I've been dying since I first learned of death.
Dear lovely death
That taketh all things under wing-
Never to kill-
Only to change
Into some other thing
This suffering flesh,
To make it either more or less,
Yet not again the same-
Dear lovely death, Change is thy other name.
I have been coping with dying for as long as I can remember. I am not terminally ill, I am not sick; I’ve had no psychic vision of my own demise. I have struggled with fear since I learned that life’s end was death.
According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages to coping with dying; these stages are denial, anger bargaining depression, and acceptance. They come in no particular order and these stages, which Kubler-Ross understood to be “defense mechanisms,” will last for different periods of time and will replace each other or exist at times side by side.” While this theory is based on the study of terminally ill patients, I believe that healthy people also use these defense mechanisms to cope with their fear of dying and have done so since the beginning of time. It is reasonable to assume that people have feared death since they have been aware of life. At some point in the beginning of human time man was alone and afraid of the dangers that surrounded him, over which he had no control. Eventually man was able to gain control over his own fate by creating the idea of God. If man was good and pious he could escape some of the dangers which felled his neighbor, who was obviously out of God’s favor. This was probably one of the earliest ways that people alleviated their fear of death, though they were really just denying it. With the idea of a “heaven” or afterlife, their schema was “Yes, I’m going to die, but I’m not really going to die.” As I discovered in my own life, this denial is not always adequate to sustain a person over time.
I wasn’t always afraid to die. In my early years, like most, I was innocent and sheltered from the harsh realities of the world. Unfortunately you can’t always be protected in this way. Eventually you will see and feel pain and there is just no way to sugarcoat it. Once you experience the death of somebody close to you, somebody real, you will begin questioning everything, especially your own mortality.
At an impressionable age, while I was still protected from the world, I was introduced to the idea of God. God was there for my first experiences with pain and death, which may have been a good thing, since I was not yet prepared to deal with the reality of it. I knew that I would die eventually, but I believed God protected me from falling into nothingness. I might be dead, but I would still be. A part of me however, was still afraid that I would miss life.
After my friend Alyson died at the age of thirteen, I became very depressed. Although I was pretty sure that she was in heaven, I couldn’t help but think of all the things that she hadn’t had the chance to do in her life. I felt that I was doomed to suffer a similar fate of dying before I had really lived. I remember crying one night, watching a Twilight Zone marathon on TV, thinking, “I could die in my sleep and this is how I’m spending my last hours, watching TV!” At times I would find myself appreciating something beautiful in nature or laughing at a friend’s joke and I would suddenly be filled with sadness. I believe that this sadness was a combination of feeling guilt for enjoying life while others could not and a realization of yet more things that I would miss when I died.
The lark from his nest in a hoofprint springs
Up, and up, trilling dew from his wings,
And busily rests, and sings and sings.
I watch and listen, wondering why
His songs sad sweetness, a laughing sigh,
Reminds me only that I must die.
When I lost my faith, I lost my immortality. There wasn’t really any one event that caused me to lose faith in God; although losing loved ones to tragedy was certainly a catalyst. After the death of my “first love” and two close friends affiliated with my church, I wrote in my journal, Three caskets lined up like buffet tables; three dead and I loved them all. We all gathered together, we lit our candles; we sang and prayed for all of them, any of them to be alright. Then we got the phone calls one, two, three, but I still didn’t believe my candles flame still flickered with hope. I leaned into their eternal boxes, I kissed their pale cheeks and I held their cold, stiff hands. Each wrapped around a small ebony crucifix. They were faithful until the end. I wondered if they were right, I hoped they were. I loved them, but I didn’t believe, not since we sang and prayed and my candle burned away.
This traumatic experience caused me to question my faith, while the actual loss of faith was really a result of my gradually increasing awareness of life itself. My church, my God, my faith weren’t sufficient to give me the answers I needed to life’s questions. With the loss of my safety net, I felt like I was slowly falling into nothingness and there was nothing there to catch me. I was plagued with the fear that eventually I would no longer be. This was my biggest problem with death- not being. I was also uncomfortable
with my final moments might be like. I dreaded that pit in my stomach that I would surely feel when I realized death was imminent, without adequate time for my life to even flash before my eyes. The idea that I would no longer be conscious of life was just too difficult to fathom. How could life go on without me? How could the world change without me there to notice? How could my loved ones go on without me there to love? I was intrinsically a part of life. If I died, everything should be out of balance. It shouldn’t be possible for me to die. I had so many questions that I needed answers to, more importantly I had questions that I needed to talk about.
I tried to talk to my mother about my questions and fears, but she couldn’t get past the fact that I had lost faith in God. “Oh, honey” she’d say, “I don’t want to talk about this. It just makes me so sad to think that you don’t believe you’re going to heaven.” My friends weren’t anymore helpful in my quest. They claimed that they didn’t want to “debate,” that I was “morbid” or “negative” or just “going through a phase.” This made me feel very alone and isolated in the world. Could I be the only person who is afraid to die?
Although I didn’t have other people as a resource to talk about my questions and feelings regarding death, I did have poetry. It was through poetry that I finally learned the honest feelings that people had about death. After the funeral of my first love Mikey, I read,
We buried him
His first rain fell tonight.
-Sabahattin Kudret Aksal
The words were simple, yet they told me that I wasn’t alone in my pain or thoughts. I wasn’t the first to feel the way that I did. Through poetry I learned that everybody was afraid of death and struggled in the same way that I was. As my perspectives on death changed, poetry helped me to understand what I was feeling. I kept a journal of the poems that inspired me and I would read them whenever I became confused about life and death. Because no matter how much you think you’ve figured it out, you almost always relapse and have to figure it out all over again. When I first became aware that I wouldn’t be conscious of life after I died, I was burdened with the fear and sadness of it. While I still carry those feelings to some extent, this poem has helped me to appreciate the peace that could come with the loss of consciousness.
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree;
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dew drops wet;
And if thou wilt remember,
And if thou wilt forget.
I shall not see the shadow,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain;
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply I may forget.
The births of my children were a welcome distraction from my preoccupation with death. Death felt distant and foreign during that time, when I was so connected to fresh, new life. I couldn’t die now, somebody needed me. My baby’s lives depended on my own. This period of safety lasted about three years, until the morning of September 11, 2001. I had dropped my three year old son Caleb off for his first day of preschool. He had never been to day care or to a sitter, so this was really the first time he had been away from me for any significant amount of time. I was home with my younger son Isaiah and had turned on the TV to watch cartoons, but there weren’t cartoons, instead we were watching the now infamous images of the Twin Towers. I saw the second plane hit the tower and lost my immortality all over again.
Because I could not stop for death-
He kindly stopped for me-
The carriage held but just ourselves-
I’ll never forget the fear that I felt as I watched the televised horror, with my son at preschool, out of my reach, away from my protection. I felt so helpless…so mortal. I realized that at any moment, my children could die and I had no control over it. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing a child; it would be like dying myself, but worse because I would be conscious. It is one thing to die yet still be aware of life and worldly things (a ghost perhaps), but to lose a child would be like lying in a coffin not only realizing that you were dead, but that death is all there is.
Since that day I have experienced my children’s death in every conceivable way. Quiet moments and dreams are filled with visions of them drowning or burning. Sometimes they die horrible deaths as a result of my own carelessness, but the visions of them dying in their sleep or of old age aren’t anymore comforting. In my dreams I have cradled them in their frail, elderly state. I whisper to them how much I love them. I comb their sparse white hair with ageless fingers and tell them how sorry I am that I can’t save them, I caress their wrinkled, powdery skin as I did when they were babies and wish in vain that I could just press rewind when I got to the end. Sometimes I honestly wish they were never born. I just love them so much, I want to spare them the pain of experiencing death, and, frankly I don’t think I’m strong enough to live through their deaths.
Someone who doesn’t have children would benefit from an illustration. It’s like somebody giving a child a puppy and saying, “Here, he’s all yours, give him lot’s of love and oh yeah, at some point I’m going to take him back, bop him over the head and throw him in the river, I’m just not sure when.” It’s very difficult to go through life with this fear in the back of your mind, especially when you already have a complex about your own death. I read once that “deciding to have children is like deciding to have your heart walk around outside your body.’ It makes sense. My children are not only a part of my life; they are a part of who I am, who I’ve become. Now that they are out in the world, I am vulnerable. Not only could I lose them, I could lose my will to live.
I have experienced all of the stages that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross theorized about, denial, anger, acceptance, depression and bargaining and yet I still have this irrational hope in the back of my mind, that my children and I will be spared the fate of the rest of the human race. According to Kubler-Ross, “The one thing that usually persists through all these stages is hope.” I remember when I was little I asked my father if he was afraid to die. To my surprise he said that he wasn’t afraid. When I asked him why he wasn’t afraid, he said, “By the time I’m old enough to die, they will have invented the pill that makes you live forever.” Perhaps everybody shares a similar delusion that helps them cope with the fear of dying. I imagine that I will always be coping with dying. I’m sure that I will struggle with anger and depression even while accepting the authenticity of death. The fact is, dying is not my choice and the fact that I have no choice in the matter makes me bitter.
At this point in my life I do a lot of bargaining. I accept the fact that “’m going to die, but I will have a lot of experiences first. If I’m going to die, then I’m really going to enjoy life. If I have no control over death, I’m going to control as much as possible in this life. I’m going to make a difference in the world. I’m going to be the best mother; I’m going to leave a legacy. I am going to do something to ensure that my memory will live long after I die. I will learn and grow as much as possible. I know that I’m going to die; I just need to make sure that I live.
When I am dying, let me know
That I loved the blowing snow
Although it stung like whips;
That I loved all lovely things
And I tried to take their stings
With gay unembittered lips;
That I loved with all my strength,
To my soul’s full depth and length,
Careless if my heart should break,
That I sang as children sing
Fitting tunes to everything,
Loving life for it’s own sake.
I used to believe that if I studied death, read all the books, the medical, the philosophy, I might learn something that would alleviate my fear of death. I thought that I might find some previously undiscovered passage to immortality. At the very least, I thought that I might stumble upon a secret potion that might make me immune to the deep emotions that surround my fear. I have certainly failed in that respect, but I have learned some things on my fruitless quest for immortality. In all the textbooks that I studied, the poetry that I’ve read and in the stories shared by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, The experience of the dying was universal. We are all dying, just at different rates. Nobody really knows how much time they have, although I accept this truth, I would find myself very bitter if I became terminally ill. This is because I have bargained for a long life. I guess that’s the ironic part in all this; the longer you live, the more chances you have to deny and accept death. The most discouraging thing that I have discovered is that there is no passage to immortality. I could work my entire life trying to accomplish something that would be worthy to immortalize me in the minds of others, but chances are it wouldn’t work and I would end up missing out on real life experiences in the process. Besides even if I did accomplish something amazing that would make people remember me for generations, I wouldn’t be there to appreciate it.
Even though I don’t have a God or a faith, I still have beliefs. I believe in the good in human nature. I believe that kindness and honesty can make a difference. I hurt when I see others hurting, so I don’t hurt people. If life is it and then I die, the only thing that seems right is to do the things that I love; to truly live, and if I can, to help others truly live. If I can do this through writing, that’s great, if not, maybe it’s enough just to be a living example.
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching
Or cool one pain,
Or help a fainting Robin.
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
There is a story that has been by told by many wise men, prophets and philosophers, it goes like this, “The story is about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air—until he notices the waves in front of him, crashing against the shore. “My God, this is terrible,’ the wave says. ‘Look what’s going to happen to me!’
Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, “why do you look so sad?’
The first wave says, “You don’t understand! We’re all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?’
The second wave says, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave; you’re part of the ocean.”
I have spent so many years consumed by my fear of death. While it is certainly the most natural fear, it is also the most futile. Unless they invent the pill for immortality, our lives are short. I love life. I love the hope that life brings. Perhaps this is why hope endures through so many stages of dying; as long as there is hope, there is life. While I still haven’t found all the answers I have been searching for, I still have hope. I hope I am a wave.