“Life asked Death, ‘Why do people love me but hate you?’ Death responded, ‘Because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth.’”Unknown
It used to happen at night, always at night, when I was safely tucked up in bed & everything was quiet. Thoughts danced through my brain as they always did & I let them pass unchecked. Until one… gentle…. whisper changed everything: ‘you’re going to die one day…’
This nocturnal sequence began when I was around eight years old.. after we lost grandad.
In the 1990s, death wasn’t something adults liked to discuss with each other, let alone children. So, my questions were often met with hostility or the suggestion that we ‘talk about something more pleasant.’ I expect my curiosity caused them great pain… but there was so much I didn’t understand. How could granddad be here one day & gone the next? He went to the hospital to get better right.. why didn’t it work? Where had he gone?
A few years later I lost a cousin, not even seven days old. This experience was even more confusing.
Grandad died ‘because he was old,’ that’s what everyone said anyway.. I, therefore, presumed that death was directly related to age.. you reached a certain limit & the battery ran out.
But my cousin was a newborn, with lots of time left surely? It didn’t make any sense.
Then came the awful realisation…. that humans could die at any moment, for any reason… There are no guidelines, or rules, it just happened…. Sh** happens.
This made for many a sleepless night as a kid & what followed was years of being obsessed with my health. Every cough could be ‘lung cancer’ & headache a ‘brain tumor’ (thank you Holby city for the weekly inspiration).
The fear of the unknown
As an anxiety expert in 2021… I understand the patterns. An irrational ‘focus on’ or fear of death makes complete sense… death is afterall the ultimate ‘unknown’ & those with anxiety have a great craving for certainties in all aspects of life, (no pun intended). During anxious episodes, we long to be told that ‘everything is ok,’ that ‘people still love us,’ that ‘something awful isn’t going to happen,’ & ‘we won’t lose everything.’
FEAR…. in a word…. we’re afraid. (& Coronavirus hasn’t exactly helped).
I write about fear in my new book.. as an emotion, humans find fear intolerable & will do anything to avoid it.
Add a nice dose of confusion & general feelings of powerlessness… & this is a potent combination for mental discord.
This need for certainty is how ‘safety behaviours’ or ‘rituals’ start. I know a bloke who had to walk a particular route to work each day, to prevent ‘something bad from happening to his parents & girlfriend.’ Obviously deep down he knew this was ridiculous, that his actions would have little impact. However, he’d ‘been doing it for over a year & nothing bad had happened.’ The problems occurred, when he moved flat & found himself getting a bus to his old flat, just so he could continue with the ritual. (He’s still doing it).
Years of mental illness cumulated in self-hatred & exhaustion have had at least one benefit I guess…. It cured me of my own fear of mortality. The thought of my death doesn’t bother me too much these days, it’s not a concern. I’ll be… well dead after all… & just as I have no memory of the 1066 Battle of Hastings, I’ll have no memory of anything past the moment of my death!
UNFORTUNATELY, in its place.. the anxiety demon shifted its focus to those I love. How will I cope when X person dies? What if they die suddenly? How could I ever manage the pain?
The fear is intensified because it’s a certainty. We’ll all have to deal with the pain of losing someone multiple times in life.
But as always, there are things we can do to ease the anxiety.
How to manage death anxiety
- STOP AVOIDING IT. Rather than desperately trying to dislodge a thought when it strikes (this will only make it stronger fyi), try embracing it. As Carl Jung said; “what we resist persists”
If you’re in bed, get out of bed… take the thoughts out of the darkness & into another room, (preferably the kitchen so you can make a cup of tea). Sit comfortably & allow the thoughts to pass through your head unchecked… followed by the emotions. It’s unpleasant initially, but it’ll ‘take the sting’ out of the thought cycle.
- ‘CHECK’ THE THOUGHTS. Taking yourself out of bed should reduce the risk of ‘spirialling,’ but if you do find yourself going down a black hole of ‘everything bad that could happen,’ it might be useful to engage in some CBT exercises to assess & rationalise thoughts. Click HERE for examples.
- TELL SOMEONE. Treatment for mental illness often comes back to talking. Wait for the appropriate time… e.g. during a car journey, or after dinner. You can even offer a disclaimer ‘I know this is an unpleasant subject, but I really need to get these thoughts out of my head & i’d appreciate if you just listen & let me talk about death… about what I’m afraid of.’ If you can’t talk to a family member, or friend, try the Samaritans free support line.
If you find that thoughts of death is impacting your daily life, then it might be time to discuss this with your doctor.
- TALK ABOUT DEATH (& USE THE WORD). People have a habit of avoiding conversations about death & when they do have them, they change the word… often to something like ‘passed’ or ‘moved on.’ This fear of using the word is arguably what gives it so much power. In the UK there’s a chain of actual ‘Death cafes.’ A safe space in which people can share experiences, thoughts, and feelings about death in a supportive environment.
I guess I have a straightforward & (some might say) brutal way of viewing mortality these days. Death is certain, so much so that I don’t feel the need to trouble myself with it.
In my book, I call this approach the ‘Oblivion complex’ (the name of a popular rollercoaster at the theme park ‘Alton Towers). It was a ride that I was terrified of & almost couldn’t cope with the fear. Then once it started I had this realisation: ‘Now that it’s in motion, there’s nothing I can do to stop it….’ screaming, fretting, crying … it doesn’t matter…. It isn’t personal & it doesn’t register with emotion or desire. As soon as the cart starts on that track, it won’t stop until it’s reached the end… no matter what. So why focus all of your energy dreading, fearing, wishing it could be otherwise? Embrace the reality of zero control & make yourself comfortable.