Fear of death.

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Fear of death, called Thanatophobia, is a common fear, especially in younger people, who under normal circumstances have their entire lives ahead of them and don’t have to worry about the inevitable event happening any time soon.

Of course, the grim reaper can claim anyone at any time. There are no guarantees in life, and even if you’re a gleaming example of perfect health in your prime and never take dumb risks, a concrete block could crash down on your head while leaving your house tomorrow morning. But the likelihood of sudden (or even protracted) death when you’re young is small, so the young can afford to fear death, as long as their fear isn’t so overpowering it makes it impossible for them to enjoy their time being alive.

It’s been said that the older we get, the less we fear death. In the very old (and those who have been suffering with chronic illness for a long time, including terminally ill children), death is even welcomed and looked forward to. That’s understandable, especially if you believe, as most people do, that the afterlife will be better than this world. Unless you fear going to Hell, you probably shouldn’t be afraid of passing on to the “other side,” whatever it may be. Even if the atheists are right and there’s nothing at all after this life, well, what’s so terrible about that? It’s like an eternal sleep and you won’t be aware of anything so not being able to wake up won’t bother you.

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I think people fear death for three reasons:

1. Fear of the unknown.
Humans have an instinctive fear of the unknown, and no matter how much faith you have that you are going to heaven when you die, the bottom line is, no one really knows what happens. And that’s scary. I think that on a deep level, even the most religious people with the strongest faith still struggle with the knowledge that one day–a day that could be tomorrow or in 50 years–they will pass into something that’s a complete unknown.

Not only that, dying is an act that is always experienced alone. No matter how supportive a family or friends you have, no matter how many people surround you with their love as you prepare to die, no matter how much comfort is given by loved ones to the dying person, they are not going to be joining you on that journey. Other than God and the angels (if you are a believer), you are going to be taking that journey into the unknown all by yourself. Even if you die with others, such as in an accident, your journey to the other side is yours alone. Their journeys may be very different from yours.

2. Fear of the process of dying.
I think for many, it’s not so much death they fear, but the way they are going to die. Are they going to get cancer, be hit by a truck, be murdered by a burglar on meth, or suffer a sudden massive heart attack? There really is no pleasant way to die. It’s almost always either quick and terrifying; or long and incredibly painful. If you spend too much time thinking about the fact that one of these two things is going to happen to you before you die and it is not going to be pleasant, you can drive yourself crazy. That’s why it’s much better to focus on living a good, fulfilling life and not think too much about the way you might be leaving earth someday.

Some people think that by choosing the method in which they die, they have some control over the dying process and thereby make it less scary. That’s why right-to-die organizations and assisted suicide exists. If you have terminal cancer and know your death is going to be protracted and painful, why not just take some pills or hang yourself instead? Sure, it won’t be pleasant, but at least it might be quick. While this reasoning is understandable, many religions object to this because suicide, even suicide when you are going to die anyway, is considered a grave sin and God will make you accountable after death. But other people don’t believe this and think that God, if he exists, wouldn’t want them to suffer needlessly. Again, there’s really no sure way to know. I doubt I’d ever do it though, since I’m one of those who thinks God would make me accountable.

3. Fear of Hell.
Most Christians (and people who follow other Abrahamic religions like traditional Judaism and Islam) believe in some form of Hell and that some of us are going there after we die. Some Christians believe that all you need to do is accept Jesus as your personal savior and you are automatically saved and admitted to heaven. Others believe works on earth as well as grace are important. A few liberal Protestant denominations believe Hell is a state of mind (a separation from God) rather than an actual place, or they don’t believe in it at all. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists believe if we are not pleasing to God, we will simply be annihilated after we die (much more palatable, imo, than the concept of eternal torment). I’ve always had problems with the concept of Hell and simply find the idea that God will be sending good Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, Unitarians, and liberal Christians (the kind who don’t believe in Hell) to be tortured for all eternity extremely disagreeable. Not everyone, especially skeptical types like me who tend to need concrete evidence before they believe anything, is able to blindly embrace the idea of a savior or the words of the Bible (which can and have been interpreted in different ways) and even if they are willing to believe, some simply can’t. Should they be consigned to eternal torment for not being able to believe something because they think about everything too much?

Let me stop here before this turns into a religious post. That’s not my intent. My point here is that many people are afraid of going to Hell, even those who don’t really believe in in it. But there’s really no way to know if there is one, is there? There’s really no way to know what will happen after we die, or if anything will happen at all.

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How I wish I could have this attitude!

As I stated earlier, as people age, they tend to come to terms with the inevitability of death, even the inevitability of the process of dying, as they become aware they have many more years behind them than they have in front of them.

But what happens if, like me, you’re in your fifties and are still afraid of death? I’m well aware I probably have, at best, another 30 or so years left to live. Forty or fifty more years is highly unlikely though possible. Twenty years isn’t a lot, but for someone my age, that’s far more likely than living another forty or fifty years.

When I think about how short a time 20 or 30 years really is, it fills me with terror. I know I think about death way too much and should be focusing more on living a fulfilling life. It’s a waste of life to dwell on the unpleasant fact that one day I will die and may suffer a horrible, painful death too. How does one come to terms with the fact they are going to die and it isn’t even that long a time away? How does one get to the point of actually looking forward to death? I know some Christians reading this are going to be thinking, “well, if you were really saved [I consider myself to be], you would have no doubt you are going to heaven.” But no matter how much I pray about it, I still have doubts. I don’t think that’s likely to change either, because I’m the type of person who questions everything. Even my faith. The bottom line is, I simply don’t know what’s going to happen when I die, or when it’s going to happen, except that it’s going to happen. As the saying goes, none of us get out of here alive.

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I feel like I’m a bad friend.

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Tonight on a whim I looked up an old Facebook friend I hadn’t talked to since 2012 (we had been close from 2009-2011) and was shocked and very upset to learn that she died this past September of Merkel cell carcinoma. She’d had to have part of her jaw and her lips removed and I even saw her post that first announced her terminal cancer diagnosis. She asked for prayers.

I never knew. I never bothered to check in on her until tonight and felt just awful about not having been there at all for her while she was in so much pain and dying. I left a post on her wall (which is still up) telling her to rest in peace and how sorry I was. What else can you say to a dead friend you abandoned? Sure, she was only a Facebook friend but I still feel like an insensitive heel.

About two years ago, another casual friend, someone I had actually known through work who ran a blog about living in poverty in the United States, and who was known to have suffered from major depression, committed suicide. I hadn’t talked to her in several months, and it was her husband who posted about her death on her wall. I learned this horrible news THE DAY AFTER she killed herself. All I could do was offer some kind words to her bereaved husband, who had loved her very much and was understandably devastated. I felt ashamed at not having talked to this woman during the months prior to her suicide and was almost too embarrassed to say anything to her husband.

I always seem to find out bad news about friends and people I used to know on Facebook, which is another reason I don’t like Facebook too much.

But neither of these things are as terrible as the way I treated a close friend of mine from back in the 1980s. Robert was gay and he was one of my best friends for several years. We used to have a blast together, and were even roommates for awhile. I remember planning his 21st birthday party and how much fun it turned out to be (and I hate parties!)

But Robert was also promiscuous and brought strange men home while we were roommates. He also developed schizophrenia around this time, and due to both his bringing men I didn’t know to the apartment and his declining mental condition, I had no other choice but to move out. We continued to remain in touch occasionally even after I married, but over time, as friendships do when lives go in different directions, we lost contact and stopped speaking.

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Just after my son was born in 1991, I received a phone call from Robert’s sister. She told me Robert was in the hospital and very close to death. He had AIDS and had lost his vision and his mind, and was no longer able to feed himself and had to be cared for like an infant. It occurred to me he probably already had AIDS during the time I knew him. I was shocked at the news and promised to come visit him in the hospital, but I never did. In all honesty, I was afraid to see him like that and chickened out, even though I had intended to go.

He died two weeks later. His sister called again and invited me to the funeral. Again, I didn’t attend because of the guilt I felt over having abandoned him and never visited him in the hospital.

I realized later how selfish this was of me, only caring about my own needs and feeling like seeing him like that would be too upsetting and just plain weird. My friend needed me when he was dying and I let him down. I never forgave myself for that and still pray for God to forgive me for my selfishness. I’m sure He has, but I never really forgave myself.

That’s why I feel like I’m a terrible friend and maybe don’t deserve to have any.

I am Broken now ….(long post I’m sorry)

My friend and fellow blogger, who is trying to get ready to say goobye to his beloved wife, who is dying of cancer.

Please offer your prayers and support for Butch, his wife and their beloved son.

My heart is breaking right now.

Here was the post Butch posted the previous day, “I’m Losing My Wife.”

Trivia and Snoopy: A love story

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WARNING: If you are easily upset by sad animal stories, you may want to skip reading this post.

In 1968, when I was eight, we acquired a cat. My parents weren’t cat lovers, but my two parakeets (Maurice and Herr Vogel) had recently died (their cage sat on top of a heat register and the cage had overheated) and I was paralyzed with grief. My father (recently identified by me as a low-level narcissist and enabler), in one of his infrequent moments of compassion, decided to bring home a kitten to cheer me up.

My dad named her Trivia, because she was so small. Trivia was a brown and black female tabby, with huge, beautiful green eyes. I fell in love with her and soon recovered from my grief over my lost birds.

Trivia grew up to be friendly and playful, and always slept curled up next to me at night. Unfortunately, I have no photos of her anymore (since my MN-mother told me she threw away all the family photos because I asked for them), but here is a photo of another cat that looks a lot like Trivia:

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At first Trivia was an indoor cat, but when she was about a year old, she started sneaking outside and there was no keeping her confined to the house once she got a whiff of the great outdoors. At first I was worried she might not come back or something might happen to her, but my fears were unfounded. Trivia always came home before it got dark or when she got hungry. She was never very far, and even came when you called her name.

Next door was a large gray tabby tomcat named Snoopy. He was about three times Trivia’s size and looked intimidating, but soon they became close friends. The cats would snooze together on the neighbor’s porch, and sometimes you could find the two of them on top of my father’s big yellow Pontiac, grooming each other or just sleeping. Every morning, Snoopy actually came to the back screen door and meowed loudly and pitifully until we let Trivia out. I really think he was in love with her. He was certainly an attentive and devoted lover, and very handsome to boot.

snoopy

One beautiful summer evening Trivia didn’t come home. We called and called her, but she wouldn’t come. This just was so unlike her. My father and I looked all over the backyard, and then the neighborhood. Some of the neighborhood kids even joined the search, but Trivia was nowhere to be found.

She never came home that night, or the next. Snoopy was nowhere to be found either.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny. My mother found Snoopy meowing at the backdoor again, and thought he was calling for Trivia to come out. She shooed him away, but Snoopy stood steadfast. She called me downstairs to take Snoopy back to his house. When Snoopy saw me, he mewed sadly and I knew something was wrong. He turned and walked slowly back to his house next door. Something told me I should follow him.

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There was an overgrown hedge of boxwoods that ran along the far side of the neighbor’s home. That’s where Snoopy went, and I followed him there. I was overtaken with a feeling of impending doom. Snoopy stopped in front of the most overgrown thicket of hedge, and looked up at me. I looked down into the patch of weeds on the ground, and saw a patch of brown tabby fur. It was Snoopy’s best friend, Trivia.

I leaned down to get a closer look, then leapt up and ran home sobbing. We came back with a blanket and wrapped her up in it, and drove her to the animal hospital. The examination found that she had been fatally hit by a car but hadn’t died immediately. She suffered massive internal bleeding but somehow managed to make her way to the hedges next to Snoopy’s house to die there. I realized that the reason we hadn’t seen Snoopy for almost two days was because he had been with Trivia, keeping vigil over her in the hedges.

JMK-000915 - © - Joerg Mischke

Snoopy was never the same after that. In fact, we never saw him much anymore, and when we did, he didn’t look the same. He lost weight and a year later died of natural causes. I truly believe animals can feel love the way humans can, and poor Snoopy died of a broken heart.

I am going to die.

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I am going to die. Someday. And so will you. Let’s not kid ourselves–life is a terminal illness and you and I will both die from it sooner or later.

My daughter said something just the other day that made me stop in my tracks and gave me a bit of a jolt.
She said, “Mom, you’re entirely too healthy for your age.”

She’s right. I’ve never had a serious illness (not counting major depression that required inpatient psychiatric treatment) and I avoid doctors like the plague. Most people my age suffer from some sort of chronic health problem or another. I don’t fuss about my health more than the average 20 year old and I certainly enjoy my artery-clogging, sugar-laden foods. The only reason I don’t weigh as much as a house is because I work it all off at my physically strenuous job. So at least I’m not living a sedentary lifestyle. I quit my gym membership because I don’t need it anymore. Every major muscle group gets a workout every day. I’ve never been in better shape. It’s the best thing about my job.

I’m 55. That means if I die at an average ripe old age (75), I only have twenty years left to live. That’s a sobering thought. Twenty. years. until. I. die. Going backwards in time, twenty years puts me at age 35, in 1994. So the amount of time that has past between 1994 and now is the same as how much time I have until I’m 75–and that’s if I’m lucky. I don’t eat right–I love my comfort foods way too much, and I smoke. Not heavily, but I still indulge in this killer habit, knowing it will probably spell my early demise. If I don’t quit smoking and don’t change my eating habits, I will be lucky to make it to 75.

Let’s say I actually live to be 80. That’s only 25 years from now: the same time forwards from today as going backwards to age 30, in 1989. That’s only one year shy of the 1990s, folks, and the 90s don’t seem that far in the past to me, no sirree. Not like the ’70s seemed remote and distant to me when I was living in the ’90s. But I was younger then and time stretched and yawned forward and back in both directions. Now it seems compressed and speeds up faster every year. Ever notice how the older you get, the time seems to speed up? When I was 10 or 15, a decade seemed like an eon. Now a decade seems like a year did back then. Maybe even less than that.

If by some fluke, I live to be 90, that’s the same amount of time going forward (35 years) as going back to 1979, when I was 20. Now that seems like a good chunk of time. 1979 seems like a pretty long time in the past. Disco wasn’t even dead yet. Jimmy Carter was still president. I was still a “minor.” I can get down with living another 35 years. But I don’t really want to live to be 90.

I wonder if all this thinking about God and religion and spirituality I’ve been doing lately has to do with realizing I’m getting up there and having to face my own mortality. When you’re young, the rest of your life seems like a vast amount of time; you can always put off that thing you know you should do until later. Why rush things? But listen, kids. Life’s not as long as you think–because as you get older, the time will speed up. A lot.

There are some interesting theories as to why time seems to speed up as we age. One of them, described in this blog post in Scientific American, is because as a percentage of our age, a given chunk of time takes up a smaller and smaller percentage the older we get.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment. When you’re five, five years is a very long time–it’s your entire lifetime! To a fifty year old, five years is a mere 10% of the time they’ve lived, so it doesn’t seem like much. What is 10% of a five year old’s life? Six months! So six months to a five year old is perceived the same way as five years is perceived by a fifty year old! You can have a lot of fun playing with the numbers this way. When I was 35, twenty years seemed like a very long time–because it was more than 50% of the time I’d lived. At my current age, twenty years is just a little more than a third of the time I’ve been alive, so it seems that much shorter. My perception of time passing is such that thirty years is roughly the same as 20 years was to me then. And it will continue to get worse until the day I finally shuck off this mortal coil.

Saying goodbye to a friend

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My son had to put his pet ferret, Ozzie, to sleep today. Ozzie was suffering from cancer and was having seizures, so having him put down was the humane and compassionate thing to do. This photo captured their last moment together at the vet’s office. It made me cry, and I don’t cry easily. There’s just something about the human-animal bond. Ozzie must have known he was loved.

RIP Ozzie. You’re over the rainbow bridge now.