and PTSD has diminished 90%.

    I have no idea whether gallbladder might be at issue for you, but certainly get the proper ultrasound if you have pain in the upper right abdomen or right flank.

    So, what I would say is something like this: on the one hand you should find some palliative things to help calm your self. For me it is getting shiatsu treatment and my basic model jetted bathtub. Also, personally, I have a prescription from my general practitioner for xanax that I take one pill maybe every other month or so, and I haven’t found it to be addictive or problematic in any way. On the other hand, you need to push through and get the diagnostics and treatments that are going to help you.

    Personally, the most effective psychotherapeutic type of help that I have gotten has been through a social worker: someone trained to help you get the resources you need to solve your problems.

    Hope some of that might be relevant.

    —Julia K.

  • Chris

    It is believed that all of creation sprung forth from a nothingness (whatever that is) in the matter of 10 to the -43 seconds. Gravitational energy rebounded on itself from the rapidly expanding space-time. Some of that energy condensed into slightly denser-than-nothing wave-particles, that for whatever reason, have the ability to interact with each other. Several simple laws and billions of years later, those clouds of particles became stars, then planets, then complex chemicals, then life. That life came and went, evolved, lived and died. Until at last, 14-15 billion years after the cosmic belch, here you and I are wondering what happens when we die. My question is, when did we not exist? The potential for you, and I, and all things was present in that first instant of instants. Perhaps, even before that, whatever before this time was.

    As I see it, all things, but especially self-aware, biological phenomena like we humans, are still that one energy spreading itself out into all possible manifestations. The self seems to be the greatest delusion, one very hard to break free of. So what if death as a human being on planet earth is the true end of the human self. My fears of death have been greatly reduced by NOT REALLY knowing how everything came to be. IF it did come from an eternal nothingness, then I am convinced that such an occurrence will happen again, and again, and again on into infinitum.

    For myself, this means I have been before, whatever I was, and after the pattern of wave-particles of energy that currently form “Myself” dump back into the cosmic pool, another “I” will emerge from nothingness whenever the conditions are right. As the cosmos appeared from nowhere, so did you and I. Perhaps death is just going back to the beginning. Not this life’s beginning…perhaps not even within this universe or other versions of it.

    In conclusion, all I really know, is I am now. But the very fact that I am at all, means I came from nothing at least once. If it happened once, then it only makes sense to me that it has happened before long ago in the dreamy depths of eternity and will come to pass again in the equally dreamy depths of the long off future…or long ago future, time seems to have no direction when dealing with eternity. I do not know how or why I awoke upon this Earth, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t the first time “I” have been stirred from dreamless slumber, and I am pretty certain it won’t be the last time. Hell that first 14 billion years went by in an instant. I hope you find peace friend. Enjoy being part of the imagination and complexity machine the universe seems to be.

    Maybe that is what Nirvana is, knowing deep within that you ARE the eternal when being faced with the deception that you are not. Not that one cannot die, but that death as an individual is just that, the end of one individual experience, not the end of experience itself.

    Chris: Your ideas are remarkably consistent with Buddhist thought, especially your last point about nirvana. Intellectually, it all makes excellent sense to me. And yet, intellectual understanding isn’t enough to defend me against anxiety over non-being. I hope to achieve a deeper understanding that brings the peace you describe. Thanks for writing.

    Alex

  • Chris

    Alex,

    As I read your blog my mouth dropped open. I have been experiencing the exact same feelings and thoughts as you. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer 2 years ago at the age of 42. Fortunately, I had very low risk disease. I was told by my doctor at Johns Hopkins that 99.6% of all the people who have the kind of prostate cancer I had never have to deal with it again. This was from a study of 2,500 patients treated they treated with a follow-up as far out as 22 years. My first reaction was, “O.K. what happened to the .4% that did have it come back?” Luckily, he said, “Nothing, they are still alive, with no progression.” Any sane person would have taken the 99.6% and gone on with their life. The whole experience has shattered my life. Every time I get a pain or some odd feeling somewhere in my body, I run to the doctor to make sure it is not a new cancer. If you Google any symptom you get on the Internet you will find that “everything” comes back with tumor as a possible cause. Everyday of life is a struggle now. I will never feel secure about anything again.

    Chris: I so empathize with what you’re feeling. Once the denial mechanism of death is ripped away, any little ache or pain that you used to ignore can now trigger a flood of death anxiety. If you haven’t gone already, I’d recommend therapy (though unfortunately, in my experience few therapists are well-trained or even interested in dealing with issues surrounding death anxiety). I suspect with time your anxiety will abate, as mine has, though remain an ever-present force in the background. If your anxiety is interfering with your ability to function in daily life, you might even discuss an anti-anxiety medication with your doctor. Or you might investigate Buddhism by clicking on my “About” page and then the link to the SGI. Best of luck to you. You’re certainly not alone.

    Alex

  • Ruth

    I wonder if these terrible anxieties could be thought about in total, in the same way some people live their entire lives suffering from long-ago trauma? That is, that your new life with PTSD is robbing you blind.

    The final PBS episode of THIS EMOTIONAL LIFE honestly deals with HAPPINESS. It asks you to think about what things make you feel happy and suggests that making those things your priority in life may lead you in a different direction. And to avoid the things that you know make you unhappy. This is a different issue than the one in which your body has hurt you terribly. So, what continues to make you happy?

  • Julia

    Hi, Chris. I’ve also been treated at Hopkins for Stage One BC and given a 92%, 10-year survival rate. You’d think I’d feel upbeat but I don’t because of my anxiety. A new mole behind my retina—discovered during routine eye exam—left me in tears on the phone with my oncologist. He immediately got me appointment in JH eye clinic. After a four-hour exam, all was well. Something else to monitor though. I take comfort from being treated at an excellent NCI center, and I hope you do as well. Hopkins not only saved my life but its patient care made hospitals in ATL seem like Civil War Field units in comparison ;-)! We are both darn lucky to be getting “state-of-art” care. Survival rates are dependent on choice of treatment centers and we made good choices ;-))!

  • ChrisR

    Julia,

    I choose JH for the exact reasons you speak. They had the best outcome for patients like me. Nobody else could even tell me what their results of their programs were. I really feel for you. What most people don’t understand is that the doctors can’t tell you which side of the percentages you are on. It is a fact that better centers will have better outcomes. As for your eye, my boss’s wife had the same thing. It turned out to be nothing as well. I fully relate to the terror you feel. Since my prostate cancer I’ve had a colonoscopy, moles taken off, a sinus scan and my eyes examined. Cancer really never crossed my mind before when I had a symptom. Now, when something changes I first make sure that possibility is ruled out.

    Alex,

    I would love to find a therapist who might be able to help. I have been to several, but don’t really feel any of them are capable of helping me. I live in Columbus, OH. You wouldn’t happen to know of any close would you?

    Thanks for doing this. I finally feel I have found a place where people seem to have the same issue to deal with.

    Chris: I don’t, but I would suggest visiting the Psychology Today website. I used their therapist-finder page that not only locates therapists physically but describes their areas of interest and expertise to find a list of therapists in Columbus (just click here). Best of luck.

    Alex

  • Dave

    Thank you for this article. While it certainly didn’t offer me any of the answers I may be hopelessly looking for, there is some comfort in knowing you aren’t alone in the way you feel.

    I am crippled with fear over my impending eternal nothingness for obvious enough reasons, but looking at the bigger picture, the very realistic concept that death is in fact the ultimate end bothers me from another standpoint; what is the point to any of this?

    If indeed our consciousness ends completely when we die, and there is just absolute nothingness/oblivion for eternity, it is safe to say that in death, what happened in our lives was completely meaningless.

    Yes, what happens to us now is obviously relevant and meaningful as we are living; but the moment you die, it matters not whether you had an amazingly happy and fulfilling life and touched and loved thousands, or if you were miserable and lonely. You meet the exact same end; complete nothingness. You can’t bring with you the love you shared, the things you learned, nothing.

    Some people like to say they will live on in the memories of those left behind. Right, until those people die, and those memories fade into oblivion along with them.

    Some people take comfort in that cycle. To me, it seems utterly pointless. No matter how many generations you are remembered/loved, it will just keep getting erased into nothingness for all eternity.

    Anyway, sorry for the depressing rant. I take a tiny bit of comfort in it, I guess. If you are trying to prove logically the unprovable… Nothingness after death doesn’t make any sense, because it renders everything; all life now, before us, and after us; completely meaningless.

    And if indeed that’s true, that this is all completely meaningless, and our being born was a waste of time since being brought out of nothingness only to sink back into nothingness might as well have just been one continuous string of nothingness… I guess we’re “lucky” to get this little bit of somethingness, eh?

    Dave: I share your fear of nothingness, but disagree that the fact all things die makes our lives pointless now. First, happiness and suffering really do exist, in both ourselves and others. Isn’t there great meaning—if not the greatest—in imparting joy and removing suffering even if only temporarily? There may be no ultimate accounting of our good and bad deeds at the end of time, but does that make them less important to those we helped or those we hurt at the time?

    Further, though eventually even everyone who remembers us will also be dead, the effects we had on others do not die out so easily. Irvin Yalom in his excellent book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, calls this effect rippling. It’s a very Buddhist concept and quite real. The actions you take today affect those around you—even those who don’t know you (Nicholas Christakis published an elegant study showing how your happiness affects and is affected by people as far away from you personally as three degrees of separation)—and can continue to ripple out to affect the behavior and happiness of others who not only never knew you but who live generations later. Simple examples of this abound: the actions of the Founding Fathers have continued to influence generations not just in America but throughout the world. Gandhi’s non-violent resistance has as well. Certainly, it’s easier to influence more people when you’re famous, but don’t discount your ability to affect future generations within your own family, or within your circle of friends. It’s not only the diameter of our influence that matters; it’s the degree.

    Alex

  • Jordan

    This is really excellent writing. I work in the medical field and have for a while, but it’s only recently that the reality of what I see every day sank in actually from a vicarious professional experience (a friend told me about it).

    Basically what happened is that they had a pregnant female patient with longstanding pericarditis (inflammation of the sac that surrounds the heart, for anyone who doesn’t know), and she started having chest pain again. Crippling chest pain. While 9 months pregnant.

    So they admit her and send her home and the pain comes back and they admit her and send her home again over and over (a total of something like 9 times) in the meantime really screwing the pooch by failing to call for an electrocardiogram and performing chest pain evaluations incorrectly.

    So finally the repeated problems are apparently causing changes in the fetal signs of life, so they induce labor, and the kid is fine, and 18 hours later the woman is dead.

    And they found liters of blood in her body. Aortic dissection.

    And so they convene the next morning and say “Where’s her ECG?” and they realize “There isn’t one.” So they said “Well, she’s had an ECG in the past. Let’s look at that.” And they did, and they realized her aorta was 4 cm wide in the last ECG she had. That no one noticed or looked at for the last month while the woman was being admitted and released.

    Huge malpractice suit, whole hospital changed it’s policy so now a senior staff member in the department would look at cases of patients being readmitted for the same complaint on a required basis. Etc. etc. etc. Millions of dollars.

    But very upsetting at how one detail gets lost in the shuffle of 10-15-30 people and you can get 86′d like nothin.

    Jordan: What a terrifying story. I’m not sure how one measures the size of the aorta from an EKG, but for a young woman to have an aortic dissection is distinctly unusual. Tragic.

    Alex

  • Ruth

    So this inexcusable stuff is still going on…it was never supposed to be like this, Jordan. All because of the lack of accountable systems not being put in place to prevent physician negligence, to hold ALL abnormal findings directed to urgent dissemination, without fail. Systems, that’s all it takes. Nationwide.

  • Julia

    I’m the breast cancer “survivor” who loathes the term. Shouldn’t “survivor” be reserved for the Holocaust or soldiers at war? I’ve never “battled” the cancer diagnosis but sought to find ways to co-exist with my mutant cells. Once NED (no evidence of disease), I decided to give myself a “doctor office holiday.” Try to recover from mental trauma that was worse than physical trauma of six surgeries. Now regaining balance thru Tai Chi/QiGong and acupuncture, along with breath work and relaxing music. I’m overdue for oncology check-up but can’t make myself go. If cancer returns it’s treatable, but not curable. Given my anxiety/PTSD I can imagine holding up well under treatment. So whenever I schedule a doctor visit, I call back and cancel. Not going to the doctor makes me feel good. Is it delusional to want to believe in a future, until I don’t have a future? I’m thinking it’s best to be diagnosed end-stage rather than suffer mental angst of reoccurrence & 2 years of miserable chemo/rads that I don’t want prior to death. I want to cling to NED status. Finally, thanks for this website. It’s comforting & useful to me. Love the poetry & book recommendations not found elsewhere.

  • Julia K.

    Again a comment from one Julia to another…

    I’m wondering how much physical pain are you in now? It’s basically impossible not to feel anxious when you are in pain 24/7.

    At the conclusion of a recent hospitalization for a migraine so severe it mimicked a stroke, the doctors suggested antidepressants, not because of depression per se, but as a way to amp down the pain signals that would enable me to function better, and downgrade stress reactions such as those leading to migraine. I started with Wellbutrin, prescribed by my primary care doc on account of its minimal side effect profile and because Wellbutrin can be a good migraine preventative. I imagine most primary physicians would probably feel comfortable with it for you. However, it can increase agitation in some people, so you will need to do your research before you even see your primary and weigh your options carefully. I think if you go to a primary care appointment with a good grasp on the options (maintain an internal locus of control), it will be a less stressful event. Then, once you are feeling better, you will have the strength to deal with decisions pertaining to cancer, if necessary.

    –Julia K.

  • Julia

    Thanks, Julia. I’m not currently in physical pain. But if I had to check the pain chart that hospitals use I’d circle the frowny face (a nine?) for *emotional pain* most days. I think hospitals should use two diagrams! It’s worse now that treatment (surgery) is over. During the chaotic time of diagnosis & treatment I was mainly angry. Did the walks, talks, meditation and advocacy. But now a year out of treatment, the anger is turning to depression. And energy spent on “getting through” is gone. Feeling defeated by cancer. I’m no longer in treatment but I’m not the person I was before. It’s as though I’ve emerged from black hole after three years. The term “new normal” is offensive. The “new normal” is that of an employed former cancer patient. Not an uplifting identity. Nothing feels “normal.” I’m living with a chronic condition that may return and kill. Also, monthly loss of my acquaintances from Cancer Wellness programs create some survivor’s guilt and remind me of my fragility. I try to read comforting books on death and dying (currently No death, No Fear) but the fear returns when book is closed. I don’t live every moment to the fullest. No, cancer makes me over-focus on health and avoid life experiences & potential dangers (e.g., give up riding my beloved bike.)

  • Julia K.

    Again from Julia K. to Julia,

    (I hope this might be of interest to others as well as it gets back into Buddhist perspective.)

    To get back to Buddhist aspect of this thread, I recently read The Art of Happiness by HH the 14th Dalai Lama. It is a very pragmatic book about how to be happy, and not shrouded in any particular dogma or belief. I think it would be of much more benefit to you then trying to adopt the beliefs in the book you mention (No Death, No Fear) as those don’t seem to be connecting to your core beliefs.

    Based on what you are saying, my interpretation of the advice most relevant to you from The Art of Happiness, would be to focus on forgiveness. Forgive your body for screwing up and giving you cancer. Forgive yourself for being mortal. Forgive yourself for being afraid of the possibility of more bad events, while understanding that life is at its core a process of suffering. Forgive your friends for dying when you think it is too early for them to die. Forgive yourself for not being able to save them.

    I know it is much easier said than done, but if you read the book you will see that HH really breaks down the steps of achieving happiness into practically a “happiness for dummies” guide.

    I get the impression that your Cancer Wellness group puts you in a comparative mindset, thinking about what you have as opposed to what they have. Instead, focus on what you can do to help others. Maybe it is time to let the group go because there is nothing more you can do right now to help these people, and it is only making you feel stuck in powerlessness. Perhaps instead you could help someone learn to read or sew or whatever it is that you enjoy.

    Or go the other direction, push into your experience. After my friend helped her mother through cancer, it motivated her to become a doctor. She’s a pediatric endocrinologist, and I do feel if she were some other type of doctor, like an oncologist, that it would be too tough for her emotionally.

    Very Best Wishes,

    Julia K.

  • [...] There are many things of which I have no fear whatsoever:  I’m not afraid to fail.  I’m not afraid to succeed.  I’m not afraid to look foolish (though I don’t like it any more than anyone else).  I’m essentially mostly afraid of being in situations where I perceive I might be in some way unsafe (that fact, coupled with the general tendency we all have to fear the unknown, probably best explains my fear of death, which I wrote about in an earlier post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death). [...]

  • robyn

    Dear Fellow Responders to this article:

    I’m a forty-nine-year-old healthy female. I spend almost every waking moment thinking I might not be here today, tomorrow or next week. Death takes over my enjoyment in everything I do. I can’t shake it. I am on Lamictal, a mood stabilizer, just to try not to think about death. It’s working a little bit as I’m finding I am having some moments of happiness and focus that I didn’t have before. I’m tired and worn out and don’t know when this fear or if this fear will ever subside. I live with it and try to manage it as much as i can. It’s very surreal to look around the grocery store at all the people who are focused on their lives in the moment, or to see two women chatting about nonsense, all the while knowing it doesn’t matter.

    I’m very jealous of ignorant people who don’t question their demise. I’ve always had a very strong and inquisitive mind and knew I was different at a very young age compared to my peers.

    Like the author of this article, I feel like there is a nothingness that awaits all of us. My Jewish religion or any religion for that matter can’t make me change my mind about the way I feel and anytime someone tells me that I should turn to religion and Buddhism, i just laugh inside because I know the truth is we will all be dead someday and never see the ones we love ever again.

    I feel guilty that I had three children because someday they will also have to face the fear of death. if I hadn’t brought them into this world for MY needs, I could have spared them the suffering we all eventually face when it comes our time.

    At the present moment I have four friends who have cancer. They are all forty nine like me. I know it’s just a matter of time before I will get it and hope that I will feel differently and be able to be strong and deal with it, but in the meantime, I live afraid. Holding onto this fear also makes me feel safe in a way because I’m not pretending to be delusional about death. I know what I know and can’t believe that some day I won’t be here anymore, ever. I will fade into eternity never to be known like my great grandparents of whom I have pictures. That’s just the way it is.

    Thank you for listening to me and please don’t advise me to turn to Buddhism or books because in the end I can’t fool myself or calm myself as death is the boss.

    robyn: What an awful experience you’re having. I so very well understand the fear you feel. But I’d caution you about one thing: though I feel in my heart the way you do—that death is the final end—I also recognize that there’s no way to no for sure. To be as confident as you are that this is the truth is as arrogant as those who believe with utter certainty that life continues in Heaven or Hell without having any proof. You’re at the mercy of your fear because of the certainty of your belief. I won’t encourage you to give Nichiren Buddhism a try, but I will say that in practicing it I’ve come to discover new beliefs I wasn’t at all seeking but that I’m unable to disbelieve because of the force of the experiences that brought them to me. They were all complete surprises (and good ones). Last thing: your children may or may not ever find themselves subjected to the same fear as you. Realize that just because you find yourself paralyzed on a daily basis by your fear of death that your children may be spared this (you don’t mention how they feel, so I may easily be mistaken. I hope not). Please don’t give up your hope to free yourself from your fear. It may seem as if you can plot out with complete certainty how you will feel in the future and what will happen to you, but this is an illusion.

    Alex

  • Julia K.

    To Robyn from Julia K.

    Robyn, I can’t actually tell if you are interested in feeling better, but if you are, you might want to read a book called The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life by Dr. Philip Zimbardo and Dr. John Boyd. It is not a particularly well-written book. Actually, I think it is in bad need of a strong editor willing to corral these two into creating something that reads more coherently as a whole. Nevertheless, I think the central premise of the book might provide you with some insight you are lacking. Basically, the idea is that people differ in their focus and interpretation of events, and that some ways of focusing are more constructive with regards to being happier in life.

    Specifically, it sounds to me like you live almost completely in what they call “the fatalistic present” which is a viewpoint characterized by the fixation that nothing you do really matters. Me, I tend to focus too much on the future and the “negative past,” and the book has helped me to think more about “the positive past” and also to be in the present. If you can see your way of thinking as a non-productive habit, as opposed to a defining feature of your personality, then you can take steps to change. That doesn’t mean you have to believe in an afterlife, just that you think more about the good times you have had and that you currently have and take steps in an effort to create a better future. You might also simply develop a moral obligation to try to make the world a better place for those who are living after you die, rather than a belief in a personal afterlife.

    To that effect, I have chosen to address you as “Robyn” with a capital “R.” I think you are important enough to earn the distinction of belonging to the category of proper nouns. I don’t know very much about you, but I believe, as does HH, the 14th Dalai Lama, that all human beings have equal value, so I think it is important to stress to you that you are equal to and not less than or greater than others.
    For me personally, I’ve been having a rough week getting over a flu, and being able to at least have the opportunity to possibly help you or others is helping me to feel less caught up in the draggy feeling of having a bug.

    Best wishes, Julia K.

  • Anne Tyler

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit about age lately. Not fun, but it does impact us. For example, I love animals, especially dogs a whole lot, I’ve always had them and they’ve always had me. About 6 years ago I got a puppy. Lots of my dogs are older dogs that I get from shelters but for various reasons I just wanted a puppy. And it was so much fun, and she was so cute and so tiny. I found a picture of her a few days ago when she was very small (chihuahua) and I remember her funny ways.

    So now I’m thinking about things I want to do yet in life that I haven’t done or things that were so cool I want to do them again and “puppy” is on that list. I certainly don’t want to leave an orphan pup behind but I know there are no guarantees on how long any of us live—but facts are facts, the older you get the greater chance. When my mother died I took in her little dog; actually I brought her home a few days before my mom died. I guess she didn’t really fully accept for a while she wouldn’t be going home again (advanced bone cancer) and so for a while she resisted the idea of Cookie being with me but then I guess she must have thought it over. So I brought her home and I have to tell you, it was painful (but made me glad I was able to help) how that poor dog who a few years before had two other dogs to hang out with (one was her mother) and then she finds herself totally alone in this house with not another soul. Some people came and fed her but they weren’t “dog people” so they kind of fed her, gave her fresh water and then walked out the door, so she was starved for affection. I remember driving home (about an hour’s trip) with her and I cannot describe the noise, but it was like if dogs could talk it was like joy, excitement, comfort, safety, a feeling of safe now that she was “voicing.” She wasn’t barking, not whining; that’s why I can’t really tell you what she was doing sound wise, but it was painfully clear that she had been desperately alone and lonely and now she was on her way with me. She snuggled inside my shirt, she was shaking badly in her excitement, she was old though but quite a girl. Anyway she didn’t live that much longer herself but she was definitely better off and didn’t have to make those happy but painful-to-hear sounds that said “it was awful being alone.”

    Anyway so I want ONE MORE TIME to experience the joy, the fun, of a sweet little puppy all mine. But I think you know she could live 15 years or so and so I add that to my age and while I could be fine, there’s also quite a chance I could be gone and I have heard of too many dogs who were once loved companions ending up in a shelter with a bunch of barking dogs and strange noises and cages, so I don’t want to leave one behind if I can help it. I know anyone can die any day from whatever, but I will be pushing the envelope.

    And I would feel so much better about letting go if I knew my children would be all right. Obviously they are grown now but both struggle with difficult circumstances. I fear for them. I want them to be safe and loved and so far (I’m not trying to brag here, its sad) no one has loved them at all the way I do, not even their children. I hope in time their children will realize what life is about and start taking more care of the ones who have cared for them.

    I’ve told my son I’m here, anytime of the day or night if life ever gets to be too much. Sometimes, its just having someone will listen, someone that you can tell sincerely cares about you and suffers a bit of what you are suffering. Both my sons are good fathers yet because of divorce they’ve been somewhat estranged from their children, not because they didn’t make the effort; sometimes the courts interfere and the other parent who is more interested in their feelings of anger/resentment or whatever, than they are in letting their children be with their father and have it not be laced with problems and vindictiveness. Children can pick up on that.

    While I do not like melodrama nor do I seek it out, there are times where life takes melodramatic turns and so unless you are open-minded you may find yourself eschewing ideas, events and people who seem to be involved in anything which isn’t logical and orderly and lawful conduct. So many people proudly proclaim they don’t “do” melodrama, that somehow they are above all that which seems to me to be a somewhat arrogant attitude.

    I guess judging by his works, Shakespeare, who got more than his fair share of attention to his works, was somewhat of a melodrama junkie, hence his tragic endings and events such as two lovers who misunderstand die tragically as a result.

    Melodrama is a part of life. If witnessed we needn’t turn away, just listen and observe and believe or not.

    I hope that heaven exists IF it means being reunited with those we’ve loved, including our pets. Overall the thought of death both frightens me and fills me with dread. But if I think about a mental picture I have in my mind, perhaps in my hope chest, a picture of unbounded joy, crossing a bridge to be greeted by all my long lost pets, tails wagging, tongues licking, ears needing scratched and coats to be stroked and treasured once again. If only heaven were like that I would not be nearly so afraid. I guess its a rather melodramatic thought in some ways. Should I turn away and be more practical? Has anyone ever gone there and come to report it later, anyone that seemed credible? I try to figure out how to die for I’ve never done it before, the act of dying encompasses, imo, more than the second when life leaves the body, but is also the way someone is, they way they conduct themselves. Some people seem serene in the face of death and others kicking and screaming unwilling to let go, and of course all manner of variations between.

    But I just don’t know how to do it. I can’t do anything like pack my suitcase because its a trip that will not require the adornments of the earthly world. What will it require, how to succeed in letting go and the afterlife, if there is one.

    Sometimes I would choose that there is nothing, you die and that is the end. But that seems rather sad too, that one day you walked and laughed and worked and shared and now suddenly gone as though you were never here. People might remember you for a while, but your memory will fade, partly as a blessing and partly because life goes on. Can it be that on the street where I grew up or where I lived when my children were small will not know me, have nothing to say or do to ever indicate I lived a life?

    There are so many questions and no truly believable answers. It got to be fashionable for a while to report lights and tunnels and such things but perhaps we just choose to cling to such thoughts like an old ragged teddy bear we used to sleep with, as a comfort for our fear in the night when shadows grow large and malicious. Mindful of the heinous creatures lurking under my bed, waiting to grab my ankle and pull me down into the depths of hell where all languish for eternity, lost souls.

    Which has brought it to my attention that it’s not practical anymore to buy things on sale you don’t need but you can use tomorrow, like extra towels on sale. Which brings me to another reality, I’ve never had to think in quite this way before, is it practical to get this/do this in light of years and timing. My mother left a lot of stuff behind that needed sorting, not a fun job to decide what to do with things important enough to her to want to keep, some with monetary value, some with sentimental meaning. So I’d like to spare my kids that.

    And I realize that mostly I just took it as a given, barring calamity, that time was no object, no need to rush. And I thought about the hours I’d wasted on stuff that today has no meaning and shouldn’t have then either. We all KNOW we will die someday but its just a vague concept. And now I’m thinking it’s not so vague. We always think we have time to do whatever. And now I’m thinking I need to capitalize and plan on the time I have left.

    When we were kids sitting on our front porch cutting out paper dolls, maybe feeling a bit bored because we KNEW time was no object and now it is. Time needs to be factored in to decisions.

    I don’t like this feeling or train of thought but as with the puppy, it is relevant. And now I am starting to realize that the theoretical in-the-distance knowledge I’m finite, its a new thing. We start out life with a first tooth, first step, first date, etc., and now it winds down the other way. The last car, last “my own home,” last puppy and it scares me. I realize I have never died before so how do you do it? it sounds stupid on one hand, you just die in whatever way is in the cards, its not like you can say “no, not this week.” And then I realize I think I don’t know how to die well, gracefully, not screaming and clawing and clutching at life but to just gracefully bid the world ad the people I love goodbye. I’ve never told my kids goodbye knowing I’d never see them again. But someday I will close my eyes that final time and these two young men who represent to me the only thing I managed to do some good with, two ethical and honest young citizens to make their contributions, that final time, if it’s peaceful, I HAVE TO accept this is no temporary goodbye “see you tomorrow/later.” It’s Goodbye. And I just can’t assimilate that/wrap my mind around it. And it scares me and if I’m honest, makes me sad.

  • [...] sufferings of life.  I’ve described some of my own misadventures with it in a previous post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death, in which I faced two potentially fatal acute problems.  I recovered from both completely without [...]

  • Robin O.

    Wow! What interesting and thoughtful responses to a very interesting and thoughtful post. Because of severe trauma a little over a year ago, I too looked my mortality square in the eye and didn’t like it much. I spent nearly two weeks on a vent, two months in three different hospitals, had eleven surgeries and major procedures. Before all that, I didn’t think I was afraid of dying, just didn’t want to anytime soon. My mother started practicing Buddhism after I was an adult, and firmly believed in reincarnation and an afterlife. It made sense to me, more so than the conventional Christian Heaven. In my heart, though, I always questioned it, and wondered if death, in fact, ended all existence. I still don’t know, and only death will provide any answers. I’m okay with that, but I do have more anxiety about death than before. Interesting that one of your physicians thought that your severe nausea was caused by the anxiety of PTSD. I had intractable, incapacitating nausea for months and months, and none of my docs could figure out why. Antiemetics didn’t help much, if at all. It wasn’t until I was followed by an insightful internist, six months after my discharge from the hospital, that any mention of PTSD came up. I reluctantly went on sertraline, but what a difference it’s made. I feel so sorry for my husband—I didn’t know I was so irritable until I stopped being so very cranky. Plus, the nausea is mostly gone, and I feel pretty much like “me.”

    I’ve had to “transition to illness,” but I’d rather call it adjusting to a new normal. Before my accident, I was not young (62), but active, in excellent health and fit. I came home a whole different person, and I’ve been told I’ll not likely reach my previous baseline. (As one doc said so directly….”Well, you’ll be two years older then.”) Whatta guy. But that doesn’t stop me from keeping at it—the gym, walking, doing as much as I can. As a result, I have much of my life back, but not all. I can no longer work (I’m an RN), have limited energy and strength, and constant discomfort or outright pain. But I’m so very lucky….I did survive, and I get better every day. Many people, a lot whom I have never met, prayed for me. At the very least, the positive thoughts floating in the universe can’t hurt, and maybe there is a God who granted me a reprieve. I know (that’s KNOW) it could all end in the next five minutes, so I work to live in the now. Something I wasn’t very good at “before”—still not the best, but I try.

    I appreciate all your posts, and look forward to them every Monday. They always prod me to think, and sometimes they land close to home. R.

  • David R.

    Like Alex intellectually I know I am going to die and it is a subject I think on frequently because I think of my self as philosophic not religious. But like Ann Tyler if I can’t walk across a bridge and see my old dog/horse friends and human friends than nothing is a better way to go. And puppies are the best. I will get one again when my current friend passes on or maybe before to keep both of us company. But of course the REAL reality is just beyond my intellect and I have been a casual Buddhist for 40 years and it is still all just beyond my reach. But I like thinking on it.

  • Jon

    Everyone should try to read Your Sacred Self by Wayne Dyer. I’ve not found a better text in all my years of searching about the topic of death. It solidifies that we cannot define the miracle that creates us, nor the miracle of what’s after death, no matter how hard we try. Our egos want to define it at all costs, but that ego is utterly fallible.

    More so, even if there is nothingness after death, keep in mind if that’s true, we have already existed in nothingness since the dawn of time until our birth just a few short years ago. We know how to exist in “nothingness’” then, far more than we know how to exist in what we think is the “somethingness” of this life. I’d say let’s get over the idea that we are individually so important, that we should be scared of where we have already existed (or did not exist) for millenia previously.

    Personally, I know (not believe, but know) I have been a conscious being on this earth—or maybe another earth—previously to this life. There are far too many things that crop up, where I have a deja vu moment that links me from something in a past life as an adult to my current life as an adult. I only have to open up my awareness to see these things. I’m also a scientist by education, not a spiritualist by any stretch.

    Good luck to everyone, stay at it and I believe you will win over the fear :)

  • Jessy

    You wrote this one day before my grandfather died, 6 months after my father and 6 months before my grandmother. I have come to the acceptance stage. It took me 2 years…denial has been shattered for me and I am at a loss of how to move on except accept that death IS inevitable. At the same time I watched my grandfather die to his last breath in a hospital bed from lung cancer. That was pretty life altering. I never watched someone die before. Things change so fast. I can’t explain things I have seen or felt since then that I cannot explain. On top of this, there is PTSD that children can suffer and when they feel safe as an adult finally exert it to heal. I have been diagnosed with this. I don’t know where I’m going when I die, which to my dismay scares me poopless. At the same time the only thing I CAN control is to live a life with no regrets and how I envision it and not hurt others. I miss my dad very much. He was the only one that loved me as a young child.

    Jessy: My condolences on your losses.

    Alex

  • The view from 75 is different from most people’s here. Probably not helpful.

    What could be helpful?

    Well, sit and breathe in. And breathe out. And breathe in. And breathe out.

    A fellow blogger (aboutzen) had this little “story”:
    A zen student asked: “What happens when we die?”
    The master replied: “Why don’t you wait and see?”

    The other day I saw Clint Eastwood’s The Hereafter. I recommend it to you: it is an excellent film, and in its own way comments on the issue not unlike aboutzen.

    It’s interesting that in your post about your knee, and your new limitation (welcome to older age; Bette Davis has been credited with the true remark, old age is not for wimps), you say you now feel closer to mortality than you did in this post from 2009. Okay. But you say something like, now that I’m sick. Sick? Because you have a weak knee and can’t jog like you used to? Hindered, perhaps. Limited. “Sick” to me connotes something different, more like what you experienced in this post.

    Using it as you did makes me see what a continuum of physical condition there is. Someone during this long series of posts suggested that you are positing being absolutely fine without any limitation whatever as “normal.” I bet lots of us do. But when you think about it, it isn’t really true.

    Wow, there’s so much to be said about all this, it’s endless.

    Time to sit down and take a deep breath. In. And out.

    Zen master Seung Sunim (no, I’m not a Buddhist, although I’m next door to being one) highly valued a concept he called “Don’t-Know Mind.” If I WERE a Buddhist, I don’t think I’d belong to his Kwan Um School. But I do think he’s on to something.

    Don’t-Know Mind.

    Actually, Alex, were we to meet, I’d skip all the words altogether and offer a hug.

    Judith: I could always use a good hug!

    Alex

  • Lori

    Judith,
    You sound like a great person to know. I hope the people who are with you on your journey so far appreciate your realist, optimistic viewpoint and that you continue to enjoy your life to the fullest “new normal.”
    Lori

  • Julia

    Both of my in-laws entered hospice today. They lived full lives and are now 86. In rapid decline physically but not mentally. One has heart disease; the other breast cancer that has passed the ‘brain barrier.’ As I’m a so-called breast cancer “survivor” (physically not emotionally) I find it especially painful to watch my mother-in-law die of a disease that might kill me long before my 80s. Attending to her I feel as tho’ I’m seeing my painful future. And tho’ I remain philosophical about their deaths at a ripe old age, it’s tough to lose 2 family members at once. Every time the phone rings we jump thinking it’s a “death notice.” I beginning to realize that living to 100 (with such pain & limitations) is not my desired goal. Still the alternative—DYING—is scary to ponder and even scarier to watch. Am curious how others have coped with own fears while attending to dying family.

    Julia: So hard. You have my sincere empathy.

    Alex

  • Gerhard

    A human being is part of the whole, called by us “universe,” limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons close to us.

    Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty.

    Albert Einstein

    Gerhard: My head thinks you’re right. Now if my heart would only be convinced, too…

    Alex

  • Phil

    Hi Alex,

    I have often thought the fear of death was central to all my anxiety issues. About 6 years ago, due to overexertion I thought I was dying and got my friends to rush me to the hospital to be told I was in fact having a panic attack.

    I have had a feeling of depersonalization ever since and been consistently anxious. Fortunately I have been able to cope with it so I have still been able to work, get married and am now expecting my first child.

    With a fear of death I seem to have given myself an anxiety that can’t be resolved. How do you face death? How do you make your peace with death? I don’t really fear the nothingness after death as I would be unconscious of it. I fear the pain and emotional stress caused when I know I will soon die or I am dying. I also fear people I love dying too and how I would cope with this.

    I try to console myself with the fact that since I’ve been consumed by a fear of death many great things have happened in my life and I still enjoy life to a large extent.

    I believe I would prefer the level of denial I had before to what I have now. But like you I believe there must be some way to view death and accept it.

    My view on religion is pretty much it is just designed to take the pain of the inevitability of death away. If I was a logical person I would take the drug of religion and drown out the fear, but I can’t bring myself to believe in something that I have no proof of. The problem with a fear of death is that it seems perfectly reasonable to be utterly afraid of it, and if you’re not, surely you’re just delusional?

    A fear of death is necessary for survival, but I think when that fear affects your day-to-day life it is a problem. I guess paradoxically if I were to live forever I would possibly fear infinity. I have thought about looking into philosophy to make more sense of life, but I worry that becoming obsessive about death only excacerbates the anxiety.

    My aims for the future are:

    1. To become less self-obsessed and worried about my own inevitable demise.
    2. To be a good father and ensure I do the best by my family.
    3. To come off Prozac and accept my fears and not dwell on them.
    4. To try to focus on the good things in life.
    5. To try to remember that death is the thing that makes living so special.

    Thanks for reading,

    Phil

    Phil: I very much identify with what you’ve written. And I think your goals are all laudable!

    Alex

  • Julia

    I fear death of the person I am NOW. But whenever I see my 88-year-old in-laws in Assisted Living I think, “Lord take me before I get that way!” In-laws are absolutely miserable. All their friends have died. They are lonely. They feel like a burden. Mostly they just feel bad physically and mentally. Both are in wheelchairs and have fallen many times. They go from one medical emergency to another. And they are mentally alert to KNOW they are indeed a burden to their family. When I see my in-laws and other residents of the “home” I understand why we all have a lifespan. And I understand the consequences of living past one’s expiration date.

  • Claire

    Very thought provoking.

    I deviate from the concept of overcoming the fear of your own death to overcoming the fear of the death of others. Is it a skill we learn and develop?

    I believe that distancing yourself from death creates a fear, but when is the mind developed enough to cope with the death of a loved one?

    As a child I was sheltered from the pain of death. I did not go to my grandfather’s funeral and his death was not discussed. It was not until I was 14 years old, when the family dog died, that I felt the pain of death. My parents new that I loved our dog. So while my father had taken me on a trip he broke the news gently that he had died. This was a complete shock to me and I think I cried for the next 3 days straight.

    As an adult I am still very upset by death. I marvel at how well my mother deals with the process. Especially when her brother died. I wonder if children should be exposed to death even if it is a difficult concept? It always nice to have stepping stones like a gold fish dying. But where does the goldfish go? Is there a funeral? Do you take your child to a family funeral where there will be a lot of adults crying?

    Claire: I wish I knew the best way and time to expose children to the concept of death. Seems like we should wait until they’ve developed intellectually enough to be able to manage the fear it might bring once they understand what it really means. There’s probably some study that’s been done on this, but I don’t know the answer.

    Alex

  • Jackie

    Claire: I have two kids, 5 and 8. I think the way to go is just like (forgive me) sex ed—the other “facts of life.” You tell them when they ask, and ONLY about what they ask, as best as you can. Obviously, being religious helps.

    Also, all kids, if they are not VERY disturbed already, they in their own mind are immortal—death happens to others only. And that’s just the right starting point. I think your parents’ approach was wrong—as seen by the fact you didn’t get to grieve properly over your grandpa, but went to pieces over a pet’s death. But hey, they’re human like all of us—parenting is nothing if not a series of well-meant mistakes. If there is one message here, it’s that death shouldn’t be a taboo—but i think in our popular culture we are about as open about discussing death as the Victorians were about sex. Hang in there.

  • Anne Tyler

    David R., I’m glad to hear your thoughts about your pets and puppies and how great it would be to see them again. Never had a horse but that would be so sweet too. Our pets deserve concern too for when we leave. So much to think about for such a natural act.

    I hope you get your wish across the bridge; I hope all of us do. Thinking about how crazy the world seems to be getting, I do hope there is a more peaceful place to come.

  • Julia

    When a beloved pet dies my holistic vet uses the phrase “They crossed the rainbow bridge.” At first I thought the phrase was odd. Corny. A denial of death like our southern “passed away.” However the image of the rainbow along with transitioning has gradually become comforting to me. In general I think we deal with life/death pet decisions more humanely that those involving people. And as pets are living to 15 years and beyond with quality of life (I adopted an elderly Irish Setter who is still frisky at 14), pets are becoming more like family to us. There’s much to be learned in their end-of-life care that we can apply to ourselves and others.

    Julia: You might appreciate another post I wrote along these lines, When A Beloved Pet Dies.

    Alex

  • I think we can overthink and become obsessed with death, so best just go with the flow. Therefore I suppose I am on the side of denial! Thanks, good article.

  • Alexa Rose

    I discovered this blog while googling ways to help overcome my fear of death, and have been spending a great deal of time reading this insightful post and all its insightful comments. I know it’s been a while since the post was written, but I would still like to share some of my own experiences.

    I am 14 this year, and since a very long time ago, I’ve wondered about death and had occasionally freaked out (about once every few months, during the night when I was trying to fall asleep) thinking about it. Back then I would usually scream and cry for my mom, and she would comfort me as I pushed the nasty thoughts away, and all would be fine. I lived my life being oblivious and much like any child in my situation.

    During middle school, grades 7 and 8, I became depressed, often becoming angry, numb, sad, and just a tiny bit suicidal (I would have thoughts of suicide). Even now, although I haven’t had an actual doctor diagnose me, I find that those extreme negative feelings return on and off, so I’m good some days and not so, and better, and worse, etc.

    A few months ago, a few weeks before my first day of high school, I had an “episode” of my realization that I do in fact exist at this moment, and that one day I will die and death may mean annihilation. Only this time, I lost control and cried and had both my parents trying to calm me down. It was terrible. I felt like I was losing my sanity.

    Luckily I got past the night, and here I am, a few months later. Again, my death anxiety is on and off, some days at the back of my mind, some days always lingering behind every thought and action, some days I can accept/deny death better, some days not. I will occasionally experience one of the worse panic attacks where I feel out of touch with reality, and as if I’m losing my sanity a bit. It’s usually worse when I’m tired and lack sleep.

    I think perhaps because of my age, where most of my peers and I are at that “I’m immortal” stage of thinking, acceptance of death is extremely difficult. One of the reasons why I mentioned my likely depression is because one of the symptoms I’ve found online for depression is thoughts of death. Even if I weren’t depressed though, there would come a day where I would have to face this obstacle. Is it better that my illusions have been shattered early (or perhaps I’m not as alone or unique as I imagine myself to be) or is it an advantage that I can start this journey of either acceptance and letting go or of spirituality/religion?

    I’d always thought as a young child that I was alone in fearing death, that everyone else had accepted it and didn’t fear it. For me, nothing really triggered it, no early family deaths, no near brushes with death that I know of. It’s just sort of always been there, and now I fear for when my loved ones pass, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to take it. Already, recently, I can hardly sleep because I fear sleep in a way that I can’t exactly explain; maybe just because it feels connected to dying and not feeling, and also my mind tends to think more scary thoughts right before I try to sleep. And so I stay up til early in the morning, searching stuff to help me broaden my views of death, all so that perhaps one day I’ll find the right path, the right solution, or not at all for my fear of death.

    Happy Holidays to everyone, and good luck to you all.

    Alexa: You seem exceptionally mature and articulate for your age. Perhaps that’s one reason why you find yourself grappling with such an emotionally deep understanding of your mortality. You may indeed by depressed, and I strongly encourage you to talk in depth with your doctor about that possibility. Having said that, in my view, coming to terms with our fear of death is one of the most important tasks we humans have—necessary if we’re to achieve any kind of real happiness. Though your ability to deny death seems to have been taken from you at an exceptionally early age, another way to think about that is you now have a huge head start on everyone else in finding a productive way to deal with it. If Buddhism interests you at all, you might click to my “About” page and click on the “SGI” link. Best of luck to you in sorting out something we all must!

    Alex

  • Anne Tyler

    Alexa Rose—Sweetheart, let me say first of all that reading what your thoughts here I have to say that it gives me an odd sense of deja vu, because it’s like looking backward in my own life to the time when I was much like you and about your age, trying to deal with these things. It makes me sad, or makes me realize my sadness I guess, because now I am 61 years old and I realize that my entire life has been overshadowed with thoughts very similar to yours. I realize how in so many ways it drained the joy from my life and the optimism that should be right of sorts that comes with youth. It makes me sad to realize how much time I wasted fearing death and how it has gotten me nowhere other than to leave me feeling overwhelmed and terrified at times.

    I’m glad your parents are there for you and you aren’t totally alone dealing with it. For my part, I tried to tell my parents how afraid I was and all that came of it was that I was told I just didn’t have enough work to do or I wouldn’t be wasting my time thinking of such fruitless and foolish things.

    I hope you manage to break out of the mold/pattern my life followed for it is such a waste. The times when I should have been overcome with joy, when my children were little, being with them, watching them grow, enjoying who they were, instead, my life overall (a few brief periods of respite perhaps) was one of long periods of depression of varying degrees. Sometimes I was so overcome with fear that I failed my children, I totally lost it and had to go into the hospital and ended up having ECT treatments. The whole time of which I was berated by my mother for not being a good mother, not being there for my kids, which helped nothing.

    The times I should have enjoyed the most are gone and now it is a daily fact that I am getting older so much so that it is an everyday occurrence to look in the newspaper and see people my age in the obituaries or younger, or my cousins or classmates.

    I have never come to terms with this and I still have feelings of terror and panic that I think I may never overcome.

    I want to find a way to leave this life gracefully, peacefully, instead of clawing and kicking and screaming trying to fight off what is inevitable for everyone ever born.

    I hope and pray for you to find a different path than me. I would like to hug you, a selfish thought in a way, because it would be in a sense hugging my young frightened self as I was, the adult me trying to comfort the child I was. But I can feign no wisdom to pass along, nothing except to say that I hope because you have the support and the ear of your parents that you might break the mold I was in.

    I think your intelligence comes shining through and your unique views which are a gift but also in some ways a curse, because it is your unique and uncommon views for someone so young, the introspection you have that leave you vulnerable to the fears you have.

    I wish you, Alexa Rose, to find a better way than me. And I will hug you across the miles because I feel in some ways I know you very well for you are in a sense me and I you.

    Keep talking to your parents, take advantage of whatever comes your way to change things, Alexa Rose. I wish you peace of mind to come to you.

  • Hi guys, I am struggling with the fear of death as well. Went on Prozac 4 it. 40mg a day now. It’s flared up again. I hear caffeine & alcohol are a no-no? I used 2 drink 4 coffee’s a day, now just decaf. Could it be the withdrawal from caffeine that’s causing my anxiety to act up?

    It’s always the same fear, of what comes after death, fear of non-existence.

    Albeewankenobi@gmail.com

    Feel free 2 email me any comments or questions. Thnx Alex for this blog. Most helpful.

  • Alexa Rose

    Thank you for your replies and support. Anne, I wish I knew you in real life, because you sound like someone I could really trust and care for, who has a lot of wisdom and experience to share despite what you might think and what you have gone through.

    I think some people turn to religious or spiritual paths after they begin realizing their mortality. Many atheists may think this is because they find the prospect of annihilation too mind-blowing, and this could be true. In my case, I’ve been looking around the Internet for things to do with spirituality, things of that sort. I do so because it can’t hurt to be comforted by some of the things that could actually be real. I know this is personal and everyone should do what feels right for themselves and not what others say, but I just wanted to offer what I’ve found can help me become calmer. For some people, it might be helpful if they go see a professional, or to take comfort in knowing/believing that death is not the end, or just by finally accepting that death is/could be the end. I realize I almost sound like a preacher of sorts, so I apologize if it seems like I’m trying to push you into a path you don’t feel comfortable with.

  • Anne Tyler

    Alexa Rose, how nice to hear from you again, and aren’t you so nice to think of me. I wish I could talk to you in person and you to me because I think we could understand each other as maybe no one else could. For sure I do not know everything about your life or what you have lived or how but I do believe we think very much alike. You seem mature beyond your years. I’m not sure I was as nice as you seem to be, but I too was the same way as far as my thoughts being deeper than what most or all of my friends probably thought about. In fact, I do not think (how could they?) my friends knew exactly what it was about me but there was something different that separated me from them. I wanted, like all kids do, to be part of the group. But when my thoughts turned so introspective and/or dark or confused, I failed to fit in. I’m not saying that you don’t with your friends but I do think that with your thoughts being as intricate as they are that most of them would have a hard time connecting with you about those things. I think your emotions are very warm and loving and you need the same from others but sometimes they are confused.

    Or maybe I’m just projecting onto you what I remember. Sometimes I try to “go back” to me as I was then before I spent so many years still confused, that I might be able to change things and my life for the better. Well, I do want to say that I am better in some ways but in order to do that I have had to give up any thoughts on any significant level about eternity, God, heaven and hell, the afterlife if there is one; it’s just something I can’t deal with. But I do realize now how unrealistic my expectations of myself were. I sought to be perfect and of course I failed. I think you expect a lot of yourself too. People see that outwardly you look, of course, very young as you are young. But that because of that people don’t take your thoughts as seriously as they ought to. And you can’t just turn your thoughts off when they come like that; they demand to be addressed or they will only nag at you and make you uncomfortable, if I am right. I remember feeling I did not fit in anywhere really but I was comfortable around older people in some ways as my father was 54 when I was born.

    I hope your parents are still helping you. They probably feel confused as to what to do for you but in this case, I think you probably know better than they do if they would listen to you. I tried to tell people about the way I thought but it was not well-received, how could they take me seriously. But then there were some ways where they expected too much of me.

    Whatever, it’s nice to hear from you. I think I understand at least a little of what you’re feeling and thinking, not the specifics, but how your reasoning is.

    I would like to hug you; no one hugged much when I was younger and I never realized until just a few years ago that we were really a very distant family emotionally though my mom would have argued with me on that. There are levels of care, kinds of care, that transcend the physical of being sure you have food, which is not to be dismissed as insignificant of course. But there is a soul, a heart, an inquisitive mind in there too that is starving for acceptance and understanding and help too when it comes.

    You take care of you, Alexa Rose. You are always going to be uniquely you, you can’t change the type of person you are, and in fact there is nothing WRONG with the way you are other than when it leaves you feeling different or isolated or misunderstood. But though you don’t need to change the parts of you that make you special, I hope you will find a lighter path, an easier way. You can be an advocate for understanding and change.

    I hope you find/have all the love and help and support you need to grow up content with yourself in the world. Love yourself and the rest will follow. Accept who you are inside just be alert for times when you get off track and let others help you back.

  • Chris M

    I have to say that, in those times when my life is not busy or happy (or both) enough to block the feelings out, I feel as Dave does (April 29th, 2010).

    “If indeed our consciousness ends completely when we die, and there is just absolute nothingness/oblivion for eternity, it is safe to say that in death, what happened in our lives was completely meaningless.”

    I’m sad to say that I have felt like this since I was 9 and I’m now 52. Probably the most tragic thing is that 43 years of torturing myself are no more worthy of note in “the grand scheme” than 43 years of raising a family, building a loving home and having a fulfilling career. I have found those things to be mutually exclusive, however. The feeling of paralysis and “why bother” make any kind of goal or aspiration meaningless to me.

    I’ve built a stupid, escapist life for myself where I dally with one distraction or another, delve into another obsession or detail just to avoid musing on the inevitable. Yes, I’ve wondered if I’m mentally ill—but I’ve even wondered if mental illness is something exhibited by those who can’t rationalize their fears even to the limited extent that I can.

    Chris: I’d say two things in response. First, that you often feel like asking the question, “Why bother?” suggests you may be suffering from a mild form of depression, which, as I’m sure you know, is eminently treatable, even if springing from existential angst (that just makes it harder). Second, I don’t agree with the sentiment you quoted for a specific, simple reason: though we ourselves may be gone and beyond caring once we die, the effects we’ve left in the world linger on long after our death, sometimes generations into the future. The things we did while alive, the meaning we created, both good and bad, lives on after us in a very concrete way. Just because we aren’t around anymore to perceive or conceive it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

    Alex

  • Julia K.

    Chris M: I think it might help you to read or re-read my post from October 1st, and possibly read the book I mentioned.

    I personally have recently realized that negativity/fear w/regards to death stem from having been deprived of much attention when I was a child. Thus, I developed a mental habit of wanting everyone to stay in my life forever and alive forever. From a place of need/greed I tried to grasp onto the impossibility of permanence. What I have realized through Buddhist and Yogic readings is that hanging on to that which you have already lost is the root cause of all feelings of unhappiness.

    So, in your case, you have lost the feeling of immortality that all children are born with, and in trying to regain it, you seem to be focusing on things that make you unhappy.

    Again from Buddhist readings, I think it is much more constructive to think about what you can give/improve everyday for yourself and others. It might be fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things. For me on some days it is such things as making sure my cat (who is early stages of kidney failure) stays hydrated. On some days, what you do might be so large-scale as to have an impact on future generations, as Alex was saying. In either case, in my value system, as long as what you are doing increases peace and love in the world, you are doing the right thing, even though in proportion to the universe, your life is like a bubble that forms on a lake and then bursts again, no more or less meaningful than that, just a natural phenomena.

    I hope that this post might be of some help to you. It helped me to write it out.

    Julia: I like your comment very much. I would, however, add that I don’t think only large-scale value creation impacts future generations in a large way. The small things we do everyday, smiling at our children, avoiding hitting them, show up to work with a positive attitude, etc. could add up over time to have an even larger impact (and more subtle) than any book or great work of art we might create. The power to affect generations in this way is given to all of us in our “ordinary” lives.

    Alex

  • ANNE TYLER

    Perhaps the greatest hell of all is being stuck on earth in a miserable situation where there is no hope. The only alternative is death and no way of knowing what is there either. Stuck between hell and hell.

    The fact is, I am right on the edge. And the facts that go with that is that the world is sick along with almost everyone in it. The courts and the legal system that we Americans are so proud of is in fact barbaric torrture. And “justice” that so famously protects us is a LIE. And no one gives a damn. Justice is for people with the money who to buy it.

    Some people live marginal lives of no importance. All we are is a two-inch column, or maybe a nice-sized headline if we do something irrational. For a few brief minutes in time we finally get someone’s attention. But there is no productive way of getting attention. The only way anyone will ever listen is if you finally lose it and do something totally outrageous. But even that will be fleeting. Our attention span is short and whatever excitement or gossip we provoke will soon become old and then “society” will be looking for the next great shameful tragedy to talk about and watch on TV and cluck our tongues and wonder how someone managed to be so insane and still walk among us. Didn’t anybody notice they were mad?

    The answer is there were plenty of opportunities to see that someone was losing it but the fact is that until you do actually lose it no one gives a damn.

    Anne: The suffering you must be feeling to have written this comment is palpable. I am so sorry you find yourself stuck in a situation in which you now see no hope. Though we don’t know each other personally, please know that your suffering affects me, that I hope you find a way to overcome whatever it is you’re facing, and that it matters to me that you find a way to become happy. If we had a personal relationship, I’d be positioned to offer you much more, but as we don’t, I can only hope some of the posts I’ve written on this blog might lift your spirits just a little, and that you do have people in your life who care and to whom you can make yourself reach out toward for help, if you haven’t already. When we suffer, our tendency is to isolate ourselves, but this has the unfortunate effect of blocking off the very support from others that can provide us the sense of hope we really need. Please reach out to someone. The world isn’t only full of indifferent monsters, I swear.

    Alex

  • Julia K.

    Alex,

    On an intellectual level, I agree with your response to my post from today (Feb. 18th) with regards to small actions adding up to something significant.

    On a more emotional level, it is hard for me to accept, because I am conscious that so often something will happen, such as a natural disaster, that will cause people to lose everything that they have tried to build. I have to tell myself that the experience of building was worthwhile, even if the creation is ephemeral.

    I think this view comes from having had to move house many, many times, either on account of my parents as a child, or reasons like the landlord raised the rent too much, or their was a mold problem that the condo association was unwilling to remedy, and things like that. Which has led to a constant sense of up-rootedness for me. I have lived in my current place for five years and that is the longest time I have ever inhabited one dwelling and I’m nearly 37. Have a low-interest fixed-rate mortgage is a great thing because I think the territorial & nesting & community-seeking instincts are stronger in people than we tend to want to admit.

    Anyway, the point is, I think you are right, but it has been hard for me to integrate that truth into my consciousness, as it often seems so different from my material existence.

    Julia: Fair enough. What you say makes sense. I suppose, though, I was thinking more about the value we create with our interactions with others that has the power to affect not only their lives but the lives of whomever they come in contact. Yes, material things are easily destroyed, but as long as the human race endures, the value we create for others in the little things we do can spread out like ripples on a pond affecting people we never meet (Irving Yalom talks about this in his excellent book, Staring at the Sun).

    Alex

  • ANNE TYLER

    I appreciate you writing. It was very nice of you. However I have finally faced the truth. There is no hope. Nothing will change because the world is sick and evil and twisted and for the time we are stuck here so are we.

    No matter how good your intentions are starting out eventually the maggot infested garbage we live in becomes too much and probably the one true intelligent thing we’ve ever done in our lives is when we stop believing there is any future for us other than the decay we have somehow survived in. Because once you realize that then you can finally give up trying to make it because there is no making it, there is nothing to hope for and nowhere to go.

    There is no reaching out. Because it accomplishes nothing to reach out. If anything it only makes matters worse because you realize your pathetic existence is only interesting as long as you are suffering. And the only benefit you are to society is for others to look at and say “thank God I am better than that.” Like looking at a worm beneath a magnifying glass, the only thing fascinating about you is the revulsion and disgust people feel looking at you. I for one am tired of entertaining the morbid curiosity of others. Let them find some other amusement for I am tired of providing it.

  • ANNE TYLER

    I must give you my apology for allowing my extreme and overwhelming words and emotions to contaminate your world.

    You have a very worthwhile and important endeavor and voices here to help while my words can only do harm.

    So please accept my apology for carrying me grief here to you where it has no place and no right to be.

    Anne: No need to apologize. I’ve felt in the past the same way you do now.

    Alex

  • Julia

    I’m interested in the idea of how the dead linger on and make ripples in the world. Nice thought but I don’t fully comprehend it.

    My dear friend who died of brain cancer at age 44 was concerned about “his legacy” as he called it. I told him he’d live in our hearts forever. That I’d never forget him. But then he asked, “What happens after my friends and family die?”

    He decided that art was his “legacy” and he painted many canvases before death despite being partially paralyzed on one side. They are quite good for an amateur. I was able to buy a few before his death and feel that the “eye of the whale” (title of one print hanging over desk) is always starring at me. However, his girlfriend is refusing to sell or even exhibit the rest of his works which makes friends sad.

    But I digress. The real issue for me—also a cancer patient—is seeking comfort in leaving a trace behind (and I don’t paint). Is that ego talking? Or just human nature? Are we just the dash between the birth and the death date?

    jab

    Julia: I was going to post my answer to your questions here, but the issue of the meaning we leave behind after death is so important, I decided to write a post about it. Look for it in two weeks.

    Alex

  • Anne Tyler

    The worst of all things is when you are frightened by death but also by life. How did it/I end up the way I am. Frightened, angry, depressed, not very functional.

    When I look at my earliest pictures before I was 7 I look happy and safe. Since then, its been a descent, sometimes gradual sometimes not, into another existence.

    Is it during the moments of sanity that I feel so depressed or the opposite?

  • Anne Tyler

    I used to think “me” was a concept kept by selfish people. What’s in it for “me”? Now I think more likely it’s a lonely word, an isolating scary word. We are born alone, we die alone.

    Never all that comfortable with people or adversity but getting by, these past few days I feel so overwhelmed with problems. I try to fix the problems which only creates more problems.

    Money may not bring you warm fuzzies but some of it can put out a lot of fires that would get too hot otherwise. Sort of like get-out-of-jail-free cards, you just give the guy your card and keep going.

    What happens when you run out of those get-out-free cards?

    I remember when this thing whole thing—this round anyway—I was so determined not to let them get to me or to keep me from saying what I know. Now, I’m tired, just tired of trying to tell people what they don’t want to hear or won’t hear and don’t have to hear.

    We are wrong, I have been wrong and foolish to believe that our society ultimately is set up to help you succeed. People who see your struggle but don’t understand (and no one does) pluck some empty euphemism out of the air that doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a way to get you to go away, take your issues somewhere else. You start to feel like one of those people you cross the street to avoid.

    My frustration level—I don’t think it can get much higher.

    Now things that maybe most people would laugh at are more than I can deal with. Everything is starting to get too heavy; not that I haven’t felt that way before, but now I’m older and my resources of youth and fitness and maybe a kind of naivete are gone and I am forced to see what is.

    I understand why old people say they are ready to die. I never did before. But I was looking at it from where I was, not where they were. So of course I didn’t understand how they could say they were ready, anxious even to make that one final journey. Most other journeys we take, we sort of know where we’re going. But the last one—what waits on the other side? On the one hand it is comforting to believe it’s just done. But then, if so, it means there is no reunion with loved ones. Actually, some of my strongest connections, my most loving and fulfilling, were with my dogs, each a unique character that added something special to my life. Of course if there is nothing it would also mean there is no hell, just emptiness. My mind rebels from the thought of eternal darkness. I do not want to be buried in the cold hard earth.

    The happiest times in my life were almost always warm sunny days with bright blue skies overhead. Watching my two little boys, so sweet, so innocent, a back yard plastic pool filled with water, a few floating toys, and the sun to warm us. Those are probably the happiest times I remember. I felt totally connected and believed in good things. To think of never feeling the warm embrace of summer sunshine again is an idea I do not like.

    We all make our one last final journey someday. Remember when going on a trip used to be exciting? You had to plan what to take with you, and try not to take so much that it would be a pain to deal with when you got back home to unpack. On the final trip, there is no suitcase full of things you like or that give you comfort. There is no reward “home at last” and no better day. Always when things were bad, I held out that thought that when it was all over and done with, however long it took, that I could come home and shut the door and the world behind it. Once more, go out on my patio and watch the birds and squirrels and my dogs run and play and chase. But on that last solitary day there is no reprieve, no safe haven, no comfort. There is no getting better, no sigh of relief as you finally get home to your safe place, your sanctuary.

    How hard is it to say goodbye when you know there is nothing beyond it. Always before when you say goodbye it isn’t such a serious thing; after all, you’ll be getting together for someone’s birthday or some holiday or to do something or go somewhere. When you say your last goodbye and close your eyes? Take one last look, if you are lucky, at the faces of the children you love and exhale and it’s done.

    My faith, my resources are stretched to the breaking point. I don’t think I have what it takes to “do” one more problem.

    It’s like when you paint yourself into a corner only the corner is really the edge, you’re right at the edge and so you take the last little bit you have and you’re standing on your tip toes, perched precariously at the edge of the abyss and you wonder how much longer you can maintain that pose and then you wonder if that’s all there is maybe it wouldn’t be better to just let go and fall.

    Not really what you want if wishes were horses, but these are definitely not the best of times. And so there you are on the edge, your muscles screaming at you to stop, all it takes is acceptance of where you are, realizing the truth (what limited options you have) recognize you’re tired and just hope people understand you for once in your life and let go.

    Thank you for giving me this place to say what I feel and where no one says “stop talking like that.” Thank you for “listening.”

    Anne: I have heard you. My heart goes out to you and for your suffering. I wish I had words to write that would soothe you, but we meet only across the Internet, don’t really know each other, and share only the bond of our mutual humanity. I, too, have suffered as you do now and have felt the despair you describe. I acknowledge the truth of it. I hope you can find the strength to view your current situation as a time for you to rest and regain your strength. I hope fervently for your life-condition to rise once more so that you may enjoy another sunny day with bright blue skies overhead. Such days will come again.

    Alex

  • Julia

    Anne,

    I’m sorry for your suffering. However, I’m grateful to you for so beautifully expressing what I often feel. I look at my pre-cancer pixs and I was a different person prior to diagnosis: carefree, happy & CLUELESS. I’ve been at the ‘edge” you describe. I so often feel overwhelmed & weary now. Feel as tho’ every time I stand up and get my footing another wave (suspicious lump/friend dies of cancer, etc.) comes along to knock me down…thanks for your moving metaphors.

  • Anne Tyler

    Julia, I can’t know for sure what you’re feeling, some mixture of pain and sorrow and fear of the unknown maybe?

    Life seems to have a way of being divided in our minds, into places that get divided and confined and measured by words like “before” and “after.” How is it possible to survive without someone who can share and understand. Conversely how is it possible for someone to understand what’s inside?

    How do we measure time and pain? It gets redefined over and over again in our lives. Surely, with all of our modern “advancements” there must be some medication to take away that kind of pain?

    I guess knowing that someone still hears us means we must still be alive somehow. I hear you Julia, I do.

  • Anne Tyler

    Do you believe, Alex, in blue skies? If there are blue skies then doesn’t it make sense that there are also not blue skies? That there comes a day when there are none to be found?

    I appreciate that you wish them for me and I wish them for you and for Julia and for all good people who get comfort from them. The sun, sometimes it seems a little like one of the “basic food groups,” that without the sun we cannot survive and be healthy.

    I do fear darkness. I remember as a child lying in my bed at night, needing to get up and use the bathroom, but the whole house was so still and so silent and so dark and nothing was moving. But I could not bring myself to place one foot on the floor, for such a long time until there was absolutely no choice. Because in my mind’s eye I could see the monster that lay silently under my bed, waiting, so patiently, so malevolently, for that time when he’d know I was vulnerable and available and he would come and suck me to his place underneath my bed and I would be gone forever. Would my parents or my sister who shared a bed with me wonder where I’d gone to, would they care? It was one of the first concrete, imo, ideas or realizations I think, of the concept of individuality and “aloneness.” There are some things we must do alone, whether it is at night finding the courage to put our feet on the floor or dying. Except there is no guarantee we will find the courage to die, maybe we will leave kicking and screaming and clawing just as I would have if the monster really had materialized to drag me under the bed with him. To where?

    We all want to believe we have significance, importance, something that would be missed if gone. We want to believe.

    Some people do indeed make a significant imprint on the world. Thomas Edison who invented the light even while the world is dark? There are qualities and degrees of our contributions, if there are any. Between good and bad and truly evil. To minute contributions—to huge differences. Was there one man who connected the dots, for example, to the atomic bomb? If so, he definitely made his mark.

    Like a few other things in life, there is an odd juxtapositioning of things. Someone we were married to, made a family with, lived with for years, slept beside us, but never knew us at all, or we them?

    And then there is you, here, Alex and Julia, who share the most intimate and painful thoughts yet say we do not know each other either? How can it be that we live on the same planet and share so deeply and know nothing?

  • Julia

    Cancer was a tsunami in my life.

    Prior to diagnosis I thought I’d be running marathons till I turned 100. I felt fab at fifty, in fact, my “real age” was around 35 yrs. Death was far away. Only a threat to those who made bad choices at “life’s buffet” or had an unlucky accident…..so I thought.

    I perceived my cancer as an automatic death sentence. At the very least it was a sentence for endless tests, biopsies, scans and surgeries. After each procedure my life survival stats went down & the pathology worsened. Still I don’t have metastatic disease so my oncologist is perplexed by my fears. “You could just as well be hit by a bus he says.” (grrrr…but I don’t wake up daily fearing buses!). He finally GETS IT that some Stage 1 patients—based on personality/coping skills—are as frightened as Stage IV patients. Cancer—or a chronic disease—brings us “youngsters” face to face with mortality earlier than others our age.

    True, I divide life into Before Cancer/After Cancer segments. Before cancer I was the happy fool and it shows in my photographs: I’m relaxed, smiling, goofy. After cancer I lost that innocence. In photos I appear tight, tense and dazed. The wisdom that some acquire after diagnosis has eluded me. I’m stuck in the fear stage.

    I do believe that others with a cancer diagnosis do GET IT. That fear triggers remain long after the cancer is removed…or becomes inactive. A young BC survivor, a 10-year survivor can’t stand to look at fruit with a brown spot. She once shivered and told me “that banana has cancer, I can’t eat it.” Another friend, who had no side effects during chemo, gets sick walking into cancer ctr for check-ups when she gets a whiff of the infusion lab.

    We continue to live with fear because the 40-year war declared on cancer is not being won and advances fall short. I know 14-yr-old girls with breast cancer thru my volunteer work in the Young Survival Coalition. So where’s the HOPE for those of us living with a diagnosis? If I thought there was a way to stop cancer should it reoccur, I’d feel a lot “safer.” However, my survival would only be about 2 years w/reccurence. Thus I fear any aches/pains/lumps or signs that cancer may have returned.

    As for the light/dark metaphors I must end by quoting Goethe: “We die not from the darkness but from lack of light.” The famous writer’s final words were also “more light.” I often wonder how I can seek the light and not dwell so long in darkness.

    jab

  • [...] recently after a long-time reader of this blog, Julia, wrote in a comment about a previous post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death, “I’m interested in the idea of how the dead linger on and make ripples in the world. Nice [...]

  • Anne Tyler

    Julia…thank you for sharing yourself, something about your experience with cancer and the feelings that go with it. I’m sure if it were me (I heard if we live long enough most of us will get cancer in our lifetimes?) I would not be the greatest at dealing with it.

    Things have come a long way, no doubt. I remember when I was in school in the 60′s a couple of my schoolmates had mother who passed away due to breast cancer. I think there is so much more knowledge today than “back then” that seems to be true. I also had a friend who got bone cancer in his jaw and neck and got quite worked over but he’s doing really well now and surprised us all.

    I’m sure you have private times where, yes, something sets off the fear trigger. One thing in your favor, you can talk about it openly which helps, IMO, being able to get your feelings out instead of stuffed inside.

    Repressed emotions and feelings are destructive things IMO. I will hope along with you that you are among the fortunate. If grace and style have any influence, I think you will be fine!

  • Eva

    Anne,

    I’ve written here about my experience of actually being very close to death, but I’ll repeat some of it.

    When I first received my diagnosis of a rare lung disease, I despaired at the thought of dying—standing on the precipice, gasping for my last breaths, clawing to life, fighting the end, but slowly losing ground to the inevitable.

    A couple of years later I got a lung transplantation that didn’t work out very well—I was very close to death, with a tracheotomy, on a respirator for a couple of months, being fed through a tube, very sick, and sure I would not live to see the next day. But (!) I was absolutely at peace with my fate. My thoughts went through my will—I wished I had set it up a little differently—but didn’t really much care. In my mind, I walked the winding path through my father’s desert garden, buried my feet in the hot summer sand, felt the sun warm my skin, and was in no despair at all. I did feel sorry for my father, whose sorrow would have been immense. At some point I got off the vent, but was miserable and actually wished for my death, but the doctors wouldn’t let me go, which I was a bit miffed about.

    Two years earlier I would never have imagined that my attitude toward my own death could change so radically! Having experienced being so close to death has banished all fear of it. Life is so much easier knowing that when the time comes to let go, it can be so easy.

    Life expectancy after lung transplantation isn’t all that spectacular—about 50% of the patients are dead within 5 years. That doesn’t cause any anguish. I’ll admit it makes it a little difficult to plan far ahead—it took me a while to get used to the idea of buying a new car, planning a vacation for “next year”—because there’s no reason to expect to be alive. But even that doesn’t really bother me—either I will be or I won’t be.

    Perhaps I’m at an advantage that I’ve had general anesthesia so often (15 surgeries). I think of death being like general anesthesia—not like a sleeping. When I sleep, there’s still a shred of consciousness, with general anesthesia, there is nothing. No pain, no darkness, no cold, no yearning, no missing loved ones, no mourning for those who have already died. Nothing. Peace.

    Happily, I’ve done a number of things in the years since transplantation that I never thought I would ever do—let alone after transplantation. Life can even be enjoyed if that nothingness can come at any time.

    I tell a lot of people about my experience (which people who have experienced near-death experiences often echo), because I wish it upon everybody to be free of the fear.

    I hope this might help you a tiny little bit.

    Eva

  • Anne Tyler

    Eva, thank you for sharing your words and thoughts so obviously done with an objective to help the struggling. Your experience and thoughts about it are themselves thought-provoking. I wish we could all, when the time comes, let go so easily. But I wonder if much of it isn’t due to the larger context of life.

    Do you have children you would be concerned for? You don’t say your age or talk about other people in your life except your father who seems to be a rather mystical presence in some ways, but that is just my understanding. And the way my world is going of late, I would be loathe to tell anyone they could or should comfortably rely on my judgment of anything as having any true significance. Which is not to say I don’t feel that I have learned a lot about “our world” and the direction it’s headed in. But I think my attitude basically “sucks” if you will forgive the euphemism and so I can’t say that it’s objective on a the larger scale.

    I am today feeling very depressed, lost, confused, tired, hopeless, disappointed (in the world and in me), afraid. I guess I want to believe there is some “meaning” to life and if there is meaning what “meaning” did mine have? I think my intentions are good but due to laziness, confusion, fears that hold me back, I’m not sure my contributions have been either numerous and/or great.

    I have to force myself to look for anything positive at all about my life. The things I do find, I have to wonder at what kind of a person ends up with these few things to list in their assessments of assets and contributions. For this past year, I have tried to be a “cheerleader” for my older son in a rather significant struggle he faces, not a physical one now but very significant. I have tried to let him know he is not alone and tried to be a voice of affirmation and of my belief in him as a person of good character and worth. I have been feeding a fluctuating number of stray cats who might have struggled more without me to survive a very snowy cold winter. One cat in particular, who seems to have decided to adopt my home and my yard as “his” territory. I do not know if in fact he is a he but I think of him that way and I suppose time will tell if he is (I pray there be no spring kittens added to the mix of homelessness). I am mostly a “dog” person but have been known to love a cat or two in my time as well and this fellow I confess to think of as “my” cat now and I think he is starting to view me as “his.” It’s no longer left to chance that I put something out for him; I now have a timer inside my head that subconsciously remembers “it’s time.” He allows me to see him now, whereas before he was mostly invisible. He has long hair, thick black fur and very pretty green eyes and a twin of sorts who is one of the other four. I felt very sorry for “my cat” this past winter when he was apparently on his way for his evening repast after a very significant snow storm of a foot or so and this being his first appearance afterward, he must have been very hungry. He was intercepted by a much larger very aggressive cat who had him down for the count and I felt very ineffectual having no “tools” except my voice to intervene. I felt sad for him that he was reduced to being treated so shabbily within his newly adopted kingdom. I worry whether or not he will be a problem with regard to the birds I feed in feeders and on the ground. After all it would not be nice to entice my feathered friends to come for food only to be assassinated by a cat. But so far he hasn’t shown much interest in my avian friends, thankfully. Maybe if he is well fed enough he won’t. I saw him yesterday, sitting on top of my small tool shed, a place that afforded him a very nice place to catch the sun as well as survey his territory. And I have tried to be a significant voice for abused animals and the pre-born children whose lives are in peril. But other than that, my influence on the world is insignificant. My connections to the world, other than with my children, are insignificant unless you count my adversaries. I do not mind being alone, thankfully, much of the time I crave it, I need it and the few times that I go without “alone” time I tend to feel deprived and misused. It seems I am turning into my father who was very much the same. But other than that—my ties to this world are very few. So it would seem that it should be no great leap from this world to the other, few things hold me here and few if any would miss me overall. The challenges I’ve faced, my adversaries, have left me much disillusioned and embittered. And I think in that regard I am letting them be the victor since I in turn have been not very fun to be around really. Reviewing what I just wrote it occurs to me it is really just a rather boring blah blah and that I should stop before I go any further.

    But I guess in summation, while I appreciate your experiences and beliefs, somehow I feel that, absent more insight into your life, they are experiences singular to you and rather unique and rare. But then, what do I know? Really not much at all.

    I am sad most of the time, the sadness seems to be becoming too established for my comfort. The sadness seems to be becoming part of the fabric of who I am. I have always had a tendency to periods of depression, but the depression was not me. This sadness is different; I feel myself and it becoming one.

    What mindless insignificant drivel; if I were wise (or compassionate) I’d probably hit the delete key but it seems I am not other than to say a weak and flimsy “sorry” for taking up space.

  • Anne Tyler

    Oh, and Eva, I neglected to say but very much wish to say “good show” for your efforts and whatever character traits within you or knowledge or intelligence that have led you to find happiness on a day-to-day basis and without any expectation (though mindful of the fact that you have no definite limitations either) of tomorrow. Living for today is, in some ways, an attractive idea. But then we have the fairy tales or Mr. Aesop telling us how the squirrel or whatever who didn’t plan for and prepare for tomorrow eventually had to come to terms with the folly of living “in the day” only. But what I meant to say is I’m happy for you that you faced adverse conditions, have survived them and have found happiness for yourself. A not insignificant accomplishment, IMO, so, good show and may you have as many more good days as you are given and care to have. And thank you again for sharing an intimate detail of your life.

    This isn’t “my” blog here so I hope that doesn’t sound presumptuous, my thanking you for sharing, as in some ways that seems to me to be the right of the host here, a very generous and thoughtful man from what I can see. So, I’m not meaning to transgress into territory that isn’t mine, may it not be so. If I have, I apologize. I seem to be needful of apology often but I don’t always give it so I guess I should apologize for that too since the opportunity presents. I will take comfort in the knowledge that our host needn’t approve anything I write and absent my hitting the delete key, he can still save us all from the drivel that is my mind. And if he does, I won’t be offended at all.

  • Julia

    I’ve moved from being very anxious all the time to feeling depressed. Or is it existential angst? My emptiness is primarily about lack of meaning and purpose. I still take pleasure in nature, exercise, good food & company. I just feel rudderless. And the sorrows of the world (no more News for me) pull at my tender heart strings.

    I’ve experienced the lingering, excruciating & painful suffering deaths of both my 88 year in-laws in just a couple of months. All the visits to the hospital and funeral homes have reignited my death fears and made me dread the future.

    But I’ve found help. Lately I’ve started listening to CDs by Pema Chodron who was my “rock” through all my cancer surgeries and treatments. I took her Living with Uncertainty & Places that Scare You to all my oncology visits. However, the CDs are more immediate and helpful than the books. Her voice is warm, kind, and I feel as tho’ she’s speaking directly to me.

    I’m not a Buddhist nor am I likely to become one. However, I feel most helped by deep thinkers (we’re not talking “bright-sided’ positive thinking) such as Pema. I urge those on this site to find SOMEONE who “talks to your heart & soul” as Pema has to mine. (Bruce Lipton also). Through Pema’s writings and lectures I’ve realized how much my thinking and even actions are all fear-based. And I feel motivated to chose a different path. To help myself first so that I can do more to alleviate the suffering of others.

    That may just be the answer to finding purpose in MY life.

  • Eva

    Anne,

    I do believe most people are able to let go easily when the time comes. If you read about people who have experienced near-death situations, they often express feeling similar to mine. Many old people—even though they are not really suffering—at some point decide that it is time to go.

    A couple of years after my diagnosis, while I was once again hospitalized in intensive care, the love of my life died of a heart attack. I think that was a turning point for me. I recall thinking that in the future, I would need to see the world for him, too. A couple of days after his death, I had surgery, after which I was comatose for about 4 weeks. I was not expected to survive; in fact, the doctors recommended that if my family still wanted to see me alive, they should start traveling. Sometimes I think the primary reason I did survive is because I felt obligated to live because Peter was dead, to live so that he could continue to experience the world through my eyes.

    My father was not a mystical figure, but he was my only surviving parent. I had a terminal lung disease, my father was a pulmonologist. At the time, he was frail and couldn’t visit me—the Atlantic Ocean separated us. The reason I felt that my father would have been the one most hurt by my death is simply because parents losing a child is contrary to life’s expectations, to the “rules” of nature.

    One thing strikes me in what you write—you write of disappointment. Disappointment is not something that has been a very big issue for me, because I am by nature a very pessimistic person. I suffer less disappointment because I am seldom hopeful. I’ve rarely worried about the meaningless of my life because in the grand picture of the universe, my life is inconsequential. Hence, I carry no burden of having to prove my worthiness to live. I did not ask to be born. I do my work, I have light-hearted moments, and I have black-hearted moments. I try to harm nobody, and don’t owe anybody anything except thanks for letting me be a part of their lives.

    I don’t think that I’ve found “happiness” again since Peter died, but I have learned to be content—even with my sadness. And that is a lot. As we grow older, most of us start realizing that those dreams that were forcibly injected into us are just that—dreams. We will not all be famous, we will not all by happy, we will not all be beautiful, we will not all be important. So we become disappointed that all those dreams of our youth. But we will nonetheless be human beings who can strive to be content—and doing our bit. And a bit can be caring for stray cats. Who cares whether the whole world notices? The main thing is to do things that are right for you.

    BTW—I do have daily limitations my new lungs don’t work very well…I have what is called chronic rejection: my pulmonary function is under 30% of what it should be, I need supplementary oxygen when flying or at high altitudes, my kidneys are failing, I’m expecting them to fail completely any day now—which means I will need dialysis. But, sometimes I remind myself that I just very narrowly survived in the first place, so complaining would be somewhat…uh audacious.

    Anne, I can only wish you to keep feeding the cats and supporting your son and to somehow muddle through this life and finding—somewhere—if not happiness, at least contentedness.

  • Anne Tyler

    I appreciate suggestions made to be encouraging and uplifting. For myself, where I am today, is basically, I think, in a state of shock, paralyzed and alienated from the world.

    Where I am calls into question everything that went before. It finds fault with almost everything that came before it and therefore lead me to where I am.

    The things I believed in or the values I believe in and hope I had that overall the world might be a good place if I could only find it.

    I find that structure now, elusive as the was before, to have been a mirage. Society’s structure is a mirage.

    There is nothing there to stand on, to support me. I am like a feather in the wind, blown here and there by (if my mother is to be believed) a weakness of character land a lack of any endearing qualities.

    I suppose I could try to fight accepting this reality but as it is I am hollow and nothing remains to fight with. Everything I believed in has proven false. I must even now contemplate that my one connection to anything real, my children, has been based in unreality. Sometimes, often times the one thing/belief that kept me going were these beliefs of how strong the ties are to my children. I imagined myself bestowed with almost magical powers to maintain a connection of sorts even after life ceases to exist.

    My counselor tells me I cannot “do anything foolish” or unwise, because imagine the pain that would be visited on my children should I actually act on these impulses. She reminds me of the strength of my connection to my children, of how we are interdependent to each other. I accepted/bought her suggestion as being, on its face, true. However, these past few days I must confront a new/refined and more realistic state of existence.

    I used to contemplate and wonder how awful it should be if one of our “space explorers” should be on one of those missions to do something or other OUTSIDE the space capsule and while doing so should lose its connection to the Mother Ship, to “home.” What an awful reality, adrift in a vast universe of a cold and black space, limitless in scope, overwhelming in its huge indifference to us as a person, drifting forever alone and lost. There are no landmarks to reach out and grab hold of, no islands on which to rest while we contemplate a way out of our difficulty. Instead, there is, in my case, “me.” And on the other “side” is “nothing.” As a child I have imagined monsters under my bed, as an adult I have feared random acts of depraved indifference to our pain by serial killers and devil-worshipers. I have feared the ravages of diseases like cancer and more.

    In my new acceptance of reality I am that untethered astronaut. He cannot share his pain or fear—there is no one there. If you cannot share something does it really exist?

    Of these lifelong fears, how strange to realize that a negative ion, a lack of something and therefore a non-thing should be the thing that finally forces me to surrender.

  • Jackie

    Anne,

    This knocked me off my feet:

    “I am like a feather in the wind, blown here and there by (if my mother is to be believed) a weakness of character land a lack of any endearing qualities.”

    “…weakness of character”—welcome to the club! Its code name is “humanity.”

    “…lack of any endearing qualities”—well, I haven’t met you in person, but that’s just not possible. Evidence—you did at some point manage to get a man interested in you enough to start a family with you. And YOUR kids still talk to you, right? I also CANNOT believe you have no friends at all. But just from that line I would suspect massive issues of not feeling accepted by your own mom (and goodness knows who else, as a consequence).

    I hope your therapy looks at that subject long and hard (yeah, I am doing the same thing with MY therapist at the moment ;) ).

    PLEASE hang in there and know that there ARE “endearing qualities” about you, sure as God made little apples. But maybe they don’t suit the person(s) you want/ed to impress. Tough luck for THEM.

    Hugs from afar,

    Jackie

  • Anne Tyler

    Jackie, you struggle too it seems. I hope you are making progress on your journey of discovery and introspection and I thank you so much for inquiring about me.

    I really must tell you, though, that my “attracting” a man was no great accomplishment on my part. Attracting a man is fairly simple and straightforward. The difficulty lies in being able to, first of all, recognize the kind of man whose interest you would be seeking. If anyone should follow in my footsteps you would be better served to make some major and/or minor alterations to your plan.

    First of all, you should have a plan, not just accept anyone who seems physically attractive to you that says in passing one day: “Hey babe” as I did. It is true that I did have a lack of self esteem and no sense of worth as to what qualities I had to offer anyone. I still suffer from a lack of self-esteem; however I have learned to draw the line as to what I will subject myself to in order to gain the hoped-for affirmation.

    I’ve always been “different,” or if I would be nice to myself then “unique.” I think there was a time when I believed in me but that was when I was young and innocent. My father did, before he got too old, I think, like me very much if the pictures I have are any indication and a few nice memories to match. I envy the little girl whose face I see looking back at me from those pictures so long ago for she looks confident and happy and secure and almost always her daddy is carrying her or holding her hand or really in touch with her. But then I also feel sorry for her because I realize what a great fall she’s headed for. But I confess I would like to linger in that other world she knew for a while. What freedom, what peace to not always be wondering how others were looking at you. Having this close bond with a father who obviously cares about you and who is there for you whenever you get hurt is a very nice arrangement. My father (my daddy as I always called him) was a very moral and religious man who would never have violated his role as my father so I felt safe with him. In the pictures where he’s holding my hand it seems apparent he’s not doing it for any reason other than that he wants to be connected to me, to claim me as his own and that must have felt golden. But is it better though to feel “okay” and accepted for a while but then fall from grace or would it be kinder that you never knew what acceptance felt like? The vagaries of chance that are a part of life eventually touch us all. Too bad for her they touched her so soon and at such a very vulnerable time. And too bad she didn’t tell anyone her secret but he said not to. And it seemed to change the entire direction things were going in. It became a life of shame and of secrets and fearing to look at anyone for fear they might somehow figure out the truth and know what a bad girl you turned out to be.

    Without boring anyone with all the intervening years of melodrama between here and there, lets just say that the quality of men I have attracted has been for the most part very unacceptable.

    As much as I did once feel connected very much to my father, my mother whom you would think would be closer seemed remote except when I did something wrong. It’s my father I remember coming to me in the night when I cried and it’s my father I remember telling me I wasn’t a bad girl. It made me feel good when he said that but then he didn’t know the truth about me. Because he was getting much older and because I now had guilt and secrets we grew apart. I wonder if he didn’t look at me sometimes and wonder where his sweet little girl had gone to and left me behind. But every once in a while he would play a game with me, Uncle Wiggily maybe or SORRY! But ONLY ONE, and no amount of cajoling or begging would make a difference. But he laughed, something he didn’t do too often, when I’d catch him cheating. He liked cheating and he liked me catching him so it was okay and fun.

    When I got older and “developed” with sufficient assets to draw the attention I craved I did not value me or what I had enough to wait for someone who really liked me for who I was because for one thing that seemed highly unlikely why anyone would like me.

    So I learned to use what seemed to work to get the attention that I wanted. But it didn’t go well at all from the very outset, ever.

    And my entire life since my fall from grace has been one of floundering out of one frying pan into yet another sticky situation. In between frying pans and hot places I did love my children, always, but I think I was very immature and left a lot to be desired too as a mother.

    It seems ridiculous at this point in my life to be considering these things since it’s mostly an issue of the past and not much can be done (funny, that) about that other time. So now my life jostles me here and there. Mostly I try to avoid drawing attention to myself. Certainly its got to be unwise to entertain thoughts of romance or love because the last time was a real “doozie,” an ongoing relationship with somebody who was hot and cold where I was concerned. Few would ever guess from just looking at me that I’m anything other than your typical person facing the challenges of middle age. Sometimes I think wouldn’t it be fun to shock people and say “otherwise”? But its best to keep a low profile; it’s the safest thing really and so that’s what I try to do.

    I don’t talk about it much because it just turns into a big “blah blah” that everybody, me included, is better off without.

    So, I hate to disappoint you but I think my taking any credit for attracting a man is probably not anything in my “plus” column.

    If you are seeing a therapist I hope it’s someone you can be open and honest with as otherwise it really doesn’t do much good does it? It was really sweet of you to take the time to say what you did and put a good “spin” on things. So, anyway, thanks for sayin’. And hope good things come your way Jackie, LOL, lotsa luck!

    And hey, Jackie, hugs from afar to you too!

  • Girya

    I suffer from similar thoughts too. I just want to know RIGHT NOW how it feels so I can no longer bother about it. My wife (incredibly supportive) describes this life as going to a movie theater. Once done with the show, we all go back to where we are. She also uses the anesthesia reference that it will be similar but more lasting. I am trying to take succor in what my religion (Hinduism) says. Here are a few excerpts:

    1. As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.
    2. Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.
    3. As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.

    What is funny is that we worriers do not remember anything prior to our birth yet we fret over what will happen later.

  • Mary Ann

    Girya—thanks for the comments—the Hindu excerpts are comforting and do make sense, but still the worry/fear lingers, as we know…I like your wife’s comment also.

  • Julia

    Ditto on the Hindi comments. I’m collecting comforting thoughts from this site and returning to them when I’m afraid.

    I think a lot about fear. Heard interesting quote the other day: Fear is the Fear of Fear. At first it didn’t make sense to me but the more I considered it, the more I started to understand.

    The speaker said that “raw fear” isn’t a problem if you don’t run from it. Try to abide with it. Running only makes fear “proliferate.” (I agree). You become afraid of even more things. While it’s painful to sit with fear—and just breathe—it makes me feel stronger afterward when I can do that. Even if it’s just once a week.

    jab

  • 35 years old here.

    Petrified of what comes after death.

    Any tips? Thanks…I’m not religious but I do like to think there is a creator.

    Any feedback appreciated.

    Albert: I practice Nichiren Buddhism in hopes of one day resolving my fear of death. In the meantime, you might read The Rippling Effect.

    Alex

  • Samantha Simpson

    First of all, thank you for sharing your experiences, Alex. I thoroughly enjoy reading about your observations and the insight of all your readers. I read this post and several comments before remembering my first experience with death. I have had NDE’s before, but nothing comes close in comparison to some of the stories I’ve read here. Although this might seem silly, my first experience in dealing with the realization of death was when I was about 5 or 6 when my mom took me to the movies to see “All Dogs Go to Heaven.” At the end of the movie I remember feeling an incredible wave of emotion flow over me and began to have my first panic attack which was so bad my mom had to take me out of the theater. We sat outside of the movies as she consoled me. When she asked why I had gotten so upset all I could manage to get out between those deep struggles to catch a breath was, “I don’t want you to die.” She proceeded to explain to me that everyone will die and there should be nothing to fear if we lead a good/honest/meaningful life. From then on I agonized over, not my death, but hers. When I was a teenager I came to the realization that I, really and truly, was going to die… someday. Until that point I was deeply terrified of death as I was afraid of losing the connection my mom and I have. At some point in my early adulthood, I came to the conclusion that I am not in control… so why am I stressing out over something I literally have absolutely no power over? That’s the way I like to look at life and everything in it—we can only control ourselves, our actions and the way we react to others. Anyhow, thanks again for all your wisdom. I’m super excited to read the rest of your thoughts

  • Liz

    Funny thing is…I wish that this was more comforting. But I think it is all about acceptance. I feel I am now going through what you went through…and it is a really challenging time. It is so difficult to know what is psychosomatic and what is a physical symptom. My mind will cling to anything…

    Any suggestions?

    Liz: I agree the key is acceptance. The question remains, however: what is it we must accept? Our utter annihilation? That some part of us goes on and is reincarnated? That we continue to exist as our current selves in a disembodied spirit form? To believe any of these things in a way that contributes positively to our lives now, we must have real evidence that they’re true. That doesn’t seem to be forthcoming any time soon. I continue to pursue the practice of Buddhism as I’m inclined to think that a subjective awakening to the true nature of our own lives that sheds light on the above might be possible , but I must confess at this point it remains only an inclination and my practice of Buddhism a grand experiment.

    Alex

  • Dan

    You say in your article that:

    “I fully recognize that my current belief about death—that it is truly the final end of the self—is likely to be correct.”

    Yet you also say you are practicing Buddhism.

    Isn’t the point of practice to realize that the self cannot die because it has never actually been born? And that what we call our “self” is a temporary set of conditioned phenomena that are continually transforming?

    Dan: Yes. But I haven’t had an experience that’s provided me evidence that it’s true, so I’m unable to believe it as of yet.

    Alex

  • Gabriella Hibbler

    Please let me know if you’re looking for a article author for your weblog. You have some really great posts and I believe I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d really like to write some articles for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please shoot me an e-mail if interested. Thanks!

  • Julia

    Last Friday I had to euthanize my beautiful Irish Setter who was very much a valued member of the family.

    This was traumatic given my fear of death and mixed feelings about euthanasia. The vet was so casual about arranging an appt. for a lethal injection the next day. My dear dog wasn’t in pain but was lame in back legs from a slipped disk. He was very alert which made the process difficult. I had read that most animals put down were almost dead anyway. This was not the case with my dear Dudley.

    I’m curious if any of you have struggled with the contradictions of euthanizing a dog when the procedure for humans is only legal in a few places and overall frowned upon.

    Another point is I feel terrible about arranging the death of my best buddy. Was the time right? I’ll never know. I begged Dudley to die in his sleep but he did not oblige me. His organs were strong; just his legs failed him. I gave him lots of Valium before the procedure so I hope he had no memory of the clinic.

    I asked the vet about me providing the equivalent of hospice care for my dog and she told said that was “cruel.” She informed me that “natural” death was ugly and disturbing while euthanasia was “sacred and clean,” and much preferred???

    I left the clinic feeling very confused and conflicted. I’m not trying to start a political debate. I’m just curious how others who fear death have dealt with ordering death for their dear pets.

    Thanks

    Julia: I think that it’s legal to euthanize animals we love to put them out of their suffering but not humans we love (with terminal conditions and only more suffering to anticipate) makes no sense at all. I’m so sorry for your loss.

    Alex

  • Mary Ann

    Julia—I too have put many pets “to sleep”—cats. It is SO difficult; once I had to take Xanax to handle it! It is said that animals have no fear of death, and they certainly seem peaceful during the process at the vet. I think you did the right thing and that your dog was grateful. Be brave!

  • Julia K.

    With regards to the pet death situation Julia described, I have recently gone through the opposite scenario. I had a four-year-old (relatively young) cat who suddenly became ill. He had so much energy that it was easy to keep giving him treatment even though it became more and more of a burden for us. By the end we had to give him pills four times a day, and luckily he understood and didn’t mind. He did die a natural death, right in front of us. He had heart failure, and his heart finally gave out. I was able to give him CPR to make the passing more comfortable, but he was clearly in pain, though he hadn’t been in pain for most of his illness. It was intense, certainly, watching and hearing him die, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say “ugly and disturbing.” It just felt natural, one minute he was eating his supper and jumping onto the coffee table, and the next he was dying, and that is simply how things go sometimes. I don’t know how one can put a value judgement on that being better or worse than “putting him to sleep.” In his case, since he was active and happy, apart from his illness, we did everything we could to keep him with us as long as we could.

    The care-giving really took a toll on us emotionally and financially, and the only peace we have is to feel like there were no “what if we had tried longer, what would his life be like?”

    Now, having adopting a now 12-year-old cat who is slowly going into kidney failure, I feel like it is a different ball game. She is currently fine with her special food. Initially, before the special food took full effect, when we had to give her IVs, she wold scream and squirm and hide all day. If she again reaches the point that she needs constant IVs and she is constantly miserable, we are committed to putting her down, because we feel there will not be any value left to life for her or us.

    As this blog is called “Happiness in this World” that actually seems to me to be the only relevant concept one can apply to these kinds of situations. In other words, was your Setter happy to be alive in spite of his injury? Were you happy dealing with his constant struggle to ambulate? My guess is the answer to those questions was “no.” And these cases seem to me to be about balancing the happiness of the folks involved.

    On the human front, I currently have an elderly family friend on life support. She has not awoken from surgery. She has normal brain activity but cannot breathe on her own. Her family is fortunate in that she has three types of insurance so it is not a financial burden for them. My understanding is that they are taking a a wait-and-see approach. Basically, if she doesn’t awaken and her physical condition deteriorates to the point that she would have an incredibly difficult, painful time of it if she woke up, then they will cease life support. So again, they’re trying to judge her potential for happiness.

    The argument could be made that if she cannot breathe, for so long now, on her own, then she should be allowed to die peacefully. I think this is the kind of situation where an Advanced Directive would be very helpful, as knowing the wishes of the patient seems to be the best possible scenario in a case like this.

    Julia: Thank you for your comments. For those who haven’t read it, a previous post, When A Beloved Pet Dies, may be relevant to the discussion here.

    Alex

  • Amy

    Yes, I can definitely empathize with the pain of having to decide for someone else (our pets) if it is “time.” What if we choose wrong, what if they could have had more time? My faith, or rather the faith I inherited from my parents and subsequently rejected but still struggle with, teaches that it’s wrong to end our lives by any means other than letting God be the one who decides. I agree it is contradictory in some ways but everyone puts being “human” as being on a plane above all other creatures. But from what I have seen, more often than not, our pets are far and away better than we are, more compassionate, more forgiving.

    I am sorry about your losing your friend/your pet, your companion. They are so much a part of our lives. People would say it’s wrong to value them more than other human beings. I don’t think it’s so much putting their value higher; I think it’s that there is probably no other being we share so intimately with, telling our pets things we wouldn’t tell others, letting them see us cry. Everyday, wherever else the world is, they are there with us and so it leaves a painful empty place when they’re gone. The sorrow and the grief is for ourselves, in many ways. Our pet is beyond sorrow and grief but for a while it seems to be all we feel. It fades over time but under certain circumstances/events it all comes flooding back, those precious companions we lost and it feels like yesterday.

    I have nothing to give you to make the pain go away. All I have to offer is empathy, though your pain and thoughts are uniquely yours as they should be about a very unique pet, I do feel your pain, I have felt it, I acknowledge it and I accept (and even applaud) that you feel such pain because it results from your being a person who “gets” how important our pets are. Others may say “but its only a dog,” but those of us who get it know better. We lose a little bit of ourselves I think, a bit of our history, but we also have memories of a beautiful creature that shared our home with us for awhile. The trick is to remember the beauty more than the pain.

  • Ian

    It is comforting to find that I am not as alone as I thought I was. In my head I knew that I couldn’t be the only one who had these thoughts, but I’ve never met anyone. I’ve struggled with a strong fear of death since I was 9 (25 now). I was raised by a Christian and an atheist separately, and as such have a very skewed spirituality. It mostly boils down to wanting to believe, but not being able to.

    In that regard, more than any, do I identify with you on this, Alex. So far I haven’t found anything to ring true with me as much as this article has. I feel (as with other things in my life) that I was drawn here specifically and that there is something very important I am supposed to take from this experience.

    Thank you.

    Ian: May we find the answers we need both.

    Alex

  • Julia

    Here I go again. Death fears. As a cancer survivor every persistent lump or pain is menacing. After suffering gastric pain, pressure and bloating I finally had ultrasounds performed. I had been diagnosed with reflux and tried taking PPIs but had disturbing “idiopathic” responses to the drugs. There must be something else going on….I feared.

    At radiology the young med-tech assigned to me was undergoing chemo for an advanced gallbladder cancer. We hugged and shared our stories as cancer is a club that makes strangers instant intimates. I felt such a huge empathy for her & her family that I was uncommonly brave during the scans.

    Still, after not hearing from my FP for several days I became increasingly anxious about the results. And I started telling myself stories about encroaching death, mets to the ovaries or pancreas. After all I know “breast cancer survivors” who have reoccurred and died of gastric cancers.

    I’m starting to accept that fear of death will be a companion the rest of my days. I may not Over Come The Fear of Death. Mortality is closer for me ‘the survivor.” And cancer survivors KNOW what others deny. Life is unfair, fleeting and fragile.

    The question for me is can I find a way to life WITH or in spite of the fear of death?

    I’m so glad this site exists. Thank you Alex!

    Julia

    PS: Many thanks for your condolences upon the death of my beloved dog.

    Julia: I have several patients with stories just like yours. Once the ability to deny death is stripped away, every “persistent lump or pain” is indeed menacing. Over time, however, things do improve. Hang in there. Better days are ahead.

    Alex

  • Nana

    Dear Dr. Lickerman,

    I have also struggled for very long, the past 11 years, with trying, seriously, to intellectually resolve my own fear of death. Like you, I am also a serial “meta-thinker,” also suffer from bouts of “unnecessary” perfectionism and also suffered from the most agonizing mental agony at the inevitable annihilation, not just of my own personal existence, but with it the possible end of all meaning (my own demise is also not “imminent,” since my fear was not aroused by any one event or another, only by my own self-enforced philosophical contemplation since I was 12) . I say suffered, because I have found a method for myself to no longer suffer this way and actually become more productive (the improvement has been exponential!). I am writing to share some of my own experiences and methods with you in the hope that it might contain some grains of universality to assist you in finding your own method and perhaps also help some of your patients.

    I have devised a very disciplined “training regimen” for myself, and now, a full 18 months after applying my method (finding the form of the method itself I have spent many more years on) to every moment of every day (where periods of great personal courage were required, since it required me to metaphorically “kill myself” some hundred times over), I no longer suffer from the debilitating effects of the fear of death and in this process, attained a universality of outlook that is nothing less than a true and permanent universal love. In devising my own method, I needed to overcome a tremendous “prejudice” that there is such a thing as indubitable truth that we can actually write down (as a series of logical statements). As a budding theoretical physicist, I have always believed in a “theory of everything” (that’s why I wanted to be a theoretical physicist in the first place: so I might eventually understand Nature at Her deepest depths), so you understand that the “prejudice” is very strong. Of course, it never ever occurred to me that it was just another viewpoint: it simply seemed self-evident that there was an equation to be written down to explain everything, almost as certain as a definition itself. It would be truth itself. In the process of overcoming this “prejudice” (stimulated by, amongst other influences, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem: it implies that true mathematical theorems may not be provable using basic logical axioms: so clearly this is trouble for indubitable truth), I gradually realized that overcoming this problem was, for me, on the same scale as overcoming the fear of death (which was an equally big part of my life): in fact, they were really the same problem. There is really too much reasoning for me to adequately cover here, but the basic idea is that we fear because we do not understand: we do not have a theory of the world. That is all.

    Once we do realize there is only evolution of the mind (no piece of rigorous logic will reveal everything), then our mind can follow a “direction to the infinite” (i.e., a worthy goal that can only ever grow and never end) and feel life to be miraculous and sublime everyday as it really is, with no fear of death, since our reasoning has led to the knowledge we are only part of a TRANSFORMATION. Life and death are not white and black categories to be made sense of: they are simply patterns that change shape, regardless of whether WE happen to like it or not. However, it really is inadequate to sit down calmly and use these examples of “loose arguments” to tame this monstrous fear (if your fear is naturally strong). To make these ideas actually helpful, one MUST perform the VERY difficult task of completely reorganizing the mind and change mental habits, consciously. This will take considerable effort and time. For instance, in ANY instance where I have noticed ANY self-centeredness or even a hint it may have originated from a self-centeredness, the thought MUST be changed into something less selfish. If any part appears easy, then one is doing it wrong. Then one’s thinking will gradually tend towards greater universality. In my own mind at least, through this process I directed the meaning of my life and there is only the greatest calm and universal love and I fear no longer. I can now see how it is more reasoning that can save the world, and reasoning will ever only improve as civilization advances, despite any temporary set-backs. I honestly do feel a great sense of enlightenment, despite my great unease in saying such things. We must grapple onto the “highest truth” of existence and I have found it in finding there is no indubitable truth that we, with our human brains, can grasp. We can only theorize with limited “computing power” to a certain point. Whatever we call enlightenment is simply in coming up with a good theory, but a theory is all we will ever have.

    Just a little note on how I have come to my methods:

    I have followed three hypotheses. My starting hypothesis is that the clue to solving all problems (that we can actually understand) lies within the working of the brain itself (not something outside: this is the MOST important hypothesis). I use this hypothesis most frequently in devising and implementing my method. For instance, in order to change my brain, I must first acknowledge its actual primary drives that may not be under my own conscious control, so I no longer fear if the most noble intentions are not those a priori, but are only “emergent” intentions from the most basic instincts. My second hypothesis is that the dominating instinct governing and regulating all our moods and thoughts is the “knowledge instinct” (see L. Perlovsky’s papers on the “physics of the brain”): that is, everything will appear OK to us so long as we have a theory of WHY something happened (NO matter how devastating it is). Therefore, the first thing one searches for must be knowledge, of the why and the how. Then, amazingly, the brain automatically calms. My third hypothesis is borrowed from Jung: that the way to a healthy mind is an optimal interplay of synthesis and differentiation. The conscious/subconscious structure of the mind is a very helpful paradigm to play in. In my mind, both the conscious and the subconscious mind turn upon reason. Whatever emotion we display, there is always a REASON, and I think of it like the subconscious mind “speaking” to the conscious mind. I use this structure constantly in applying my methods, because it gives me a very good handle on how I can regulate my emotions and have them in accord with reason: since it is really the “disagreement” between reason and emotion that causes confusion and fear. This regulation must be applied at every moment. Only once all the subconscious and conscious “reasoning” all point to the same “theory,” is there a feeling of tremendous unity of being. The idea is first to accept that the conscious mind, no matter how noble you think you can make it, is not the only commander (to REALLY accept, not just an intellectual agreement). Then the task becomes one of synthesizing (by first closely observing one’s subconscious “reasoning” through reading one’s own emotions), instead of starting everything from scratch.

    All this might appear quite obvious, but I think until one can be convinced enough to actually put all of one’s efforts into having a better command over one’s own brain through very systematic and often very painful procedures, the theorizing is useless in curbing the fundamental fear of death. I also know many people who seem not to fear death, but I find that they generally fall into two classes. The first class are those who have already been through all the painful “theorizing” (that can happen after deeply traumatic events, like survivors of Auschwitz) and the second class are those who are not “theorists.” They are not bothered by not knowing. Of course, if one is not bothered by not knowing, then one is not bothered by never knowing the “mystery of existence” or never coming to terms with the greatest beauties of the universe, so death is not such a great loss.

    There really is much more I would like to say on the subject to make it more rigorous (because the process for me was really like a big scientific project: of course, only in the sense of the amount of careful thinking and prejudice breaking involved). I just want to emphasize that, at least for me, to really come to a greater enlightenment and to eliminate a (for me almost life-long) debilitating fear of death (something I thought about everyday), it is absolutely inadequate to sit comfortably and read passively about the methods of one religion or another and casually adopting certain practices with no further thought. Any particular practice, like meditation, I think is only to increase one’s sensitivities, etc, so that one will become more observant and hence more likely to search for knowledge oneself. There is no “intrinsic” merit to any one practice or another to reach enlightenment. It must be from the force of our OWN minds, through our OWN discovery of knowledge. Knowledge must be sought for using good methods, not just ones that may please our superficial minds. Vague notions that seem to give a feeling of “high truth” I have found particularly harmful. Our minds like to have things ordered and anything that can “cheaply” give us this feeling of “everything making sense” is quickly grasped at, but these never give knowledge, not matter how much we want them to.

    I have already written much more than is appropriate for a simple blog reply and I hope I have given no nuisance. It is only that I have worked so long and hard and, at least for myself, finally succeeded in my problem, that I think, since human minds are so similarly constituted, it might be of some help to someone.

  • Ruth

    Very impressive and useful dialog, especially using the mind to decipher meaning. A true scientific method. Thrilled that there’s no religiousity at all.

  • Nana

    I’m very happy you have found it useful, Ruth. There is a very important comment I forgot to add yesterday. I don’t think the main quest is to find how to conquer the fear death at all; the quest is to find life.

    Happy the man, and happy he alone,
    He who can call today his own;
    He who, secure within, can say,
    Tomorrow, do thy worst, for I have lived today

    John Dryden

    Fear of death is not to be treated like an illness with ready-made medication, like the blind dogmatic hold to some belief just because it happens to curb our own fears, and not from a more proper consideration of the goodness of its doctrines. This fear, although so incredibly debilitating much of the time, must be considered as a blessing if we treat it rather as the beginning of the search for real meaning. Most people don’t get such an opportunity at all until towards the end of their lives, where there may not be much time to implement one’s new wisdom. However, the ones who are given this opportunity early in life must be prepared for a great struggle: but this must be followed courageously to the very end, because there is the highest human freedom waiting at the other side: the gift of consciousness, of independence from one’s own provincial fate (looking only to the grand scale of the best of humanity) and being, TRULY, able to follow the maxim of the Age of Enlightenment: sapere aude: dare to think for oneself.

    The true triumph should not be thought of as simply conquering a life-long time-consuming fear (otherwise it is simply doing something for our own narrow selves, like feeding out our beliies: surely one cannot in one’s deepest of hearts call this the highest ideal!), but winning the highest meaning of life we can legitimately assign ourselves to, and this can only be finding a way to make our own efforts work towards something much bigger than ourselves. The path to be taken is never to escape by putting it out of our minds or going to some ready-made “quick” solution. Then one is wasting the best opportunity one may have in this lifetime (perhaps an only chance of existence itself in this truly miraculous universe).

  • Julia

    Brilliant. Pure poetry and intellectual insight. You’ve helped me—a stranger—more than you’ll ever know. Given me a new perspective. Gratefully yours, jab

  • Nana

    Dear jab,

    You must also know how much your comment means to me. You have given me greater happiness than perhaps I have given you. It certainly was not through easy stages that I’ve come to my new understanding, not just on an intellectual level (which is a much simpler task), but also on the emotional level, in its entirety (this is the most difficult task of all and requires much assistance from the intellectual side). It was excruciating to me to the point of suicide for some seven years. Do you know what carried me through all of it? When I was in such agony, if I had thought purely on getting well, for my own sake, I would certainly have slit my own throat. It was only my sincere and overwhelming desire that some day, whatever wisdom I have won through conquering the great obstacles of the mind, that I should also help someone else earn their freedom. This was continuously on my mind. My greatest fear in life is always not being able to exert the very highest of myself for the universal good; to actually really help someone by helping them recognize the true freedom that is allotted to the mind of human beings, just as Friedrich Schiller and all the other masters have helped me. We are all congregated here because we love the beauty in life, no? And that is why we worry so much for its potential loss. Never ever give up. Good night!

  • Julie

    “Fear of death is not to be treated like an illness with ready-made medication, like the blind dogmatic hold to some belief just because it happens to curb our own fears, and not from a more proper consideration of the goodness of its doctrines. This fear, although so incredibly debilitating much of the time, must be considered as a blessing if we treat it rather as the beginning of the search for real meaning. Most people don’t get such an opportunity at all until towards the end of their lives, where there may not be much time to implement one’s new wisdom.”

    I told my therapist today that I am having a very difficult time with this “aging” thing helped in no small part by the fact my 62nd birthday is 11 days away. It’s also not helped by my online experiences in forums where all ages are present. Can it be that, even on the Internet, I send out vibes that say that is a soft spot with me, a tender place, where if you want to wound me that is the best place to do so? I say this because just within the past 3 or 4 months I guess, and not before, I get rude comments about my age. I go to political forums because I’m very concerned about the way the world / the US is going, not because I like politics; I loathe them and always have. No, it has my attention because I feel in a very real sense that we are like those companies who were deemed too big to fail and yet they did only to be “saved” by us. The United States is no different; people say that we are too grand, too powerful, look at all we’ve done, we cannot fail. Pride goeth before a fall. I think we are headed for a big one. Anyway—it is in these sorts of venues where I get less than kind remarks—suddenly I’m “not with it” or “too stupid” and just “OLD” to be afforded common courtesy. And the fact that I feel so many things are not settled, too many uncertainties for me to be content. I want to go knowing my children (who will always be my babies, big as they are) are at least comfortable and have some security. All these things and more I’m sure have left me tied in knots of anxiety over “age.”

    Anyway the above-quoted comment got me thinking about how disconnected I feel from younger people and that is so totally new to me. I have always been “one of them” and now I’m old. I envy them in a way though I don’t know what kind of world they are inheriting or if there will even be one. I’ve never been old before so how do I know how to do it. Not do it in the physical sense because that is a force of its own, but how do I make my mind go there, accept it, incorporate it into me. Because I don’t feel that I should be. I feel there is so much more that I want to accomplish. But these rude comments have made me self-conscious to the point I avoid going places and if I do go I feel uncomfortable. Actually, I think I have aged well if that can be done; I mean, I see my cousins periodically who are younger than me and they are definitely showing their years in part due to smoking—I think it adds years to your face, the lines. I still look “halfway” decent and my skin is not all wrinkly nor my hair “blue” but a nice light brown. But I don’t feel like me. I feel like I’ve betrayed myself somehow to end up with this body which no matter how well I age, let’s admit—there are wrinkles I don’t see until a certain day looking in the mirror and all of a sudden there it is—you can’t deny it, missy. If I already feel this way while fairly well “preserved” what will I feel when the aging accelerates. I want to be able to talk to someone but I already know that talking to younger people won’t work; it wouldn’t have worked with me when I was younger—I wouldn’t have gotten it emotionally. I would have understood the physical but not the emotional and I do think that the emotional is the most important of all because its the essence of who we are, our spirit, our character.

    My counselor’s suggestion and these discussion here has lead me to wonder—maybe I just didn’t notice, maybe I was too busy being young. But I wonder: did my aunts (for some reason uncles doesn’t mean as much) feel this way—did they feel terrified sometimes, look in the mirror and say “oh my gosh”? I don’t know what is normal, I guess. Is it normal that I feel as I do because I do feel almost in a panic sometimes. I don’t recall my aunts ever appearing anything but overweight mostly and tired and just “sitting.” I have managed to keep my weight down, not as it was when I was a teen but still, very reasonable. So I don’t identify with my cousins or my aunts and I just feel off in an orbit all my own and maybe that’s what scares me the most—being alone. I keep having these ridiculous ideas about not wanting to be buried underneath the earth because I am, silly as it sounds, a creature of the light. My home must be open to light, no heavy shutters or curtains, and I like warm air, summer, and the thought of being alone in the cold earth in eternal darkness frightens me even though near as I can tell (and it makes sense I guess—but who decides) I am dead and my body is just a shell of who I was. We are not our body. Our body is the vessel that got us from here to there but it wasn’t our spirit though no doubt our spirit did influence it, as far as style of dress etc. But has anyone ever come back to say “yes, when I died my body was separate from me so it was okay.” How do we know we aren’t still in that body somewhere, what a true hell that would be to be cold and dark-bound forever.

    Who thinks these things? Am I going mad? I do not think I’m at all senile, if anything my mind works too well, my memory is keen. Who am I, where am I going and how do I do this? I’ve never “gone there” before—to being old, to having a body that has definitely betrayed me. HOW do I do this?

    Julie: So much here to respond to. Vile behavior is rampant on the Internet. You’re far from alone in receiving ad hominem attacks—not that it’s commonality excuses it, by any means. The worries you have about being buried I think simply reflects a general worry about what happens to us when we die, a worry about being and dying alone, and about non-being. I, too, ruminate on these issues on a daily basis (which is why I wrote this post!). Neither of us is going mad. Where just introspective. Buddhism teaches that all things are in flux and part of our suffering comes from clinging to the notion that anything (our bodies, our minds, etc.) can ever remain the same. But remember, change doesn’t have to equal decline. Aging may bring a loss of vigor, both mentally and physically, but it also brings wisdom, the greatest treasure of all.

    Alex

  • Mary Ann

    Julie—you are definitely not alone—I share many of your thoughts. My mother, who is almost 87, says “I know I am old but I don’t feel old.” Buddhist thought and striving towards non-attachment help me…as do the wonderful posts here. Thank you! And thank you, Alex.

    For what it’s worth, my father, who died in his sleep at 87, said when I asked him about death, “When I die I will walk through a door and keep on walking.” I try to believe that. He has not come back to confirm it, tho, haha!

  • Julie

    Thank you both for trying to comfort me and address my fear and share your empathy. I do not “get” theories, such as Buddhism—my mind works the way it does—maybe that is what you mean though, directing my mind in the direction it needs to go.

    How long do these dreadful thoughts and feelings last? I have had passing fancies and ruminations before but these horrible prevailing thoughts stay when I wish them to go. I cry easily, I am confused, dare I risk talking with others? Any further criticisms, no matter how well intentioned, may be the straw that breaks me.

    I have, as long as I’m aware of, “felt” things—be they sharp and pointed pains for dull aches of the heart—to the most intense allowable. What if my panic is so far ahead of me as to never be brought back into control?

    Is it arrogant of me to think that I am exceptional? I don’t mean exceptional as regards my looks; I mean so close to the vibrations of life, the things that hum along in the background unseen? I cannot solve or take on the the pain of the world, of course, yet still in my dreams I try. If I am exceptional in this regard I would choose not to be if I could.

    Why do I need answers, why not make my own answers, my own beliefs? I think because overall I was trained to follow the traveled road, stay to the center line and hold on tight.

    I do not know the answers, my thoughts and feelings are far too scattered to hope that I might find proper direction.

    Time is pressing me to find answers quickly which only adds to my confusion.

    It is foolish isn’t it, to ruin our todays while we were about our tomorrows. I think I forget that far too often. Maybe I should have a tattoo on my arm perhaps to remind me. Fear and foolishness is not a good combination?

    Julie: Forgive me if this treads on familiar ground, but you sound depressed to me. Have you spoken about these feelings with a physician or therapist? Much help is available.

    Alex

  • Julia

    I just turned 57 yrs old and I’m sitting at computer in tank top and short cotton skirt. I’ve been told this is not “age appropriate” attire but I don’t care. Besides it’s cool and comfortable. I have nice legs from biking/running and don’t feel the need to cover them because of some number like age.

    I don’t ever indicate my age in net postings (except this one) so I don’t get age related comments.

    We are always the same age inside….heard that quote?….Or how about this one: How old would you be if you didn’t know your age? I’d be mature, but not old. Maybe 38? That’s how old I feel after running 3 miles in 43 min.

    Having returned to college at 50 for 2nd degree I actually connected well with young folks, tho’ I ended up giving them love advice ;-). In fact I soaked up their youthful vitality. Liked being around all that energy. I also notice the wave of obesity in young people and the reluctance to take stairs (I always do) over elevators. So in comparison I felt younger than some of the students.

    But, Julie, as a ‘halfway decent” looking 50-something woman, I understand your concerns. Older women aren’t much respected in this society. There are times I’ve felt invisible too in a group of younger folks. And I hate it when young employees ask if I want the senior discount! I have wrinkles, of course, despite botoxing the angry lines between my eyes. But it’s my neck that gives me away. Spending more money on treatments is not my thing tho’. Fighting tell-tell signs of aging is a tiring, expensive, and ultimately losing battle.

    And while I’ll continue to dye my gray hair, I’ve decided that I’ll now express my “youth” with energy, vitality, passion and enthusiasm. An aging face that is illuminated looks younger; an aging body cycling at 18 mph in a team bike kit never looks old. I may not live longer by acting youthful but I’ll feel better during the aging process.

    On a more serious note I have lots of clocks in my house and I feel time tick…tick….ticking…. by. I fear the dark grave where there “none embrace.” For that reason I’ve told my family cremation only! I’d rather go towards light and warmth; not deep and dark. Neither thought is especially appealing though. However when I reach that stage/age, my attitude towards death may be less fear than liberation.

    For the moment I’m going outside, soaking up happy vit D, moving my slightly arthritic limbs AND rejoicing in my aliveness.

    jab

  • Julie

    I guess I must sound like a loser really and I can see how you would think that.

    But I don’t dress “age-appropriate” either. If I feel comfortable and good as I can I wear it—I still wear sundresses and like the way I feel.

    These things in my mind I try to deal with. I can’t just say “go away” and they are gone.

    It has been a lifelong thing with me, it’s the way I was raised (I felt responsible for everything—and was held to a strict standard). It took me a long time just to recognize that all the guilt I had for failing to meet “my responsibilities” was inappropriate or undesirable.

    It’s not easy to change the way my mind works (or doesn’t work). I was sort of brainwashed, actually, an overwhelming importance placed on religion, on being correct and “good” took much of the joy from my life as a child. I always knew that no matter how good “this minute” is—that I needed to be careful because I wasn’t entitled to any slack.

    I was molested as a child and I never told anyone. At the age of 7 I took the responsibility for the actions of an old man who took advantage of me. I did not hate him for it, that seems odd to me sort of, but it’s not like he was defined by that act or that was all he was. He was someone I thought of as a friend, really, not a young friend but I used to help him cut the grass, for example, and I liked then and still do being outside and seeing the garden and yard get neat and trimmed. But the truth is, if I could change one thing about my life that would be it because I was never the same after. All the responsibility and expectations that existed before came to bear with full weight on me the day that happened. Do most kids not tell? He said “don’t tell” and I didn’t. It’s not like he brutalized me, really, it was just I knew a line had been crossed. I felt helpless to stop it but when all was said and done I felt I should have stopped it. That one act has weighed on me my entire life and changed everything. As if it weren’t bad enough BEFORE (I do think of my life still like that -—it was a defining moment—Before and After, sort of like AD and BC) afterward I felt an overwhelming rush of despair—failure. Not being able to talk about it, even if I had I’m not sure what the outcome would have been. Maybe I thought no one would believe me; it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference what I said.

    Anyway—though I don’t expect anyone else to know HOW MUCH that changed my life, afterward I felt a failure and since I had no one to talk to or help my 7-year-old mind figure such a thing out, I never saw it for what it was. From that day forward my goal became not to die because to die would mean retribution. I think I still fear that, a part of me. Maybe what I did or didn’t do that day wasn’t so wrong but the things I did afterward when I gave up in despair that I could be “saved,” I did things I might not have done otherwise had I not felt already “ruined.” For a long time I finally put it out of my head, not forgotten, just like in a box on a high shelf, out of sight but not out of mind. And the devastating thing was that when I finally told someone, I must have been in my late 20′s—he denied it and said he didn’t think it happened. Which felt like a denial of me. I guess everyone worries about recovered memories that are false. This wasn’t false, I remember how he sounded, in ways that no child my age would have known.

    I don’t know why I’m going into all this now other than to say that I had at least 20 years of guilt weighing down on me before I ever “said,” 20 years to internalize how “bad” I was. And even though I’ve “forgiven” myself—you can’t go back and extract all the changes in my mind it caused; it isn’t possible. It’s like mixing strawberry syrup into a glass of milk. Once you pour it in there is no separating it back out.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to feel like you do, free and young as you can be, vibrant. I just take everything so seriously; after that day I knew how serious things could be and there was no redemption or forgiveness or empathy or sharing or understanding.

    I have a hard time being ‘light” but I have accomplished it sometimes. But when things get heavy, life stress or sadness, it seems to multiply like a heavy weight you can’t throw off. You know how you feel when like at the dentist and they take x-rays, sometimes they would put this heavy cover/apron like over you and you felt weighed down. Not weighed down like you couldn’t get up, but something dragging out you to keep you tied down.

    I’m sorry I guess but I won’t erase it—to have gotten into all of this, I just realized how different you are from me. Maybe you’ve had things like that too, I dunno, and maybe you dealt with them better. I guess I make excuses for myself but I don’t know how to take out the bad stuff and let the light flow in, I just mask it, cover it, hide it.

    I have my moments but if there was one thing in this world I could change it would be that day, it robbed me of so much joy—the joy childhood should be—the joy of my children’s childhood I rarely experienced, because I knew I was different from them and in the back of my mind I felt that when I died—I’d be separated from them forever, alone. And maybe its that same thing mixed in my mind now that seems to overwhelm me—the fear of death—of being separated and going to a very bad place while all those I loved would go to heaven. It’s a cloak I can’t throw off. If I sound like I’m making excuses well I can see how it would look that way, seeing from the outside in.

  • Julia

    I don’t think you’re a loser at all. You express beautifully what we go through with the loss of youth and changes in our appearance.

    And as a cancer “survivor” who has lost both breasts and undergone 6 surgeries there have been years when I haven’t felt “light” or energetic. Exercise or lifting anything heavier than a soup can was forbidden between surgeries. I went through menopause and cancer at the same time and when treatment ended and periods ceased I felt old, especially with my scars, fatigue and recreated alien chest.

    I really like your image of the weighted apron. I’ve felt that too. Also separation from others brought on by the stigma of having an illness that many die from. I’m a walking reminder of mortality and people tell me, “You scare me.” I’m the ONE in eight women you read about who get breast cancer despite a clean lifestyle.

    Cancer made me angry for myself and others who suffered worse. So I started to race, walk and bike for the “cure” and later organize events for LiveStrong, I then discovered the benefits of exercise. What it could do for my body and my brain. Exercise brings color to my cheeks much more than any blush. And it makes me feel alive and younger. Having read several excellent books on exercise and the brain I think it can even help rewire deeply grooved negative thought patterns. Exercise was my salvation out of mental and physical pain. I hope you find what works for you.

    We’ve both had our traumas in life and I’m sorry to read about the abuse you suffered.

    I think the question for now is how do I (or we?) choose to spend the rest of “our dashes” on Earth. For me the answer has been to nourish and restore my body with exercise and diet. Then to devote my energy to fundraising and advocating for more cancer research. While it’s a given that all will die, I want to be The Catcher in the Rye and rescue all the young people increasingly being diagnosed with cancer. I’m tired for going to funerals for adolescents and young fathers/mothers. It seems so “unnatural” that their time on Earth is shorter than mine. So my purpose now is to advocate for “more birthdays” as the American Cancer Society puts it.

    As discussed on this website, having a larger purpose outside oneself is also very life-affirming.

  • Julia

    Julie, I’d also like to recommend an excellent book that may offer you solace: Self Compassion by Kristen Neff.

  • Julie

    Julia, thanks for your thoughts and feelings and what’s happened with you. It does sound as though you faced a formidable adversary and you not only survived but in some ways maybe better for it. Not with the loss or change in your anatomy but anatomy doesn’t make us who we are—I think my unhappiness with my own anatomy isn’t my dislike of it—I think considering all my body has held up better than most (or maybe I’m deluded). It’s the feedback/consequences I get from others that makes me dislike my physical me and the me I am inside. I do not know why I give so much weight to what strangers say—they don’t know me so why do I take it so to heart?

    Anyway it must have been hard taking up biking, a fairly strenuous sport if you really get into it, after having been put on low/no activity for the time you were recovering. Nothing to do with the essence of what we are talking of but I’m curious what kind of bike you have? Did you get one of the new lightweight bikes that are so much of an improvement over the heavy things we used to have.

    I remember a bike, my first one, that I got as a child. I’m realizing things about it I never really “knew” at the time. It was white with pink stripes. It was used but re-done so you wouldn’t know that or I never noticed it. My parents gave it to me, but I know now it was mainly my dad. I found out, oddly, how much he cared for me only after he was gone. Just as the bad memories are still there, I have also remembered some good ones about him and me. My mother, even though 30 years or so younger than him, wasn’t much fun mostly. It was my father who taught me how to ride, what side of the street—I still remember that first day while he watched my first venture on the street we lived on. I put things together in my mind, and have a better understanding of what “was.” Now, it makes me like that bike so much more than I did before, eventually it grew too small for me (really I grew too big for it) and I never got another one. But it being used, its funny—I have a good memory—I remember that it was through someone my father knew who fixed it up like new again—and so it makes sense that it was his idea to get it for me, which makes it/the memory more precious. I’m remembering things/times it was just him and me. He did that for me, he thought about it ahead of time, it wasn’t something he bought on a whim in a store. Memories can be good or bad. Or they can be an amalgam of that. Good, sweet memories of someone special, sad because they are gone.

    Do you have someone close to you that you can share your thoughts with? Is there someone special in your life who cheers for you, encourages and reinforces you? If so—good for you, if not—see how far you’ve come anyway without it.

    You came through a trying time of uncertainty to a new time in which you seem to flourish, you deserve recognition for that and so I applaud you for, as the saying goes, making lemonade from lemons.

    I will look into that book you mentioned; I’ve always liked reading. It’s reminded me of how many books there are I want to read and fear I’ll run out of time before I get to all of them. But that’s silly, isn’t it? I mean, either way, if I read them or not—when I finally die I will be just as dead either way and if its true that we leave our body behind (Isn’t it curious—it is to me—that our brain is a physical thing—a presence that has weight and substance and size and shape that will die also with our body (it is my hope and I think it is so) yet our memories have no weight or substance—our memories are ours alone—I guess when we die those too will be gone but they won’t be lying in a grave or saved in an urn for they are invisible things—gossamer wings light as air—wouldn’t it be nice if our good thoughts somehow could take flight with us and leave the bad behind to moulder in the grave with our used-up brain or else, even better, to disappear like vapor—gone forever.). Isn’t it odd that much of what makes us who we are, in total opposition to our physical presence—is our mind which is made up of experiences, thoughts and hopes and dreams and memories are invisible things that only we know. Someone might know, for example, that you faced your surgeries when you did and there is physical evidence/changes of that—but the way it affected you, the things you thought about and feared and hoped for—memories of the pain and the anxiety and the fear are yours alone—no one will ever own them but you. If there were a marketplace (how silly, still the thought comes) for memories we could go browsing at a bookstore (one of my favorite richest things) and pick and choose memories we like, seeing a nice one at a price we could afford and buy it and take it home. It’s nothing we could take out of a bag to show our friends or families—look what I got at Macy’s today! Nothing they could say—oh, I like that, are there any left? No—our memories become ours as things occur for better or worse. So I guess you “added on” to your memory of your surgeries—you wrote an addendum—a nice addition to a not so good memory.

    Life—in the end—is one big long memory. When we die its gone just as our bodies are. But there is no place to bury our memories—they vanish into “thin air.”

  • [...] most of my life—until I was forced to confront it directly (as I wrote about in a previous post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death) and for a time entirely lost my ability to deny my death would happen.  Yet even then my fear of [...]

  • Debora Nehlsen

    It is highly helpful for me. Huge thumbs up for this blog post!

  • rob

    “Though I can imagine there are indeed people who, because of their age, character, or religious beliefs, truly do
    feel this way, I’ve always wondered if that answer hides a denial so deeply seated it cannot be faced by most.”

    I ask these question because I really enjoyed reading you post, and want to know more.

    I am curious about what you mean by character in the above paragraph? I understand religious and age, but character seems similar to a personal understanding of a particular human behavior you have experienced? Can you give an example of that behavior?

    Rob: By “character” here I meant a constitutional lack of fear.

    Alex

  • Florence

    Alex: your words resonate, they will reverberate for years to come. You’re helping me. You’ll continue helping people because of the thoughts you’ve expressed. Thank you so much.

    Florence: You are so welcome.

    Alex

  • [...] that my life was meaningful, and even when I grew seriously ill (as I described in a previous post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death), I was eventually able to work through the resultant complications and turn poison into [...]

  • [...] that my life was meaningful, and even when I grew seriously ill (as I described in a previous post,Overcoming The Fear Of Death), I was eventually able to work through the resultant complications and turn poison into [...]

  • Vollena

    Thank you so much for your article, Alex. Did you have any idea that you would get such a response from your writing an article? I thought your article was enlightening, as I suffer from PTSD also (undiagnosed). Actually, I did not even know that such an ailment existed. I only know that I fear death, and thought that something was desperately wrong with me to have such a fear. It IS comforting to find out that many others feel the same way. And, yes, it is not a subject that comes up in everyday conversations. So, it was more comforting to hear someone talk about their fear so openly, as if maybe I am a little more normal than I had been thinking I was.

    I am now 58 years old, and went through a bout of a cancer scare when I was in my 20′s. I did have a mild case of PTSD then, but maybe 10 years ago, I started losing loved ones right and left. I lost 5 within 3 years, and then was diagnosed with idiopathic neuropathy. Not knowing what was causing neuropathy was terrifying to me. That is when I developed a severe case of PTSD.

    I asked myself this morning what I was so afraid of. My answer was losing control of my life. At the end, none of us have control over the situation, and must give in to whatever awaits us. I read above in a person who responded, (sorry I read so many, I cannot tell you what his name was), but he said that we need to give up ego. For me, this made sense. So, much has helped, but most of all, I know now that it is an ailment. Maybe I should find a doctor to talk to, and try to get help with all these feelings. But, then you said that you never get over these feelings, so what is the use in that? I really want to age gracefully, and I want to die nobly, but this fear is standing in my way of doing either. It is the first time in my life that I feel that I am on a lonesome journey. Maybe it is age, and the older we get we grow alone. But, I don’t want to be alone either. Most days I am fine. Then, out of the blue, it will hit me. I try to reason, I try to meditate, I try to use imagery, and then something triggers the fear and blam! It’s back.

    Thank you for giving me a safe place to go with my fear. Today, I needed you.

  • Anne Tyler

    Vollena—I agree—it is nice to have somewhere to go with your fear. Which has been kind of an issue with me lately because I do think about death a lot. I’m 62 and wondering, fearing. I’m a talker (or a writer) whatever is on my mind I need to get out of my head. Like for example recently I underwent a procedure to FIX my SVT/heart condition (basically my heart would sometimes run like we were in a race) and I was sort of intimidated by the idea, though unlike surgery there is only a minor incision. Anyway, my son drove me to the hospital and left. Which bothered me. Beyond questioning “does he care about me?” (I don’t mean to give the impression that he dropped me at the door—he stayed through the check in etc but when they took me in to get ready really there wasn’t a need for him to be there it would just be less lonely feeling). He works nights and has stuff to do like everybody. Anyway once I was “ready” I was left laying with my thoughts for about an hour or so until show time. Time for the mind to wander. And what I thought about was—I remember when my mother passed away—in the hospital for cancer treatment—I had made the trip to see her many times—but she didn’t survive the treatment actually. Anyway I went to stay with her and she was out of it—there was no way to have a discussion with her. She was already in that “other place” that I guess some go through on the way to whatever comes after. I stayed with her and told her it was okay to let go. I watched her breathe and each time I thought it might be the last—they came more slowly and of course eventually it was her last. I sat with her for a time to just sort of switch over from being there to saying goodbye. My mother and I had a somewhat stormy history but the past 5 years or so had been okay to well I guess. However conflicted I felt about her sometimes it was hard as heck to leave—to let go—to turn her over to someone else. After a while I went into her room (she had been in another room—not sure why—they have delivery rooms maybe it was a death room? Lol but not lol. Anyway I went into her room and left her there in that room for whoever (I hate the word mortician) to come and take her back to her home town about an hour away. It took me quite a while to pack her things and carry them down and I have to say it was one of the loneliest feelings in the whole world. It was cold outside and I felt cold inside too. Anyway it was hard leaving her there. And that’s what came to mind while I was waiting before the procedure. I was thinking that my son left me but he would be back soon enough/the next day to take me home. But I was thinking that there would probably be a repeat of sorts of the leaving of my mother. Only this time I would be then one being left. And it was just depressing and scary really and I wanted to just say “hey I’m going home” which I am glad I didn’t. But—back to what you were saying about a place to go with our fears, etc. I have repressed my feelings in the past growing up—that’s the way our family was. But now I like to get them outside of me—whatever I’m thinking is rarely a secret to anyone—anything that matters anyway. And so later on that fear—I wanted to explain that fear to my son—not to make him feel guilty for leaving me—but I wanted to say “this is where I am emotionally, I’m afraid.” It was embarrassing really to say such a thing; after all the parent is supposed to be there for the child—be strong. Well my son is 43 but he’s still my child. So I wrote him a note about that feeling and other things, not all bummers but stuff too about my hopes for him. Anyway, I just wanted to get those feelings out and to share them and make them hopefully less “cold” again like I felt after my mom died. Anyway, ever since I did that he stopped calling me or writing me and now I’m afraid I shouldn’t have GONE THERE with my thoughts about death. But where do you take them? Even here yes I can say it and I do appreciate it. But for something so moving, so intense, shouldn’t we be able to say to someone who cares? I don’t mean to create a scene and crying and so forth, but just to say our fears? Maybe not—I suppose there might be other reasons I haven’t heard from him but its the longest we’ve ever gone and I fear I went too far. So I’m torn—am I supposed to consider their feelings (of course I’m his mom) but when is it enough to say NOW I need help, I’m weak and I’m scared? I guess I hoped he would say “I know, Mom” or “don’t worry” something to acknowledge my fears and let me know he heard me and instead there’s nothing and that has created a whole new lonely feeling I’m not dealing with well. So yes, I need someplace to come and say what I just did and I do appreciate the open forum and the chance to share thoughts and hopes and fears and resolutions. Thank you, Alex, for allowing me to visit.

  • Jackie

    Vollena:

    DO see a therapist, please. It will not cure the fact we are all going to die, but it will help with the loneliness of it and help you focus on what’s so great about being alive, anyway. “Live well, it’s the best revenge”—some rabbi is supposed to have said that. Truth is, sometimes we need help with that.

    Best wishes,
    Jackie

  • Anne Tyler

    Jackie—I’ve been seeing a therapist for years. Also a psychiatrist for chronic depression. Things are piling up and neither the medication or the therapy are helping. It feels overwhelming—most of the time I’m just trying to survive. Maybe if/when spring and summer arrive it will revive me too. I love those times—nature can be savage but it can also be soothing. Time to reconnect with my avian friends, the squirrels and so forth. Just trying to make it till then I guess. Thanks for your suggestions though. Sometimes living, much less living well, though, seems an insurmountable task. Joy—I have felt it in the past—and would like to again. I know it exists but I cannot remember what it feels like or how to get there.

  • Janice

    “If only I could. Once a delusion has been shattered, I’ve found there’s no going back. And even if there were, at some point I’m certain to be re-confronted with a denial-eradicating sickness or injury. Everyone will. Depending on your current life stage this might not seem like a pressing issue. But shouldn’t it be? An experience like mine could become yours at any moment. And even more desirable than being able to die peacefully is being able to live fearlessly.”

    Hi Alex,
    I’m an RN, spent many years caring for terminally ill adults, and worked OB several years as well, at times necessitating assisting mothers giving birth to dead or dying babies. I loved my job and I’ve always felt God called me to my profession. Even though I thought I had an acceptance of my own future death—after all, I had helped others pass on or comforted families as their loved ones died. About 4 years ago, I had a similar experience to yours—I picked up h. pylori in Mexico, when I returned, I never imagined I had a stomach infection acquired there, as we are always careful to eat only cooked food and bottled water; however I didn’t think about the dust storm in the poor section that has innumerable outhouses; I remember tasting grit in my food in retrospect. After the trip, I would eat a small meal and immediately have extreme bloating in my upper abdomen, nausea and dull pain in my back, on the left side just behind the stomach. I began to research and suspected h. pylori, so I went to the gastroenterologist and he wanted to put me on Prilosec, but he said if I really wanted him to take a look he would leave it up to me, although he thought the bloating would resolve with the med. I always say better safe than sorry, so I opted for the endoscopy. He said my stomach looked good, but it did culture out as h. pylori. He put me on the 2 strong antibiotics & Prilosec for 18 days. On the 12th day, I thought I was having a heart attack, was admitted to the small town hospital where I was NPO for the first day until tests were done, then clear liquids the next day; all the time still taking the antibiotics. I developed diarrhea from the antibiotics and was becoming dehydrated; the house MD wanted to give me morphine for the pain & my extreme anxiety. I panicked and left AMA (against medical advice), went to the metroplex and spent the night in the waiting room of ER in the floor doubled over with stomach pain, no fluids, with raging diarrhea. Every time I would pass liquid stool, I would almost lose consciousness, and I felt my heart triple beating. I could not get the charge nurse to do an EKG on me, the ER was full, it was a Fri night; I told her I was an RN, she told me if I passed out, she knew CPR. 8 hrs later, the ER MD saw me, immediately started IV fluids, and I started improving. She ran tests which only showed dehydration, and told me the antibiotics were the cause of my severe abdominal pain, to stop them, and treat the diarrhea with the BRAT diet. I recovered, but my “delusion” that I could not really die was shattered as well as yours! Being accustomed to recognizing medical crises and intervening, contacting the doctor, etc., and yet the nurse in me could not save me; I felt they could have inadvertently let me die. Never again would the world look the same. Things that used to be important to me seem so superficial. I look at the young people around me, and I think, they do not have a concept of their own mortality. They are blissfully ignorant. Even though I truly believe there is life after death; that I am destined for heaven because Jesus Christ lives in me, I wonder if it is the instinct to live. The little worry in the back of your mind is always there. I used to laugh to say it was a curse to be a nurse—I don’t laugh any more; having the medical knowledge of what is happening in your body is scary. I have often wondered how physicians face death once they realize their mortality. Thank you for writing this article!

    My mother developed a neurological disease (PSP) that is progressively robbing her of speech, vision, motor skills. She has always been independent, a fighter, strong-willed. My husband and I moved her to a nursing home in our town so I can oversee her care. She has had extreme anxiety over the loss of communication and loss of the ability to walk, often screaming & swinging at me when I cannot understand her. It has broken my heart to see her deteriorate & not be able to console her. Seeing your parents leave this life also makes you realize hey, that means I’m next! I began to have panic attacks, which did not scare me, because I knew what they were, but they began to take over my life and consume me anyway. I descended into a pit of hell; depression and fear disabled me! My MD put me on Lexapro which stopped the panic attacks for a month; I suppose now I’ve become used to it, because the panic attacks have reoccurred twice in the 2nd & 3rd months. I even became afraid I was going crazy which caused me to down-spiral. After reading your article, I immediately felt better; just to put a name on it—PTSD and realize the fight/flight is in response to perceived danger. I saw a news report a couple of weeks ago about a fireman that cannot get over what he saw while working the twin tower tragedy. He began to cry when talking about it; and he said there were men dying for our country every day on the battlefield, and yet people are walking around like nothing is happening, self-absorbed in their own little world. I myself look at my children, and I’m glad they are ignorant of their mortality. I see them playing out the same ambitions to acquire the house, family, etc that I was pursuing at their age. I will never be the same. I read Ecclesiastes after my “enlightenment”; now I truly believe King Solomon had realized his mortality—”Vanity vanity, everything is vanity.” I said in my heart, “As it happens to the fool, it also happens to me… For there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, Since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come. And how does a wise man die? As the fool!” “For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust.” He talks about all the great things he has done in his life, calls them vanity, also denounces injustices he has seen in his lifetime. At the end of Ecclesiastes, Solomon comes to this conclusion: “Here is what I have seen: It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage.” Apparently he made peace with the fact that he would eventually die. That is what I’m striving to accomplish; to be able to enjoy the good of my labor that God’s given me. Thank you so much for helping me realize I’m not going crazy. I will see a psychologist this week who does behavioral therapy modification; I’m in hopes she can help me get off the Lexapro and control the panic attacks. The therapy has a much higher rate of success than medication according to my research. I don’t want to ruin my remaining days worrying about what is coming. Wow what a waste of the time I have left; but like you Alex, “if only I could”—how do I get there?

    Blessings on all of your journeys getting there—looks like we are not alone after all.

    Janice: I’m so glad you found my article helpful. You’re definitely not crazy. Just far more emotionally aware of your own mortality than you ever wanted to be. Time itself will help you, I think. And therapy is a great idea. In my upcoming book, I talk about this topic as well. I hope you’ll find it helpful, too.

    Alex

  • Janice

    Thank you, Alex. I plan to explore your website, and am so glad that I found it. I will post how the therapy goes. I’m afraid to get off the Lexapro until I start it; I do not want to go back to that pit I was in. I know as I age I am going to have crises. I have to prepare now in order to function later. You mentioned needing proof of life after death in order to believe. Have you ever just talked to God & asked Him to reveal Himself to you and show you the truth? That’s what I did at age 18 after my atheist dad told me the Bible was a fairy tale. I believed him; but after about 6 weeks I asked God if you do exist, please let me know. Immediately I felt such a warm peace & presence wash over me. I told Him, I want to know the truth, there are so many religions out there. I don’t want to give my life to the wrong Person. I have felt His presence many times throughout my life. I know the universe is endless; mind boggling but true although I’ve never had to go there to believe it. I know the air I walk through & breathe is saturated with signals of all types although I cannot see them. I know there are sounds & colors I cannot see. The birth of a new baby is a miracle; I never got over the awe of seeing a new human being enter the world. It takes more faith for me to believe there is no God & everything was soup thrown up in the air, blown up, and we all just happened than to believe there is a Creator artist behind it all. Just the way a body functions, the complexity, the delicate balance, the beauty—all of it teaches that there is a God. Keep seeking; you will find Him if you seek Him with your whole heart.

    Thank you again, I had the best day I’ve had since January. I bet the psych wards are full of people that are just afraid of dying. I don’t plan to be one of them, thanks for the encouragement!

    blessings, Janice

  • Timothy Kasten

    I am living with prostate cancer after surgery and radiation. I am also a Buddhist practitioner of many years. The fear I experienced while waiting for PSA results together with the fragile hope that the numbers might indicate successful treatment made me feel so lonely that it was as if I had already died. I appreciated your description of the challenge a Buddhist faces to reconcile spiritual ideals of fearlessness and equanimity with undeniable terror. I have gone on living longer than I expected. One of the realizations that has given me comfort is the knowledge of how ordinary my situation is. Compassion for others is not just a sympathetic feeling; it is an antidote to one’s own fear. When I was suffering from panic attacks prior to radiation, a therapist encouraged me to hold myself in my own arms as if I was my own child. As trite as it may sound, tenderness towards oneself, particularly if one has failed to live up to a heroic ideal, is essential. Warm greetings and best wishes to all who may be afraid. You are definitely not alone.

    Timothy: Self-compassion is indeed crucial and can be a great source of self-generated strength, I heartily agree.

    Alex

  • Julia

    Thanks for sharing your response to cancer treatment. I too struggled with overwhelming fear during my treatment for breast cancer. I had previously been very healthy and had little contact with medical environments. After insensitive treatment by practitioners, I quickly developed a phobia of hospitals, medical equipment and needles. Even the sight of a blood pressure machine now makes me quiver. Was told by caregivers I was acting like “a baby.” If only I had been treated with the care children receive at pediatric hospitals. Instead I was jabbed repeatedly and wheeled into tests with no explanation. I started to see myself as a “difficult patient” and lost compassion for myself. Was told my fear response wasn’t “normal.” Even now in remission I still tremble at the thought of my yearly oncology check-up. I get physically ill, have nightmares and my usually normal BP soars. Am interested in developing self-compassion for my physical and mental suffering related to cancer experience. I like the image of holding myself in my arms. Not trite at all. Thanks!

  • Jessica

    I am working on my doctoral degree in counseling & I am currently writing a paper on grief associated with the fear of death. I came across this article & thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I wanted to let you know when I read this portion…….”But, second, for me to become convinced that life is eternal (“there is no beginning called birth or ending called death”), I must have an experience that proves it to me beyond a shadow of a doubt. I need to know it the way I know gravity is real. I must confess I can’t today even conceive of what that experience could be.” I have to tell you that you should consider reading the bible… I am not a religious fanatic, I am just a lost as anyone else could be; however, I do know what the truth is and you can find that by reading the book of acts. (Specifically, Acts 2:38).

  • Leslie

    I’ve enjoyed seeing the long and articulate conversation here.

    Before the birth of my first child, when I was about 6 months pregnant, a coworker of my husband was involved in a car accident when she was 9 months pregnant. The mother lived, the baby died. Although I did not know her, this incident filled me with fear and dread for the life of my child who was yet to be born. It was like a whisper that never went away.

    When my son was born, he had several birth defects, all of which could be fixed surgically. He had his first surgery at 6 weeks of age. When he was delivered back into the recovery room, he had a blue tinge to his face. He was sleeping heavily. The staff wanted to send us home after 4 hours but he had not woken up. I refused to go. More hours passed and still he did not wake. The staff were pestering me to leave so they could have the room. I called my mother to come and be with me because I didn’t feel I could stand up to them alone and I believed my child was in danger. I asked for the surgeon or anesthesiologist to come. The staff did nothing. More hours passed and still he slept. It had now been more than 8 hours since he’d eaten—finally a nurse really looked at him and went to get a doctor. He woke about an hour after that.

    I took him and a whole new bunch of fears home with me. He still had 5 more surgeries to go and at every one of them it seemed to me we were potentially facing death. I knew my fear for him was overwhelming and unhelpful. I needed to do something about it before it ruined his life.

    Like many Americans, my family was very disconnected from the reality of death. My first recollection of a funeral was being told by my father that I was not allowed to cry. I did not know how people handled the death of a loved one. I did not know how they faced their own death. I decided I needed to learn.

    When my son was 6 months old, I began to volunteer at a local hospice. I helped out on the hospital floor every other Saturday night. I met people who, at the end of their lives, still saw each day as an opportunity and adventure. I met people who lived with deep regret over the hurt they had caused their family. I saw children die with the support of family and die all alone.

    I rarely saw people more than a few times because most people on the floor were in the final stages of dying. After a few years of this, I felt I could engage more fully with people who were dying. I moved to home care where I could be with a client for months at a time. I had 3 clients, one of whom I grew to know quite well.

    This experience was invaluable in helping me overcome the cultural conditioning I’d grown up with. Not only did it demystify the experience of dying, but it made me think of it more and more. It became a normal part of life.

    I was still fearful when my son had surgery and had a hard time dealing with that fear. Then I heard a story from a mom at my church about her experience with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.

    I hated that story. I could never understand how God could ask for the life of a child, or how Abraham could agree to kill his son. It made no sense.

    The mother at my church had a child who had become very sick. She was with him every day at the hospital, always praying. He got sicker and sicker, and they prayed harder. Finally they were told there was nothing more that could be done—and when she went to pray, she found she could pray no more. All she could do was accept.

    She saw the story of Abraham not as a father capitulating to a terrible demand, but as a father at the moment of accepting that he does not own his child, cannot truly protect his child—the child belonged to God. This helped me tremendously.

    Oh how powerful are the stories we tell and the role models we find for ourselves—or become for others.

    Leslie: I found this a wonderfully moving comment. I think the best tool we have for managing our foreknowledge of death is actually reasoned denial—until, due to circumstances, we are no longer able to deny our mortality, and then acceptance does indeed become the key. Acceptance is so powerful—and often so difficult—that I devote an entire chapter to it in my new book, The Undefeated Mind.

    Alex

  • Julia

    Exciting to hear about your book. When will it be available?

    Julia: November 6. You can pre-order it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

    Alex

  • Satyajit

    Interesting writing. I read the sentence “Be alert and go beyond death” by Buddha. It took me years to understand this.

    Ever since I was 18 I used to think of death and many times I have tried to visualize it.

    I have had a certain spiritual transformation that made me free of the fear of death. In fact it is not the physical death that we are afraid of. Every moment we die partially. We are worried about the death of “I.”

  • Perla

    For the first time I feel that someone has expressed my deepest thoughts…no one understands this fear of mine…and I’m too ashamed to speak of it and people get uncomfortable when I mention this…so thank you for for helping me accept my fear and making me feel at ease with the knowledge that I am not alone.

  • jenny eckersley

    Alex and everyone,
    I have been frightened of dying since I don’t know when. The absolute panic that engulfs me when I think beyond how will I die, to the bit about not being here anymore forever, is so terrifying that I cannot believe in its reality. But I know that it is. I’m 66 now, and every day I grow older and nearer to dying, my joy of life fades even more. Activities distract, but not permanently. It is like a continuing battle that I can never win. I have really found some comfort in reading these posts, and although the fear is always there, I know I am not alone with it.

    Maybe we should have groups for people with this fear, so we can hold hands and share it.

  • Julia

    Same here. And this is MY group. Thanks ya’ll.

    I also ruminate on the death of others like my dear mother who just turned 80. Or friends who are living with cancer like myself. Every time I’m around my mom I almost break down thinking about her death. I don’t want to ruminate on this but my father and both in-laws are dead. My mom is all my husband and I have left in terms of parents. We’ll be (middle-aged) “orphans” when she’s gone.

  • Mary

    Wow, I found this article last night and I’ve been reading it and the wonderful, insightful comments for hours! I feel like so many of you have managed to verbalize what I never could. When I was young, I was fearless (well I’m STILL young, I’m 30!) but as I got older, into adolescence, my aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. We are a very close family, but our parents kept it quiet as to how ill she actually was. I saw her a week before she died, (not that I knew she was dying) and even though she was sitting up, chatting and smiling, I knew she was going do to die. When she did, even though I knew it, I went into shock. I developed panic attacks and agoraphobia, stopped leaving the house. I put my poor parents, (mother especially, through hell). I ended up being put into intense therapy which, although slow, helped me get my life back. I went to uni, got a degree, got a wonderful job traveling the world, a great boyfriend and life was good. Until I came home from work one day and my mother quietly told me that she’d “found a lump.” Of course it was breast cancer; she received treatment and although the doctors told her she was doing great and there was no more cancer in her body, we found out on a Friday that it had spread to her liver despite the chemo and she was dead the following Tuesday. We did talk of death and she never once told anyone that she was afraid. She had such great faith. Even when the priest came to give her last rites, she was smiling and happy because she was convinced she was moving onto something better.

    That was several years ago, but for some reason my life and anxiety in the past year seems to have imploded again. I’ve lost 3 close people to me, 2 aunts and my grandmother and I am now preoccupied with illness and death. I constantly check myself for lumps and symptoms. I’m convinced I have some kind of cancer and am too scared to go to the doctor in case I’m proven right. I’ve always been a hypochondriac—I can’t deny it—but now I’m sticking a torch in my mouth to look for signs of oral cancer (I’ve never drunk or smoked), I check my skin meticulously for moles, I feel my glands constantly… and it seems like every morning now I’m waking up with a sense of dread and sort of “what’s the point? I’m dying anyway!” It’s a humbling feeling; today is a beautiful day and yet I can’t see the joy in it as I used to because all I can think is “I’m dying.” And I don’t even know what I’m afraid of. Is it the process of dying? Being told I only have months/weeks left and my condition will inevitably deteriorate is numbing to me. And the thought of being nothing “forever” is too big for my brain to comprehend. I can’t understand it. Thought I believe it was Mark Twain who said “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me.” That sometimes helps! I could go on and on but there’s too much to say. :)

    Mary: There definitely is a lot more to say on this topic, so much so that I dedicated an entire chapter—the last one—of my upcoming book The Undefeated Mind to it. You might find it helpful.

    Alex

  • Julia

    As a 5-year breast cancer “survivor” (dislike word) I can relate. I’m an extreme hypochondriac who lives in fear although my oncologist frequently says, “Living in fear is no way to live.”

    He’s right, of course, but that’s easier said than done.

    My oncologist won’t order body scans—and I’m not sure I really want them—but if cancer returns and I just have a few days to live, I’d like to know that as well! He says scans can create false positives leading to more tests and fear in anxious patients. So I live daily with the thought I might have cancer. Sigh!

    For me as a previously healthy, fit woman my problem is fear —and anger—over not being in CONTROL of anything, especially my health. That’s worse than my fear of dying or death.

    So many health articles this month offer the “Anti-Cancer Diet and Exercise Plan.” If only it was so easy to prevent cancer; obviously it’s not. I followed that plan my entire life and was still diagnosed. Unfair! Control is just an illusion. I believe as the great Viktor Frankl wrote that we can only control our response to events. A small comfort. In medical situations I’m overwhelmed and feel very out of control. Weepy not brave and peaceful like your family.

    Meanwhile, I’ve developed severe reflux, gastritis, IBS, mostly from worrying, says my doctor. Of course, I’m convinced it’s stomach cancer. I demand tests and then recoil from them. I also check my skin and body constantly for signs of cancer recurrence.

    Thanks for your articulate post. I’m sorry for your family losses to breast cancer. It’s a beastly disease. I’m very much looking forward to Alex’s book and what he has to say on this topic! May his writings offer solace to us both.

    Be well,
    Julia

  • Maya

    I developed an acute phobia of death starting at the age of 6 years old; it was surprisingly prompted by the movie “Little Mermaid 2,” where the evil sister of Ursula is frozen in a block of ice and tumbles to her death in a profound hole. It was at that moment, for whatever reason, that the idea of death clicked in my head. It was something that was dark, inescapable, and dehumanizing. I continued to fear death throughout my childhood. Many nights I would wake up screaming, unable to sleep without being consumed by the knowledge that death awaits. I no longer have as severe panic attacks, but I have never been able to get over my fear of death. It is not even a fear based on landing in eternal damnation, or having my existence turn into complete nothingness: its the fear of the largest unknown, which hints at the question of why are we here, why is ANYTHING here, truly. And it scares me, because of how much I don’t understand. And how I fear knowing the truth. I don’t think I will ever become “comfortable” with the knowledge of my death (which I don’t think anybody is able to) but find some comfort in knowing that it is totally and completely out of my control. And because of that, to fear something that I cannot change is completely in vain.

  • Geeske

    “No guilt in life, no fear in Death,
    This is the power of Christ in me
    From life’s first cry, to final breath
    Jesus commands my destiny”

    I find this a very beautiful and powerful hymn. Though I don’t want to leave the earth right now, and I do have some fear of death, I know where I’m going, that Jesus will help me through the process and that when I go, it’s the time God has chosen for me to go. And that the place where I will be is infinitely better.

  • Anne

    I just finished this book two days ago, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. Like most I’ve read lately it is non-fiction, about her story and her family’s story.

    I have to say the ending it took me totally off-guard because it was like the words were from a part of deep inside my mind. It was sort of the deja vu feeling you get sometimes.

    The whole book is about the lifetime of a family marred by drinking too much and being crazy among other things. They are good people but they are misunderstood by just about everyone, strangers and family (and me) alike.

    The mother is a totally mentally screwed up lady who indulges way too much in alcohol and other mind altering substances. The entire family though is complex in its simplicity. I liked the father a lot and wished mine could have been more like him: open with his feelings and demonstrative with his love.

    I found myself disliking the mother very much for her self-absorbed life, her indifference and even cruelty the whole while pretending to love her children. The rest of the family consists of their two daughters and a real bitch of a grandmother basically.

    Everything is not as easy as all that and you get a chance to see inside what made the people do the things they did.

    I won’t go into the facts and causes for their screwy lives—you’d have to read the book to know. It’s just sad that there can be so much pain inside that no one ever shared and no one knew the answers WHY. Ultimately, I wasn’t giving the mother the credit she deserved.

    But what moved me about the book, what really got to me was the last paragraph, for the author was expressing how she envisioned life might end, what comes afterward. Her father is dying and she misses the way it was. Back then he was her hero. But it gets her wondering about what will happen to him when he dies, what will it be like for him.

    I cried when I read the very last because it’s what I’d like to believe and really hope it is the way things are.

    This is the end of the book in which it seems that she and I have thought the same things but she has written them down:

    QUOTE:

    “I’m thinking of the cool tunnel of white light the spirit might fly into at death, or so some have reported after coming back from various car wrecks and heart failures and drownings, courtesy of defib paddles and electricity…Maybe such reports are just death’s neurological fireworks, the brains last light show. If so, that’s a lie I can live with.

    Still, the image pleases me enough: to slip from the body’s tight container and into some luminous womb, gliding there without effort till the distant shapes grow brighter and more familiar, till all your beloveds hover before you, their lit arms held out in welcome.”

    END OF QUOTE

    That’s the same as what I’ve wondered about and hoped for. To be welcomed “home” by those I loved.

    If it really is like this, I would not be afraid.

    This lady’s last two paragraphs of the whole book just blew me away and touched me very deeply.

  • jenny eckersley

    Geeske,

    I find your thoughts compelling, but alien to me.

    What if I don’t believe in God, Jesus Christ or the afterlife? Not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t?

    There is no doubting the beauty of the words in your hymn, but at the end of the day, for me, they are only words.

  • Bevan

    All I can offer the author is this: Ayahuasca.

  • peter s.

    I have recently become overwhelmed by the thoughts of death, so much in fact that it is crippling my day-to-day struggles. I find myself on the verge of tears at any moment trying to keep from crying in front of my three children. I feel completely lost and alone with my thoughts even though I have my wife and family who are very supportive. However how can anyone tell me that death is something we should just accept. I find myself liking being sad because it seems to slow down time. I find myself awake at night not being able to sleep because of my overwhelming fear of never loving, holding, feeling, seeing my babies or family again. I find myself staring at my babies at night not wanting to miss a anything. Everything else besides being with them seems meaningless. I don’t want to rationalize death because there is no rational thought for why it’s ok.

    Peter S.: You sound depressed. I would strongly encourage you to seek out professional help.

    Alex

  • jenny eckersley

    PETER,
    YOU ARE SO NOT ALONE WITH THIS. MANY PEOPLE CHOOSE NOT TO THINK ABOUT DEATH, AND LIVE THEIR LIVES IN DENIAL, EXCEPT THOSE WHO HAVE A FAITH WHICH SUSTAINS THEM. MANY OF US DO NOT HAVE THIS FAITH, AND THE THOUGHT OF OUR EVENTUAL NON-EXISTENCE IS TERRIFYING. SHARING WITH OTHER PEOPLE HELPS, BUT IT DOES NOT TAKE THE FEAR AWAY.

    I HAVE FOUND THE CONCEPT OF “MINDFULNESS” HELPFUL WHEN YOU FOCUS ON THE DAILY MINUTIAE OF LIFE, AND THE ENJOYMENT OF SMALL THINGS.

    Jenny: Thank you so much for offering such encouraging words to a fellow blog reader. Next time, though, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind avoiding the use of all-capitals. ;)

    Alex

  • Bevan

    Yes, mindfulness. And to see the fear lies purely in the domain of thought and concept, to discover there is a way of being with the world where thought and so fear don’t hold sway. It’s only nothingness from the perspective of everyday self that terrifies, but there are other perspectives from which look out upon the world. It can be a bit like describing water to a fish, but again I’ll suggest a healthy dose of ayahuasca, or 40-50 mg vaporized DMT if you think these are only words.

    Also, the reality of death, or at least one of them, starts to loose its horror when one is around it more. Having worked in palliative care I can say that is has come to be less dramatic and seemingly more “natural” the more I’ve been exposed to it. Not to say peoples’ fear in the face of it doesn’t sometimes trigger what residual fear is left in me, but on the whole I think it is the psychological and social denial of death that turn it into the boogieman it can become.

    Either way, the path through it is just that, THROUGH it. It can’t be healthily avoided, but there is an other side one can come out at, as many inspiring peoples’ lives attest to. Buddhism teaches that the way through fear and pain is through going into it, a proper 180 reorientation from what is our habit. This is my suggestion, keep exploring the issue and press on with as much courage as you can muster. If you think my suggestions of entheogenics is a bit left field, google yourself to the Johns Hopkins end-of-life studies involving psilocybin mushroom. You’re a long way from having exhausted your options; cause to keep some optimism I think.

  • Barbara

    Peter, I’m sorry you are obviously suffering. I wish I had the answer. Your words resonate with me; I feel your pain maybe because my own is so acute.

    Because big changes are on the way for me and I’m not ready. My world and the people in are all turned upside down/inside out. I have no resources with which to fight either emotionally or physically/financially.

    There are so many changes ahead it overwhelms me how I will manage to do it all. I have to leave a lot behind, there won’t be room for it all. I have collected things throughout life—memories of other times and other people.

    I will lose this garden where everything is familiar (except the weeds) because I put it there. Each rose, every bush and every tree I will leave behind. No one will know or remember each of the little puppy souls asleep in their final resting place. No one will keep the weeds away and their place will fall into disrepair; should I remove the markers with their names? There are arguments for and against. Might it not be better if no one knows they are there?

    Next spring I will not be here to witness the little wren who returns faithfully every year and fills the garden with song. No one will fill the bird feeders or fill the fountains they drink from. I will not be here to see the flowers come alive for one more summer.

    I have to somehow get myself together enough to find good homes for the pets I have; I can’t take them all with me.

    Finances aside, I have been afraid here in this house since it was broken into 3 summers ago. I have this nightmare in my mind of an intruder who finds his way inside some night and slashes me to death no matter how much I beg or plead and he will be the last person I see on earth. I can’t decide if this is a trick of my mind or a vision of what’s to come.

    Either way, somehow, it’s time to leave.

    There is no one who cares really. I’ve become a burden to my children who once looked up to me; I add nothing positive to their lives. I don’t blame them, I’m kind of tired of me too.

    We all have to go someday but this way is not what I want. The first thoughts I have each morning are ones of loss and sadness and grief for yesterday. Every day feels like just another dress rehearsal for dying.

  • peter s.

    Of course I sound depressed; why shouldn’t I. death is nothing to be happy about. We are taught as young children to rationalize things, those things we can change the outcome to. I will never be able to change this outcome. Seeking professional help leads to an attempt of rationalization of an unrational situation. I don’t let it affect my family; only me when I am alone. This fear has changed my life. I am not in a rush as much to do meaningless things. I take more time to appreciate moments with my family. I find myself not caring about trivial things we fill our lives with, new cars, phones electronics, etc. Although I am petrified of death and cry often when alone at the thought of not being able to do things most take for granted.

  • Anne

    I feel sympathy for you, Peter. I too am afraid of dying so much so that I cannot live.

    This might sound silly to you but it’s not to me. There was nobody to tell back then. I know you can’t change it for me but I need to tell somebody the truth anyway. It’s been there in my mind all this time and caused me lots of problems.

    I tried to think it was a dream and I didn’t really do it. I asked another girl at school if she ever had dreams that she thought were real for a while and she said no. I so needed her to tell me she did too. So I could believe MAYBE.

    When I was 7 a man who lived next door to me molested me. He did not hurt me physically but mentally and spiritually that day my life changed forever and there is no going back.

    He said not to tell anyone and I didn’t. But I knew that because of what I did the I would go to hell for eternity. And I cried because who could I tell that could make it better?

    I was crying one night at bedtime and my father asked me why and I told him because I’m going to “go down to the devil.” And he told me no I wasn’t going there. And I said how do you know? And he said because you’re not that bad. And how could I tell him that yes I was that bad.

    I cried because I knew I was going to be separated from my family forever. I knew they would all go to heaven while I spent eternity in hell. DON’T LEAVE ME, that’s what I was thinking then and I’m thinking now I want to scream please don’t leave me.

    I’m afraid. My sons and I used to be really close but not anymore. They don’t understand; how can I tell them? Now in my house I’m afraid and I’m scared and I’m lonely. There’s no one that can help me. I don’t want to be separated from my family forever but I can feel the cold creeping into my body. DEATH. I don’t want to be buried, I don’t want to be in the dark, I don’t want to be cold. I don’t want bugs and worms to crawl over me and I can’t get away.

    I’m so scared I might look older but inside I’m still that little girl and not even my daddy can save me.

    I don’t want to be separated forever from the pets and the people I love.

    I’m not the same as everybody else. I cannot stand the pain another day but I must. But eventually I will die and the thing I have feared my entire life will be real and I cannot take anyone with me. I don’t want to be alone.

  • Jackie

    Peter,

    I am sure you are very brave and resourceful to keep it all to yourself. But what do you think, are you succeeding? If yes, you are either a stupendous actor or have a family which isn’t all that perceptive, or you spend very little time with them. Or a combination.

    But I think it’s much more likely they feel/know you are suffering, AND you are not letting them share/help/support you. And they may feel very helpless and unhappy about that.

    I get a sense of your not wanting therapy because it would amount to admitting “failure”—a common fear. Or you think it cannot help anyway because it is “just a rationalization.” I am sorry, pulling ourselves out of a sinkhole by our bootstraps has a pretty low success rate. I have tried it myself. Sometimes a disinterested but compassionate stranger who is paid for it is the only one who can help us use our strength the right way when we are too miserable to remember how.

    I am sorry if this comes across too snappish. Depression must be seen as the dangerous disease it is, not just a mood swing or two, and therapy cannot be dismissed out of hand without even trying it. Or do you set your broken bones at home, too?

    At any rate, may the road rise to meet you. Take care.

    Jackie

  • Bevan

    “Seeking professional help leads to an attempt of rationalization of an unrational situation.”

    Pete, I agree to some extent that the inevitability/feat of death is often “rationalised” away. For example, the oft heard refrain that “we all die anyway,” etc. I’ve always thought rather trite, that the person expressing the idea has not really ever faced up the the inevitability of death. I think a crisis no dissimilar to yours is a necessary step for anyone able to meaningfully claim to be okay with death.

    But let me disagree with your idea that death is in any way an unrational situation. There is a very real and deeply felt way of seeing death as a most necessary correlate to life, like one side of a coin necessitating the other. At least to acknowledge that there is even one person living who has a clear-eyed and equanimitous view of death, then that should be hope that your current perspective might not be the inviolable truth of the matter.

    When you see the death of a flower, or a mosquito, does it strike you as irrational? Does the horror of nonexistence after your death apply equally to the time before your birth? I think it hard to claim an incapacitating fear of the idea (and that’s all it is) is rational, and that attempts to dislodge it are childlike.

  • Anne

    I’m not sure who you are talking to, Jackie. I guess you could be talking to either one of us (Peter or myself). I can of course answer only for myself.

    My family thought “therapy” was a silly waste of time and money. When I was 16 I finally tried telling my family that something was wrong with me and I said I wanted to talk to somebody. I paid for it myself with the money I made working after school. And every time I went that night might father would put me down for it and they said I just had too much free time and I needed more work to do. My father was 54 when I was born and his life growing up consisted mostly of work and so that was his answer to everything. He did fill his life with work so he wasn’t a hypocrite. He was old so I forgive him for not sensing something was wrong. But not my mother. She was much younger than my father. She was 27 when I was born and though she had a hard life growing up she had been working in hospitals for years and studying to be a LPN so she should have known because there were visible signs of my turmoil. I won’t go into what they were, but I remember my mother telling me that I was not the kind of person people would be drawn to so anyone who befriended me I should go along and not make demands. That’s what I was raised to be: compliant and obedient. So throughout my life I have been compliant. I seemed to draw sick or deviant or cruel people to me and I tried to “get along.” I put up with things I shouldn’t have. I’m divorced now and alone as far as a partner to share life with. My last attempt was a horrible disaster. The police became involved on 2 different occasions and the neighbors were gossiping happily among themselves. My neighbor told the police I had mental problems (a “friend” betrayed me and told her) and so it seemed to me they doubted what I said he had done. Nothing happened to him because he had a lawyer who said he would find my records with psychiatrists and so I just gave up but he’s gone from me now. The last part of me left hoping for someone to be with was finished. I’m too screwed up to be involved with anyone. I have spent most of my adult years in therapy of one form or another including many hospitalizations, including ECT therapy, and medications. Some were helpful in the short term. When I was 30 I finally told a psychiatrist and he said he agreed with me it was just a dream. But I know better. For one thing I remember the sounds he made when he did that to me. His breathing was excited and he was making the kinds of sounds associated with sexual excitement and at seven, having had up till then no experience or knowledge of sex, how could I remember something that I didn’t know existed till then. I finally told my family, what’s left of it, my brother and my sons, and I guess they figure it was decades ago and so it’s in the past and no big deal. I can’t convey to them how my life changed forever that day. I was also raped as a teenager and I’ve told them about that but their reaction left me wishing I didn’t tell them because it was like “that’s interesting” but no expressions of care or concern. Which really made things worse because now I believe no one cares about me and that I will die without ever having connected as I would like. I want someone to understand why I might seem different. But I remember my mother’s words that I wasn’t the kind of person anyone would really care to be with—every time I have a conflict I hear her say that and I think what’s the use. I take medication that “maintains” me, the keeps me walking and moving and talking but nothing can change what happened. It’s all been so long ago, so buried deep within me that it either seems insignificant I guess or else its been so long no one can understand me.

    My entire life has been a waste other than my children who are good young men now and I love them with all my heart. But no one understands me, no matter how many psychiatrists or counselors or group therapy I go to. It’s too late. Even your reaction reaffirms what I’m saying. You blame me for not having said something or gotten help. I guess that’s a normal reaction considering everything so I don’t hold it against you. I’m just saying its too late and I’m going to die without anyone ever knowing who I am, how much capacity for love I have within me because its all buried beneath a screwed up miserable mostly wasted life.

  • Jackie

    Anne,

    I am sorry you took my comment to heart. I specifically addressed it to Peter whose attitude to getting help seemed to me a message that could not be left to stand like that. Also, his idea that when he just cries alone at night it will not affect the rest of the family. Children are “uncheatable” on an emotional level, as I am sure we all know.

    About your suffering, any Internet format is obviously insufficient to express compassion. You experienced the worst kind of abuse, and then were beaten down more by your own family. You have my deep respect for hanging on through all of it. The difference between you and Peter, just judging by these couple of posts which are all I have to go on, is that you did get help, if apparently with very mixed results. I guess the wounds you received just refuse to heal. To stay with the bone-setting simile: some practitioners are not that great at diagnosing OR healing, and some injuries are so stubborn that one can “manage” them long-term but no more. But how does anyone know, in this case including Peter, if a common x-ray followed by a plaster cast might not make a world of difference? To me, he was saying that hospitals are bunk, anyway. And that is what my post meant, and no more.

    Wishing you all the best,

    Jackie

  • Anne

    Jackie—thanks for your note of explanation. That is a personal weakness of mine, to make unwarranted assumptions about others opinions of me.

    Anyway, I appreciate your empathy.

    I think there is a limited amount of help available, but it is there. I encourage people not to let the years pile on atop the other before addressing any issues; it makes it much harder to come to terms with. I think I should come to terms with the fact I am not going to come to terms with this or understand it. I think it is somewhat foolish on the one hand that after all these years this still affects me. But then I have to remember my age when it started so I was hardly in any way able to know what to do with it. I can only imagine the confusion of children who are abused much worse than myself. If only no one had to be confused, little children are not born with the knowledge it would take to figure this out on their own.

    Anyway, I guess, Peter, part of being depressed is that it sucks your energy that you might otherwise use to find a solution or a way out or an understanding of what bothers you.

    People disparage psychiatric medication and that bothers me because while I can testify I am still overwhelmed sometimes but the medication has enabled me to live something I’m not sure I could have done without it. The thing is to find a doctor you trust.

    People have watched too many movies like Three Faces of Eve that turn psychiatric care into something its not—the idea that once you “discover” the cause we will be cured.

    I have not many solutions, just more questions. Thank you both for including me in the conversation.

    I would like to say I am hopeful that the chances of children getting help straight away/early on is greater than it was but I also think it depends on the education level of the families involved. Just a personal observation of mine. Some families have and understanding or open-mind about emotional issues and some are opposed. I hope yours will help you, Peter. It’s true you may both be holding back afraid to bring it up. Maybe you should try to discuss it with your family. If they are observant (sadly many are clueless) they must worry about you.

  • peter s.

    I would like to thank all of the posts addressed toward me. I would first like to say I have brought my concerns up with my family and they are fully aware of my situation. Talking with them and reading posts on this blog do help. For me the biggest fear I have is the not knowing what is to become of my family when I am gone. That sparks the sadness. I can’t imagine what it is like not having the physical and emotional connection. That scares me. I do not want to seek professional help because I don’t want to rationalize my fear away. I want to keep it as a reminder to appreciate all moments in my life from this day forward which I had taken for granted previously. I know it sounds selfish; however, it is my copping mechanism. I am not caught up in the rat race of life anymore filling it with useless trinkets. In fact I believe it has improved my quality of family. We do more things and go more places. I have chosen to use my negative emotions for good. Before I die I want to fill my family’s and my life with as many good memories as I can with no regrets.

  • Bevan

    Peter, I’m glad to hear you’re able to appreciate the other side to this dilemma of life—the fact that things are made sweeter by their finitude.

    There is an interesting book I read recently—The Ultimate Journey: Consciousness and the Mystery of Death by Stanislav Grof—where he traces the psychological repercussion of “near-death” experiences, accidental ones of climbers falling or Golden Gate suicides getting lucky, but also self-induced ones and the tradition of these in native cultures, through the use of psychedelics, amongst other methods. The take-home is that many cultures over many centuries have seen the wisdom in forcing mortality crises on people because there is an other side to the experience that one can arrive at, and where one is profoundly better for it.

  • Eva

    Peter, I already wrote a lot about my experiences on September 29, 2009 at 2:34 pm, so I will not repeat it all. You can find it if you scroll back to the end of the first quarter of the site page. Or just look for my name.

    My main message is that though you may be very afraid of death now, once it approaches, you might feel very differently. When I was first diagnosed, I was terrified of the thought of trying to claw for those last breaths, just to get a few more minutes of life. But once you are there, it may very well be different. I found that once I was at the point where I thought I would not survive to see the next day, I was at peace with it. Knowing that that peace is possible makes living so much easier.

  • Sam

    Hi Alex,

    I am 59 year old and have been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for 30 years, and recently suffered through a severe depression that bombarded me with some rather horrible morbid obsessions, including the fear of dying. I was wondering if your have ever just simply chanted to lose your fear of dying or to get actual proof of the eternity of life? I used to suffer from OCD as well and chanting to end that and it worked quite well. Being extremely introspective and inquiring myself. One of the things I discovered is that often the world of Learning which is second only to Realization and Bodhisattva, is a very powerful life condition in its own right that can sometimes get in the way of simple prayers and desires. In fact in part one of gongyo, you might recall that the Buddha is in fact chiding Shariputra for thinking that men of learning and realization could attain Buddhahood through those worlds alone, citing faith as the only entrance. Maybe your physician’s mind is this the real problem in trying to dispel your fears that life ends at death. I have started to chant to overcome my fear, not sure I want to pray to know if life is eternal yet…I don’t care to provoke a near brush with death experience like yours to find out.

    Sam

    Sam: I have in the past chanted to realize that life is eternal. It didn’t work. I don’t actually believe it is. I agree, however, that one cannot solve the problem of the fear of death intellectually.

    Alex

  • Sam

    Maybe instead of chanting to realize it is eternal, how about just chanting to stop being afraid that it isn’t? One way or another, it appears that the current personality does not survive death even if some essential part of us is reborn. The loss of continuity is a big issue for me as well, but there have been times in my life where I almost preferred oblivion to the sufferings of life. Lately, I worry most that I haven’t made enough causes to have a peaceful, painless death, but while I have heard that many people achieve that. I sometimes get the feeling that it is not the rule.

    Sam: I actually think chanting to stop being afraid that life isn’t eternal is a great idea.

    Alex

  • Paul Farrelly

    What an interesting article, Alex. I too thank you for writing it so frankly. I can’t pass up the opportunity to announce that there is a life after the otherwise-terrifying experience of death. Jesus of Nazareth died. Then he rose to a newer and fuller life as the same person with the same body, which mystified and amazed his friends. When they finally accepted what they saw they passed it on: Jesus is risen, and so too will we. Cheers and all the best to you!

    Paul: I so very much appreciate your attempt to encourage. However: you know Jesus rose how? Because it’s written in a book? Because others have told you? I’m sorry, but I don’t accept religious (meaning blind) faith as a valid way of knowing truth.

    Alex

  • Julia

    Is it possible that our personality dies with our body but our energy lives on?

    I’m stating this awkwardly. However I’ve been to many funerals lately (too many) and I have a sense of the deceased being present “energetically.”

    Though this may be wishful hoping, I find it comforting. In one instance I attended a staid formal funeral. As we filed out I sighted a weeping woman who looked like the deceased and it startled me. “She’s here,” I thought. Of course there was a rational explanation. The woman was a niece. Nevertheless, I continued to feel that some essence of the deceased was among us.

    Can anyone relate?

  • Sam

    If we are to accept that life is consistent with the laws of physics, it makes sense that some part of us is indestructible. Buddhism’s explanation of life after death seems to me to be the most logical explanation of what happens after death, but that doesn’t make me feel any more comfortable with undergoing the process. I used to think NDE’s (Near Death Experiences) were irrefutable proof, but the person hasn’t actually died. So far, (at least to my knowledge) no one has any empirical evidence of an actual rebirth, nor would I know what would be a valid irrefutable criteria for such evidence.

  • Jackie

    Julia: I have not had your kind of experience before, but I think I can relate. Of course the memories of the deceased are wired into our brains and stay there, together with their “energy”- that would be, to me, the quality of our relationship with them. And their DNA (modified by THEIR experiences!) goes on toward infinity (and beyond ;-) as long as they have offspring. After that, I sometimes “talk” to my grandparents’ spirit/ memory, and sometimes I believe I will see them again after my own death, and sometimes I don’t.
    My grandfather died at age 104, half a world away from me, just three weeks after my daughter was born—his first great-grandchild (we are a tardy bunch reproduction-wise). It seems to me he hung around just long enough to make sure we both were ok, the line would go on, and then he just let go. With a clear mind, in his sleep.

    So maybe there are these two ways that are undisputed in our “energy” living on—in the physical sense, and in the emotions we share with others, or create in them more or less knowingly. Everything after that is faith, and cannot really be discussed, I think. Only shared, if we are lucky.

  • Eva

    Julia,

    I can relate. I was critically ill when my the love of my life died of a heart attack. After his death, I almost died as well, was in an induced coma for a month, stayed in the hospital for another month.

    When I got home, I felt his presence.

    I returned to the hospital soon after that, but his presence didn’t follow; then I was home again for about six months, where I felt him again. Then I was admitted to the hospital for another 13 months—it took me a few months for his presence to find me. When I got home again, his presence was there, but over the years it weakened.

    I’ve often wondered about that presence. I am not in any way religious, or superstitious, so I have always assumed it was the healing of the wound of having lost him. It saddens me that over the years his presence has diminished so far that I can no longer feel it.

  • Bevan

    Sam—I think the one thing Buddhism got most right was the development of a practice that would by a war of attrition wear down that core of us that needs comfort in belief of the hereafter. I don’t think Buddhism is best understood as offering any theoretical consolation to our 3 am anxiety attacks. “Practice” is the key.

  • Julia

    Comforting remarks all!

    I was reassured to hear that others “talk” to the spirits of the deceased. I do so with family, friends, and even my dearly departed dog. At least for awhile after I “lose” them. Feared I was a bit wacky.

    Once when talking to a shaman I expressed my grief over the loss of my dog, an emotional support companion during my cancer treatments. He said, “Talk to him; that’s what you miss the most, right?” So true! Talking to my dog (when alone) helped me process the grief and feel his presence. Now I have another—very different—dog but I still sense Dudley’s soulful spirit from time to time.

    The oft-stated comment about “leaving footprints on our heart” is true about people and pets. Our hearts open with love for earth’s creatures. The challenge is to keep one’s heart open in the face of loss and grief.

    I’m curious how others manage to do so?

  • Paul

    How can I know that Jesus rose from the dead? A good question! I believe it because credible people have told me; and because living as they teach has led me to so much joy.

  • pancho

    Hello, Alex,
    I recently finished The Undefeated Mind. Thanks immensely for such an enlightening book. We are on the same page about this. Reincarnation is a dogma based on karma, and like you I cannot believe in something undemonstrated. But physics does demonstrate that nothing can be destroyed, only transformed. All those billions of atoms which compose us then have no alternative but to disperse and reorganize into other things. In that way, surely, we continue, albeit dissected into various elements.

    So what composes our physical body can have an eternal life and many lifetimes. I’ve always liked the thought of being buried naked in the earth under a cherry tree. My rotting body would nourish the tree, and anyone eating the cherries would be in a sense eating me. It was you I believe, in The Undefeated Mind, who opened up a realm I hadn’t been paying too much attention to: our dream world. we are asleep and unconscious, but we are awake and lively in the dream. The dimensions of the real world do not exist. Time has no meaning. People and situations come and go melt and morph. It’s a maelstrom of incessant activity. It’s not there but it’s there!

    I sense that somewhere in the dream world is the key to the mystery. That the self, when untethered by the body, finds itself in its dream, (which perhaps merges into everyone’s dream and the dream world?). Of course this is a sensation, a thought, perhaps a hope, certainly no proof. President Ikeda describes in surprising detail the moments that follow the death of the body in “unlocking the mysteries of birth and death” with conviction. How critical your life force condition is at the moment of death. He actually states that death can be experienced with great joy. He explains that as your body goes, your senses go, your identity goes, your memory goes….and all there is at that moment is the life force condition you began to enter death in, stripped of everything but your life experiences, which condensed like a seed, merges into the dimension (the dream world?) after death…till it meets the conditions to re-emerge to physical life in this world.

    My point is he seems quite convinced of this. So perhaps continuous seeking to fully grok (or understand) the mystery of life and death thru determined daimoku is possible. I can’t help but reflect that Nichiren himself said “first study death, then study all other matters.” The implication to me is that to comprehend death is the number one objective and that it is achievable thru correct practice of his Buddhism.

    It is a pleasure to have connected to you.

    Thanks and farewell.

    Pancho Garrison

    Calcata, Italy

    Pancho: I say this with all due respect: just because Daisaku Ikeda is convinced he knows what happens after death doesn’t mean he does. He has, unfortunately, as far as I know, never presented any evidence for his claims. As wise as he may be—as anyone may be—how can he claim to know that life-after-death is a fact without demonstrable proof? I agree with Nichiren wholeheartedly that we should strive first to come to terms with death. But even he, who claimed to have certain knowledge that we are reincarnated and our lives are eternal, offered not a single scrap of proof. In the past, when the scientific method didn’t even exist, this might have been the best we could hope for. But now? We must continually guard ourselves against believing that which we hope is true rather than that which we know from evidence is true.

    Alex

  • John A

    I have arrived a bit late to your website and blog, but I was compelled to write in response to this article because of how deeply it resonated with my own thoughts and experience. You have articulated concisely what I have been trying to make sense of for the last 3 years. When I was 30 I was diagnosed with a form of benign brain tumour (colloid cyst) which had caused hydrocephalus. I had surgery to fit a VP shunt which alleviated the hydrocephalus but the tumour was left in situ. Immediately after surgery I devoted my energies to recovering my physical health. I gave no thought as to how this diagnosis would affect my mental health. Around 6 months after surgery I began to suffer from chronic anxiety. Nine months after surgery, my closest friend died suddenly, at 30 years, from a rare and previously undiagnosed heart condition (he died in his sleep). Interestingly, my feelings of anxiety actually lessened in severity in the immediate aftermath of my friend’s death; it was as if my mind did not have room for anxiety at the same time as grappling with overwhelming grief. Gradually, however, my problems with anxiety resurfaced. I have been through various therapy and am on my second bout of an SSRI-based medication. The pills have helped to bring my crippling symptoms of anxiety under control and I am able to live a normal life. However it now seems clear to me, having had around 3 years of thinking and reflecting, that my anxiety was a direct reaction to my brain tumour diagnosis and more fundamentally, the threat of death that this posed, and continues to pose, in my life. Trying to come to terms with the reality of my mortality, at what seems too early a stage in my life, seems to have been too much for my mind to deal with. Before this, I believed—or at least I thought I believed—that I did not care if I died, so long as it was quick and painless. I think my own problems with mental illness have shown me that this is not true. I completely agree with you that there is a world of difference between intellectually “knowing” something and truly believing it, deep in your sub-conscious. What scares me the most is that my conscious mind thinks that it “knows” that it should not be scared of death, but there is a vast and yet hidden sub-conscious realm within my brain which pretty much believes otherwise and I am powerless to prevent it from severely and detrimentally affecting my life. I am not religious and I have no belief in an afterlife or a God of any sort, but I recognise that this just makes my life harder. There is no option for me other than to somehow “come to terms” with my mortality, and “accept” it—but at this point I have absolutely no idea how that might be done, and until I can, I am reduced to relying on medication to leave a “normal” life. Thank you for your writing. I felt an inspirational moment of recognition and understanding when I read this blog.

    John: Thanks for writing. My current thinking is that the best way to deal with the fear of death is denial. And the best way to deny the existence of something isn’t to try to not think about it but rather to think about other things that bring you joy. So really, the best antidote to the fear of death is to live passionately and well. I write more about this topic in detail in the last chapter of my book, The Undefeated Mind, if you’re interested.

    Alex

  • R

    I like this article—it’s saying what we all can’t bear to hear namely that fear of death is IMPOSSIBLE to overcome and that everything else is really just empty words to placate us.

  • Bevan

    @R—I don’t think it can be argued that overcoming fear of death is IMPOSSIBLE. If you allow that there is even one person that died with a smile on their face, I’ll happily dismiss those who believe fervently in the idea of an afterlife and the promise of heaven, etc. Ideas unfortunately can be that powerful. What I’ve got in mind rather is a fully realized Buddhist, for example. There is no consolation here in any ideas of rebirth any more than the idea of the conservation of one’s energy is consolation to the physicist. Rather there is the possibility to develop a wholly different perspective on one “self” and the world, i.e., non-duality. (And I’m surprised Dr. Lickerman, being a Buddhist, albeit of the non-meditating, type did not go there in his excellent book, which I’ve just finished.)

    Our fear of death (and I suffered mine after reading The Death Of Ivan Ilych as a young man and it took me 20 year to recover from) is simply one of many perspectives we can hold, and it springs from a feeling of I-ness facing an ultimate threat. There’s a temptation to think the rest of the population that is not debilitated by fear of animation simply lacks the intellectual capacity to fully conceive of the “reality” of the situation (and this might be partly true), but the fact of it is that from the non-dual perspective the whole thing becomes a bit of a non-question. For a shortcut to what I’m getting at, see an earlier post re ayahuasca. It’s not for no good reason that Johns Hopkins are getting convincing results treating people suffering end-of-life issues with psilocybin. All I can offer those reading this my conviction that there is a way out of the forest, for I’ve been there. Unfortunately it doesn’t lie in simply reading the right combination of words.

    Bevan: I like very much what you’re getting at. And, for the record, I will address the idea of developing an entirely different perspective on the self as an antidote to the fear of death in my next book.

    Alex

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