No For Real Though
This article is about death and dying.
How does a person begin to function in a day to day way with the knowledge that they are going to die?
I mean. We are all going to. We all have this knowledge hidden away inside us. Sometimes, when it’s dark, when we’re anxious, when we’re sick or tired, the knowledge of our death might sneak up in the back of our minds and say a quiet hello. Personally, the knowledge of my death has led to a lot of panic attacks and the careful repacking of that knowledge in layers of cotton and bubble wrap until it fades away again.
At least, until they told me I had two cancers this year. I keep just saying that out loud. Two cancers. Two. Cancers. Two of them. At the same time. Unrelated ones. Two. I don’t know why it’s the two thing that hangs me up, but it is. It’s like, they could have said I had one kind of cancer and that would have been huge and frightening and big and manageable. But two kinds? I can’t even. “Some people,” I keep thinking to myself, “get a diagnosis of diabetes and get to just, like, deal with that.” For me, that diagnosis was so long ago (9 whole months), and so mild and treatable compared to everything else, I barely even think about it except when I take my sugars.
I have suffered for many years with PTSD due to medical trauma. I am (was?) particularly vulnerable to worry and panic about health concerns. I have been afraid I would get sick or have something wrong with me for ages. I spent many sleepless nights afraid I had cancer and didn’t know it. Oh shit. I did. Or at least, I do now. Weird side effect: I really am not scared like that anymore. I’m scared, confused, overwhelmed, at a total loss regarding how to manage my emotional well-being, but I’m not waking up at night afraid I’m sick. Besides, I’m too tired thanks to the anemia. All right then. No more fear of cancer. That’s… cool I guess?
The whole “just forget about the death concept, and it will go away most of the time” practice is totally failing me. I can’t forget about death anymore. I feel like death moved right into my living room and is daring me to try to forget about it now. I’ve decided that I have to learn how to befriend death. We need to get to know each other. I need to dive into what it really means to be dying, dead, gone, eternally not here anymore. I have not in any way settled on a belief about what happens when we die, except that we die. The end. No more. While my heart wants to believe in more, my rational side is skeptical as all heck. After all, isn’t life after death the most convenient way to wrap up that whole “I’m gonna die” concept and make it a thing we can all live with?
I should say, writing this now, I have no more idea of when I am going to die than anyone else. It’s more possible for me that it’s sooner than I want at this point—that’s about all I know for sure. While I certainly am grateful I don’t have certain death in my near future, I don’t enjoy this unknown feeling. I don’t think any of us do. I’m pretty sure that’s how existentialism was born.
I’m considering softening my beliefs around death. Will it harm a single soul if I decide there’s a particular kind of ongoing existence? While my skeptic inside is really not convinced, my pagan woo-woo self is open to the idea. After all, on my dying day, I want to not be afraid. I am so sick and fucking tired of being afraid. If telling a story about what happens next is a way to feel less afraid, maybe it’s also a way to make friends with death.
I am a responsible gal. Seatbelts, never smoked a day in my life, eat healthy, exercise, don’t get in trouble, drive close to the speed limit, take my meds, make the best and most compassionate choice I can in any situation. Most of these, if I’m honest, boil down to “gosh, I’m scared to die; I’d better pretend really hard that I can control it by behaving in certain ways.” My nutritionist used to talk to me for ages about how the driving terror of death is probably to blame for our culture’s weird obsessive hate of fatness. Fat people die! Well, do I have uncomfortable news for thin people.
See, I would have been nervous to even read this far in this piece because thinking about death’s inevitability is terrifying. No existence is possibly the scariest thing I can imagine. It’s weird, too, because, like, if I don’t exist how can I be scared? I’ll only be scared right up until not existing, then I’ll be well, not scared. I will be nothing—no thing. Gives me the willies. But maybe I can open to the reality a little. Let the belief I won’t be no thing—or at least the truth that I have no idea one way or the other—sink in more. This is the ultimate thing I can’t know. Anxiety’s true nemesis: the unknown.
Sorry if you got this far hoping I had answers. I don’t. I have no idea how to grapple with this death thing. I am just starting to try to figure it out. One tiny step at a time.