Questions of Life, Mortality and Grief

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley


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….”  

She continued…

“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.

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34 Comments on "Questions of Life, Mortality and Grief"

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  1. Karen  November 15, 2019 at 12:58 pm Reply

    After my sister died, I found myself re-visiting questions like: “Why are we here?” “What is life about?” “What is the point?” “What are we [humans] doing on the planet?” I don’t have answers, and perhaps there aren’t any, apart from what Bill Harris says about experiences (and life) having whatever meaning you choose to give them.

    Whenever I mention these questions about the meaning and purpose of life to others, I notice they quickly change the subject. No one seems to want to discuss them – at least no one I’ve yet spoken to. Which makes me wonder: why not? Are these not the essential questions of life? Don’t we all wonder about this on some level? We’re all going to die, so don’t we want to find out or choose what we’re doing here, while we’re here?

    Anyway, Eleanor, if you come across any answers to the question of “Why are we here?”, I’m interested in hearing other opinions.

  2. Tommy De Martino  June 9, 2019 at 6:01 pm Reply

    I lost my father two months ago to cancer. He lived in Connecticut and I had just moved to Florida with my family. When I was told in November that he had terminal cancer I went to pieces. I’m not much on crying but I broke down several times and felt destroyed. Still, after he died I didn’t share a tear and felt a very strong desire to accept his death and forge ahead without fear of this event. I needEd to be strong for my mother and she took his death very badly and I kept yelling at her and saying you need to be strong and move on. This seems to perplex me this feeling of strength and acceptance and maybe a little anger mixed in. It’s the strangest feeling I’ve ever had when it comes to death. Is this denial? Is it that I really haven’t accepted this? I’m not sure but I’ve moved on as he would want me to but there is a strand of guilt and confusion. It doesn’t seem normal to be so distant from such a loss.

  3. Sami  December 21, 2018 at 11:51 pm Reply

    Hello.
    Everything you said makes sense. Your daughters and you have existential questions perhaps because you are gifted. It’s hard to be different as happens when you’re gifted and you constantly think something is off about you while you want to connect deeply with others and it’s not possible. It would be very helpful to know why that’s happening and suddenly things will make sense and you can start healing all the past traumas of being called too much! I hope you look into it for yourself and your children.
    About the existential crisis for our losses, right now I’m experiencing positive disintegration. I’m questioning every belief I holder dear. I sometimes think I don’t really know who I am anymore. I’ve been through a series of losses and changes however I’m so desperate now to know why does it all matter in the end and what appears to matter is just now and here. The purpose of the universe seems to be being and nothing more and I just can’t understand why there has to be conscious beings like us. I even thought maybe everything is conscious and we just don’t perceive it. I’m confused as I can’t find anyway to say souls exist. I think our consciousness disintegrates, after our death just the way our body does and that makes me feel sad. Also I think if it’s all for the moment is it really worth it to wait and see it to the end? Life seems to be a very fascinating coincidence however in order to be you don’t have to be conscious. When I think I realize I am pieces and parcels of billions of other things that had been in the past. All of them put together created a new being that’s conscious. But why?

  4. Tracy  June 4, 2018 at 9:06 am Reply

    Eleanor, your response to Fiona’s critique of your article was bang on👍🙌 Personally I could not believe her response and thought it was rather insensitive. As the ultimate professional, you addressed it beautifully and respectfully all considering. I thought your article was thought provoking and I share many of your same thoughts and anxieties of all the “why’s”?

  5. Sue  May 25, 2017 at 10:50 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this article – at 36 I too constantly struggle with death. It’s something that has always gave me anxiety but has came to the forefront since losing my dad a year and a half ago. What happens, will I see him when I die, does heaven truly exist. We seem to know everything accept what happens when we die. I don’t have children but if I did I know it would be a tough discussion as it’s something that makes me so uneasy and as you said it’s not something people want to discuss with you. It’s tough finding people that get it. Thank you for making me feel more normal.

  6. Sue  May 22, 2017 at 10:52 pm Reply

    What a great article – at 36 I too constantly struggle with death. It’s something that has always gave me anxiety but has came to the forefront since losing my dad a year and a half ago. What happens, will I see him when I die, does heaven truly exist. We seem to know everything accept what happens when we die. I don’t have children but if I did I know it would fe a tough discussion as it’s something that makes me so uneasy and as you said it’s not something people wan to discuss with you. Thank you for making me feel more normal.

  7. jody  August 31, 2016 at 5:29 am Reply

    looking to grow past grief of loss of husband and no children

  8. Sally Carr  July 25, 2016 at 11:14 am Reply

    Thank you to everyone who has posted on this site. I lost my soul mate forty five days ago and have yo-yoed ever since…..the bad days are those when I can’t stop crying and trying to find answers from God, followed by the worse days when I’m numb and petrified inside. I’m sixty six and no stranger to death….I lost my mum when I was seventeen and a baby daughter when she was two and a half weeks old…..but I never remember feeling like this before. I wish I had more faith but something tells me that someone led me to this site…….I am so so sorry for all those that are grieving but there is a truth in believing that our grief only reflects our love…..and to love is to keep and hold forever. Thank you again

  9. Mary  July 12, 2016 at 10:54 pm Reply

    I don’t fear death at all..only the pain that might accompany it and the lingering. It can take me anytime, I don’t care.

  10. John  June 18, 2016 at 4:42 am Reply

    I lost my wife in March, after an unexpected and traumatic event. Before this I had many questions about life and existence, and what came after if anything. The loss of my wife did not answer any of these things, rather it removed my fear from the equation. I no longer fear death, this has manifested itself in a more reckless outlook.
    I still have many unanswered questions especially of a spiritual nature but after being confronted with the inevitable you experience a certain calm exceptance.
    This is not the same as being at peace, that is something I feel a long way off, but an understanding of how powerless we really are.

  11. Inga  June 9, 2016 at 2:51 am Reply

    AthThank you for an article and very interesting discussion! What came to my mind was the teachings of Bill Harriss, saying that nothing has a meaning unless we give it to things, people, events, etc. Actually it’s a thousands of years old spiritual truth, he
    just explained in a way I totally got it. So whether some death is or is not tragic, only you can tell. My 11 years old son died of cancer and I was honoured to be present at
    his leaving this world. Was it tragic then? Of course! But even during days and nights when I and my mum cared for him, there were not only despair, sorrow and pain. There were also moments of beautiful calm, acceptance and peace. He was my greatest spiritual teacher and even though I never wanted to lose him, would never choose to go through such experience conciously, his life and death shaped me the most into who I am today. And for that I am grateful. That experience put me on the path of becoming a grief coach. And now, after many other losses, I do not have a fear of death. When the moment comes, if it is in a way I wouldn’t choose, of course I will experience survival instinct. But nevertheless I am looking forward to my own death as the greatest adventure of my life. When my time comes…(hopefully after many many years as there still is so much I want to experience in life). But I do believe that when death becomes sacred, life becomes sacred too. Thanks so much for this important conversation!

  12. Jennifer  June 7, 2016 at 8:21 pm Reply

    This is the first article that has made any sort of sense to me since losing my mom suddenly & tragically on July 22, 2013! All I can say is THANK YOU!!

  13. Pat  June 2, 2016 at 8:29 pm Reply

    Eleanor, I think your post is wonderful. I remember my dad saying after his last parent died, “well I’m next” because he was the oldest of his siblings. At his funeral I told one of my cousins that and he looked at me like I had two heads. Meanwhile I totally got it and often think, after my mom passes I will be next. I often think about why am 8 here, what is my purpose and hope that I am living a life that is appreciated by those who know me. I am so happy to hear that I am not alone contemplating my thoughts, fears and anxieties. I read all of your posts on Facebook and find them very helpful and thought provoking as well as supportive. Thank you for what you do.

  14. Yam Kahol  June 2, 2016 at 7:31 pm Reply

    Eleanor, often I feel like even though your on the other side of the planet to me, you are in my head – but you are not, because you are much more eloquent than me, and have such an ability to put into words streams of interested thoughts about topics most people don’t touch on.

    Here’s my attempt to reflect and be eloquent, let’s see…

    When my dear father died, it was strange that some of my thoughts were so much about me and my future mortality. Also some of my family thought similar thoughts. I thought about how I would be different to him, and maybe die with no-one next to me, alone. I thought about how when I die I wouldn’t have last words to say to my family or things I desperately needed to tell people because I wouldn’t have anyone in my life. I thought about how many people turned up for his funeral, how the papers wrote about him, how the town knew our family were in mourning, and how it wouldn’t be like that for me. I wondered what it would be like to die with emptiness, loneliness and no-one to say goodbye to, alone in a hospital. I thought about how his death was drawn out and he had so many questions on his mind that he wanted answers to, what’s next, what will happen, what’s after death, will my daughter get married. And I thought that I might not ask those questions when I’m dying because I might not have energy to ask those questions to the blank walls of an empty hospital room.

    I think back to his death often. I felt nothing, as in I could feel he was gone. Just gone and no longer there. I didn’t need anything else to tell me that (in my opinion) there is nothing after death. His body was there, but he was not there.

    And at the same time almost, I had a very wierd experience which I once wrote to you about, when I experienced a severe crime two days after the funeral, when I thought I was going to die. And in that horrible panic, my animal reaction was just to save myself, to save my family, to live. Whatever black period I was going through after his death, I had a will to live.

    Everything was so black and white. Live or die.

    In a bazaar way, life and existence is instinctively easier to get my head round after all of these extreme experiences. Whatever complications you might think you’re in, there are some things such as the certainty of death and a base desire to survive which are true.

    Somehow, I find all these thought refreshing.

    • Eleanor  June 2, 2016 at 8:52 pm Reply

      Yam,

      Very eloquent 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing your perspective.

      You know, I think that your experience after your Dad died makes sense and, you know, I think a lot of people think about how they will/would like/would not like to die after seeing someone they love die. For example, someone might go out and get an advanced directive or write up a will or start talking about what they would like to happen if they become sick or die. After my mom died I decided that I wouldn’t never want to pursue cancer treatment if I received a dire diagnosis, although who knows what I’d really do in the moment.

      I also find your insight about the simplicity of life and survival vs. death comforting. There is so much in between those two things that it can seem so confusing, but there is something comforting about that basic idea. Interestingly, I crashed my car about 6 years ago in what could have been a fatal crash that thankfully wasn’t and for about 20 seconds there was that panic, fight to survive instinct, but as soon as I realized I was powerless I felt myself give in and a total calm washed over me. Maybe it was chemical and I’m sure once the car stopped spinning if I had to claw my way out to survive I would have, but I now find comfort in that experience and the belief that when the times comes and I can no longer fight for survival, maybe I’ll be able to hand over control and feel at peace with it. That’s kind of a random insight from the other side of the coin, but it all goes together I think.

  15. Vicki  June 2, 2016 at 3:33 pm Reply

    It is NOT all over. I had a near-death experience, was clinically dead for 10 minutes. Nothing was over and I knew things that there was no way I should have known them.
    But since my brain was still attached to my body, even though my heart and lungs had stopped working, it could have been that’s why I still felt something. IDK. None of the doctors even wanted to believe what happened to me and unfortunately I decided to go with THEIR views instead of my own until 23 years after that experience I saw something on one of those “true” ghost shows I watch that has no explanation and a mere gd coincidence doesn’t do the trick of writing it off the page (the way most skeptics are DYing to do.) It would have to be the oddest “coincidence” on the planet and it doesn’t make sense anyway. Why would I coincidentally see the same thing someone I’ve never met and don’t know saw. Several someone’s actually. I still HAVEN’T met them and probably never will.
    There wouldn’t be any reason for a coincidence like that to occur. Besides that the details were too exact and we’d never even compared notes – bc I don’t know anyone from that show I watched and all of them described in almost perfect match seeing what I did. I never named the thing I saw, they called it ‘The Angel of Death’ on the show. There’s no logical explanation for why my experience was almost exactly like these people I never met.

    • Eleanor  June 2, 2016 at 8:34 pm Reply

      Really??? Wow, that’s interesting/intriguing! There truly isn’t a logical explanation for that.

  16. Jen  June 2, 2016 at 3:11 pm Reply

    I really appreciate this post! I began working as a grief professional six months ago, and have spent a lot of time considering how my existential fear and deep sense of dread about dying, which I have always been distinctly aware of, affects my approach to this work. At times I’ve questioned whether it makes me less a good fit for my job, but I think too that it is helpful in being able to address such a natural fear with others honestly and to empathize with how total a loss can feel, even if one does hold firm belief in an afterlife or reunion. There’s a Joan Didion quote that describes keepers of notebooks as “children apparently afflicted from birth with some presentiment of loss,” and that resonates with me a ton! For whatever number of reasons, I think these questions/anxieties are fairly common with kids as they get older – they were for me growing up. Thanks for addressing this!

    • Eleanor  June 2, 2016 at 8:32 pm Reply

      Wow, I love that quote and it’s one I’ve never heard. Thanks so much for sharing! I think you’re right, these are normal questions for children/people to ask as soon as they become aware of death and I think it’s only by asking these questions that one is able to ever find any understanding or answers. I’m certain the time you’ve spent pondering existential questions has made you a better grief professional, it’s something that so many people so naturally experience…especially after the death of a loved one.

  17. Stephanie  June 2, 2016 at 3:01 pm Reply

    I have most certainly had these thoughts as I grappled with my Mother’s death, as I inherited all her “stuff” and struggled to condense all I wanted to say about her into one eulogy. Watching my mother die made it so clear in my head that “I am next”.
    When I tried to discuss this with my counselor, she simply wouldn’t go there with me, I think she felt it was too “dark”. But as someone who does not have a religious faith, I too am left with seeing the endless cycle of life and the fact that I am moving along in the continuum no matter what efforts I make at immortality. In fact, haven’t philosophers been struggling with this forever? I applaud your courage to take on this topic.
    I decided eventually, we will never wholly know what the “point” is, so let’s do all the good we can for others, and have as much fun as we can while we are here – after all, it is all we get. Smell the roses, baby!

    • Yam Kahol  June 2, 2016 at 7:54 pm Reply

      I’m smelling the roses 🙂

    • Eleanor  June 2, 2016 at 8:28 pm Reply

      Stephanie,

      Hmmm….I’m so sorry to hear that was your experience with your counselor. It’s always a wonder to me that people go into counseling but then avoid the tough topics when their clients bring them up. I think you’re right, we will never know…and personally I’m glad to believe there is a lot that I don’t know, whatever it may be. I like you’re approach, though, to do all the good we can for others and enjoy life. I can definitely cheers to that.

  18. Fiona  June 2, 2016 at 2:40 pm Reply

    Hi Eleanor. I have to say I found your article extraordinary.
    As you work as a grief counsellor, I would have thought that your negative attitude towards life, should have you question your career choice!
    My own late mother spoke often about death and the type of funeral she would like, as did her mother before her. Both had difficult lives and so it came as no wonder that they were somewhat preoccupied with death, as a release from a hard life.
    My grandmother was very religious so she saw death as a welcome event. To be with God and her predeceased loved ones. My mother on the other hand was an ‘awfuliser’. Glass always half empty.she was influenced greatly by her mother’s preoccupation with death.
    Being preoccupied with death is not the same as looking to ourselves and asking the big questions.

    I take offence to your statement thst death is almost always tragic.
    My 11 year daughter tragically, which is the appropriate word for her passing. -reflecting her young age and the manner of her death. Your statement is simply not true.
    The death of elderly people is not tragic. The death of those who have lived with great pain and suffering is not tragic.
    We mourn all of our loved ones, but not to the same degree. Every death, like every life is different
    Grieving is a natural emotion. However remaining in grief is not natural.
    I no longer grieve for my mother, however i do still miss her. It is human nature.
    When your daughter asked ‘what the point of living’, i would have thought you would have shared some of the many hundred reasons, to continue our family line, to experience the wide world, to see what we are made of in terms of talent, our impact on others and in our community or on a bigger stage, to discover … the list is endless. I also don’t consider it a strange question, as you work in the ‘death business’ and she has probably picked up on thus and perhaps overheard you talking about your work?

    You say that you believe in a higher power, therefore it also seems strange to not to welcome what awaits you. Is that not part of any faith, an eternal reward, a reincarnation, a new existence in a paradise, etc.
    How do atheists or agnostics get out of the bed? What courage they possess. !

    In closing I would say that I wish to live. I dont want to die, though I would admit I have no fear of death. I will livr, which is a more difficult path. I will do so for my surviving child and to make a difference, however big or small, to honour my child’s life.
    Many choose to exist, I choose to live and I hope that something exists outside of my human understanding which will provide that answer ‘what’s the point of it all.’

    • Eleanor  June 2, 2016 at 5:46 pm Reply

      Fiona, I think perhaps we just look at things a little bit differently, which is okay. That’s actually the point I was trying to make towards the end of this article.

      It seems as though you may have perceived some of what I said in a way that wasn’t intended. For example, I’m surprised that you took from this article that I have a negative attitude towards life. Indeed, I have quite the opposite attitude and that is why I find the prospect of death so frightening. In my mind there is nothing negative about questioning the big picture or about fearing death.

      I also think it’s likely that we have different perceptions of what it means to wonder about the meaning of life. When I say that I question the meaning of life, I’m not saying that my current life is void of meaning. For me, questioning relates to the fact that I am acutely aware that we live for but a second in the history of this world and so my “why’s” are related to how we fit in the grander picture. I think perhaps I should have been clearer about the content of my questioning. Perhaps I should have also said more regarding the extensive conversations that I have with my daughter about family, legacy, faith, and doing good for the future of the world – but that is beyond the scope of this article and not exactly the point.

      I think that your comment truly highlights the fact that we all have different feelings, beliefs, ideas, and narratives about life and death. Your understanding of a higher power allows you to welcome what awaits you. For me, as the mother of two young daughters who I am no where near ready to leave, I just can’t bring myself to use the word “welcome” in regards to death. You also say you have no fear of death, which is a view I completely respect, but it’s not one that I share.

      I am terribly sorry about your daughter’s death. I have no doubt this was an extremely tragic experience and one no mother should have to experience. However, I disagree with your decision to judge other people’s death as not tragic because of their age or circumstances. How could any of us say that a person’s death is not experienced as tragic by at least someone? And why isn’t the death of someone who has experienced suffering tragic? Perhaps the absence of pain they experienced is a relief, but that doesn’t discount the pain that their death leaves behind for those who love them or the fact that they may have wanted to live. My mother suffered before she died and it was a relief to know that her pain was over, but that doesn’t make her death any less tragic to the many many people who love her.

      Grief is a natural emotion and I don’t want to see anyone stuck in acute and intense pain of grief and I am happy that you feel at peace with your grief for your mother. However grief, for many people, is forever and that doesn’t make those people morose, negative, or pathological. This is just how they make sense out of life and loss – and that’s okay.

  19. Carmen  June 2, 2016 at 10:27 am Reply

    Eleanor,
    You certainly are not alone! These are questions I also ponder. As someone who chooses to be child free, the questions of “who will remember me after I’m gone?” and “what will my impact on the world be?” are thoughts that spur me on do to good work in the very limited time I have left (probably only 45 years, if I escape accident and disease). I agree with your conclusion: so often we feel pressured to only think of our loved ones without examining how their deaths affect our personal outlook on life. As for me, I’m going to allow these “morbid” thoughts to continue making me a better grief professional, and hopefully a more conscientious person.
    PS – I can’t say that your girls are “normal”, but as a kid, my playground was the nearby fields in a cemetery, I spent lots of time composing “last wills”, leaving all my Barbies to my little sister, and my little mind was full of the same questions your daughters are asking. So, yeah, maybe your girls are attuned to a different plane than most kids, but maybe that’s a good thing. 🙂 Congratulations on raising the next generation of grief professionals!

    • Eleanor  June 2, 2016 at 8:20 pm Reply

      Thanks Carmen, I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one! I like how you said “attuned to a different plane”…and I definitely think kids wonder about these things and talk about it. Sometimes they seem far more comfortable than adults!

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