Existential angst and death anxiety run in my blood. I think I get it from my Dad’s side of the family, although it’s hard to be sure. Several of my immediate relatives have it and I’m pretty sure my 9-year-old daughter does as well because she asks me about it all the time.
For example, the other day she said to me,
“Mom, what’s the point of life?” to which I responded “Hmmm….”
“I mean, I know we’re here and we’re supposed to do good things and stuff”… (this is vaguely what I told her the last time we had this conversation) “…but then we just die and it’s all over. We’re gone and it doesn’t matter anymore.”
I sat speechless as I watched my first-born teetering on the edge of a familiar and never-ending rabbit hole.
I honestly don’t know if this normal, age-appropriate questioning or if she’s inherited my neurosis. I suppose it’s too early to tell if my 7-year-old will inherit it as well, although she does ask about death sometimes. It’s even worse when the 7-year-old talks about it because she does it in a really matter-of-fact way. Like yesterday she turned to her father and me and asked, “Which one of you will die first?”
Honestly, this isn’t the first time my daughters have asked me about death. As a grief blogger and a person who has experienced the death of a close loved one, it comes up. I guess it’s just caught me off guard lately because they’re saying exactly what I’ve been thinking.
My oldest daughter Evelyn just turned 9 and in a few weeks, I’ll be turning 35. I’m hesitant to even disclose my soon-to-be age because I know some people will say, “Hey dummy, that’s not that old”, but my issue isn’t with age…it’s with the passage of time. Time, which never stops until it does; which is forcing me to jettison unfinished items from my life to-do list; which is turning my babies into big kids; which has seen billions of people come and go before me; which will eventually lead to me being forgotten.
I know…I am the ultimate downer right now. Trust me…I know.
I know because this is a topic that I usually never ever bring up because it always gets shut down. It may surprise you to know that people don’t like to talk about their mortality; it’s actually a really awkward conversation stopper. Typically my angst is met with one of a few dismissive responses like…
“You’re so morbid”
Whether or not this is true about me, I’d argue that it’s not morbid to think about your mortality or to ponder the meaning and purpose of life. Many of you have experienced the death of a loved one and might know what it’s like to reconcile a senseless, unexpected, or premature death; to question the meaning of life; or to fear your loved one’s life will be forgotten.
“You’re faith isn’t strong enough.”
I know many people feel that faith or belief in the afterlife should be of some comfort when pondering death, but for me, and for many others, it’s of small consolation. In my mind, as wonderful as an afterlife may be (if I’m allowed in), I really just want to be here with my children and my family.
“You shouldn’t fear death because it’s a part of life.”
I have to admit, this last one bothers me the most; maybe because I often encounter this point of view in the field of death, dying, and bereavement. In my experience, it seems like the general vibe among grief professionals is that everyone should be cool with their mortality, and so discussion of existential fear and angst is often met with responses like, “C’mon man, death is just a natural part of life.” Which is true, death is a natural part of life, but so is fear of death. I’d argue that death anxiety is natural in any organism with the drive and will to survive.
I hope no one reading this thinks that I’m trying to undermine anyone else’s understanding of life or outlook on death. We all ask ourselves these existential questions and come up with our own unique answers. The fact that I haven’t found my own peace of mind, doesn’t mean that another person can’t find theirs. Ultimately, I’m okay being at odds with my mortality. I actually think it makes me an even better grief professional simply because I fully appreciate just how much death sucks. My own dread towards death is why I know that each and every person who comes to What’s Your Grief is serious when they say they have a broken heart. Regardless of who died and regardless of the circumstances, death is almost always tragic. At the very least it is devastating in its ramifications on the living, and if it weren’t then we wouldn’t have grief in the first place.
Whatever unique understanding you have of life and death is okay, I commend you for even having asked the questions. I think it stands to reason that how you feel about life and death, in many ways, will impact the way you grieve. Perhaps you hold on tightly to your pain for fear that if you let go your loved one’s life will be forgotten or meaningless. Perhaps you refuse to fully face your grief because it makes you uncomfortable to think about death. Perhaps you find comfort in your beliefs, or perhaps you question your faith when you don’t feel comfort.
I think it’s fascinating that we don’t talk more about the relationship between our feelings about mortality and grief. Maybe we don’t because we feel selfish turning the lens on our own life and mortality, when we feel we should only be thinking about our loved ones life and death. However it’s logical that these two things would be interconnected and that thoughts and feeling around our own life and mortality would arise at the time of a loved one’s death and as a part of our grief in the future. I believe it’s at least worth thinking, don’t you?
Does any of this make sense or are these the ramblings of an almost-35-year-old in the midst of a mid-life crisis? It’s so hard to tell anymore.