Death isn’t something I like to think about, much less write about. In fact, it’s my biggest fear (outside of the death of one of my children). Oh, I know all the pat arguments and rationalizations that it’s not so bad–death is a part of life, death is nothing to be afraid of, if you’re a good Christian you will go to Heaven and there will be no fear, nothing at all will happen so there will be no fear, even the idea that death is beautiful.
I woke this morning, as I often do, thinking about how much I fear my own death. I think this is a little obsessive-compulsiveness on my part, and probably something I should talk about more in therapy. The mental health field has a name for the irrational or excessive fear of death: thanatophobia. So far I’ve only talked to God about my phobia but I feel like He isn’t listening. People in my age group (50’s) say they’re beginning to come to terms with the prospect of death, but so far, for me, that hasn’t happened. I get more scared every year.
Maybe death terrifies me because it entails complete ego loss–it’s the ultimate dissociative experience, and as someone who has had massive panic attacks usually instigated by dissociative experiences (feeling out my body, feeling like things are dreamlike or unreal, etc.) it would be natural for me to be afraid of what it might feel like. It’s like someone who had a bad drug trip and is mentally unstable to begin with being slipped some acid when they’re unaware of it–and never being able to return to reality.
I don’t like to write about death, because even thinking about it too long makes me extremely anxious. But I need to write about it, and need to talk about it with others, and maybe find comfort in the fact that others have the same sense of trepidation and worry. Maybe I’m not alone in my fear of death and dying. So I’m going to plow on. Writing about it surely can’t hurt.
I’ve been told by many Christians that, if I am strong in my faith, that there is nothing to fear, because I can be sure of my place in Heaven after I die. But this makes things even worse for me, because I do have doubts in my faith and I am not at certain I am going to Heaven, or even that there is a Heaven. No matter how much I pray for perfect faith, I can’t seem to make my mind rid itself of its many doubts. There are just some things about Christianity I can’t make myself believe or at least not question. Again, maybe it’s my obsessive-compulsiveness. As someone who is afraid to trust anyone and is hypervigilant, it’s even hard for me to completely trust God and not worry about what will happen to me after I die. I look at others–even narc abuse survivors who should be as hypervigilant as I am–who seem to have attained perfect faith and I marvel at this. How do they do it?
Although it’s hard for me to believe that if I question Christianity or what the Bible says, that God will send me to burn in Hell for eternity even if I’m otherwise a good person (that seems like a terribly cruel, narcissistic God to me), how do I know for sure God isn’t like that? Maybe God is really that cruel and narcissistic, but in that case, why would I want to even spend eternity in Heaven, trapped there with sanctimonious, self righteous, insufferable believers? (I’m not saying all believers are like that, but I’ve met more than a few who are). In that case, maybe Heaven would be more like Hell. But Hell…well, I definitely don’t want to go there.
But Christianity is only one way to look at the issue of death. Let’s face it. No matter how sure you are in your faith, whatever it is, none of us really knows what’s going to happen after we die. What if the New Agers are right and what happens is you look back and see yourself lying on the hospital bed, pavement, or whatever, see your own broken, bleeding, or used-up body there, and then watch as they pull the sheet over your head? What if you are swooshed at light-speed down a long tunnel toward “the light” and meet angels and see otherworldly landscapes and other inexplicable things? Or what if you float around the earth as a disembodied spirit, revisiting your friends and relatives you left behind? People who have reported NDE’s (near death experiences) have said that at some point they become aware they have died (that’s usually when they “come back”) and most say it’s very disorienting and even scary at first, because their bodies just aren’t there. All of these things, no matter how pleasant others have said they are, strike terror in me, because they sound like dissociative experiences that you can never escape from. I’ve struggled with episodes of dissociation my entire life, but no matter how terrifying they became, I always knew I’d “return” and the experience would probably only last a few minutes. Does something happen after you die where you’re no longer afraid of such things, or do you just learn to deal with it?
Maybe this is true, but I wish I could believe it.
What if the atheists and existentialists are right and nothing happens after you die? What if you simply cease to exist? While I find that prospect extremely depressing, it actually causes me the least anxiety. Eternal sleep and unconsciousness doesn’t seem so bad to me. If you’re aware of nothing, well, there’s nothing to be afraid of or get depressed about, is there? But I still don’t like the idea that this life is ultimately meaningless. What is all the struggle for then?
Reincarnation doesn’t seem so bad, and actually does make some logical sense to my scientifically-leaning brain, but it flies in the face of being a Christian. I don’t know of any Christians who acknowledge that reincarnation is a possibility after death. But why couldn’t it be? As a Catholic, we believe in the concept of purgatory, a place of purification (not punishment) after death. But no one can explain what purgatory might be like. Maybe living additional lives is what purgatory actually means? Again…we just don’t know.
‘It’s not that I’m afraid of dying, Doctor… It’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens!’
Maybe we just go back to wherever we were before we were born, and have amnesia for this life. Or maybe it’s like eternal dreaming (that doesn’t sound too bad). Again, we don’t know.
Besides the inevitable experience of death, which seems bad enough, I’m terrified by the prospect of dying. I’m in my 50’s, and figure I might (realistically) have about another two or three decades of life left. To someone my age, that doesn’t seem so long. Twenty years ago was 1996; thirty years ago was 1986. That means that in that same amount of time, going forward, I will probably be leaving my body permanently, but before that, I may well suffer either unbelievable pain or a few moments of sheer terror. Few people just die peacefully in their sleep or just suddenly keel over while out on the golf course (that’s the way a 90 year old great uncle of mine died). Most suffer first, either for months (as in a long illness) or a few seconds (as in an accident). I’m terrified of both. I know there’s no way to get out of this life alive, so the inevitable is going to happen, and there’s not a whole lot of time left before it does. Even worse, each year time seems to hurtle forward twice as fast as the year before. What seemed like “a long time ago” to me twenty years ago now seems like the blink of an eye.
As someone who tends to overthink everything, I probably think about death and dying way too much. I know I should just stop and enjoy life while I still have it. But the more I try not to think about it, the more I seem to. It’s like that game where you try not to think about an elephant. I pray about this all the time but it hasn’t helped very much. I just keep feeling guilty because no matter how hard I try, I can’t embrace my Christianity with perfect faith. I have no guarantee I’m going to Heaven. I keep questioning everything and then I worry about going to hell. Or being eternally dissociated, which to me would be hell. Or just worrying about the intolerable suffering that will precede my exit from this planet. Maybe I need to talk to my therapist about this because it seems like it could be a form of undiagnosed OCD.
My Fear of Death