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Death Anxiety

Posted Oct 13 2009 10:04pm
When I was two and a half years old, I first understood what death meant.

My father had recently died, and my mother had told me, "Daddy is dead," as a way of explaining it. At that point I was still using other peoples' words to make sense of my world; so for a long time, I repeated, "Daddy is dead," to myself, over and over. My first memory is of my mother telling a friend on the phone, "She doesn't know what she's saying." I suppose the repetitive mimicking might have fooled my mom into thinking that I didn't know; but I clearly remember thinking--not in words, but in concepts--"Yes, I do. I do know what I'm saying." And I did.

I was four. My grandfather died. I hadn't been close to him, but it was the first funeral I'd ever attended. I knew what death was then, and I had learned to read, so I could put my own words to it; and I was sorry I had to throw a flower into the grave, because I thought it was sad that something so beautiful as a flower had to be thrown away. I don't know if I understood the concept of mourning someone else, at that age; but I understood about crying for lost flowers, and I knew my grandfather wasn't coming back.

I was six, and taking my first plane flight. "I will pray," I told my mother, "that we don't crash." She reassured me that we wouldn't crash, but I could only think--though not quite articulate--"But we could crash. It is a very small chance, but it could happen. My mother is wrong." Of course, looking back on it, Mom must have been simply trying to reassure me, thinking I was afraid. At that point, though, I wasn't afraid yet; just aware.

I was eight, I think, when I first really experienced what they call metacognition--the experience of watching your own thoughts; and not just watching them, but understanding them. Understanding that "I exist" comes in early toddlerhood; understanding what existence might mean comes later. The idea of nonexistence is both frightening and fascinating. Lately I have been perhaps a little angry at God for putting such a tantalizing possibility as Heaven in front of us; how do we know our faith is actually based on wanting to know God, and not just wanting to continue to exist? Of course that idea has no bearing on whether said faith is in a true thing, as both pleasant and unpleasant things can be true; but it does really leave things open to questioning one's own motives, doesn't it?

That was the year I saw my first picture of a dead body--an Egyptian mummy, photograhphed for educational purposes and an odd exemption to the rule that "one must deny to children the existence of death". My mother had been thus far careful to shelter me from all mention of death, as though it might traumatize me; the next year, when a stepfather died, she would insist on a closed casket. The upshot of all of it--the idea that death is frightening (which is true) and to be hidden from (which is not), and the shocking first sight of a skeletonized, shrunken human body--gave me a severe phobia that I would not fully overcome for another twelve years. At the peak of it, the simple thought of a corpse could cause me to freeze in terror. I couldn't even read the dictionary for fear of coming upon the "wrong" word. But, ashamed of my own weakness, I would almost immediately begin to work to expose myself slowly to the reality of death.

Not long after that closed-casket funeral, I got into physics for the first time; first, finding the patterns in the stars, then learning about how they worked, and finally learning about how the universe itself worked. For a very long time, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. But along with understanding the universe came the knowledge that this, also, dies. At the edge of a black hole is a mathematical end to space and time. At the edge of the universe, on one end at least, is a similar horizon; at the other end, depending on exactly how matter is arranged and how gravity and expansion balance, there is another horizon or else a long, slow loss of available energy to the heat death of the universe.

And there it is again. Death. Everything is impermanent. I was fascinated; but also frightened. Information seemed to me to be the one constant, especially after I learned that the intuitive idea that matter itself could only change form was not quite correct. That everything could turn into a homogenous soup of radiation, with no more change and no more newness, was very much like the still very horrifying fact that a human being, with his own mental universe nearly as limitless as the external one, could turn into a similar sort of soup, and in a much shorter time.

Slowly, I worked myself away from the phobia. At first, I looked up words in the dictionary, where one could be sure to see no pictures. Then I read about how the Egyptians dealt with death, and why they kept their dead so carefully preserved. I read about how some people chose death rather than some other thing that they considered worse (and my Protestant mother might have been quite appalled to see the books of Catholic saints I was devouring!). From very young, I've loved stories with lots of action--and with real danger. Maybe it was comforting to see people dealing with the reality of death, and facing the possibility, and sometimes actually dying, at least without going entirely mad. Eventually, I was able to look at pictures like that Egyptian mummy. And last year, as part of my training as a biomedical engineer, I learned human anatomy in a laboratory with donated cadavers, and learned to appreciate the beauty of the human body even in an inert state.

Overcoming the phobia has done nothing for the basic fear. I still wake up, most days, and think to myself, "I'm going to die." I have no terminal health condition; not even anything remotely serious. But, unlike most people, I can't think of myself as a smaller unit in a larger group, nor really get any comfort from the idea that my family or my nation or some other group I belong to might outlive me. I intuitively understood the idea that "I think, therefore I am," the one thing that can ever be proven absolutely, and then only about oneself. My universe is nothing but self--not in the sense of "selfishness", but simply that it is impossible to see the world as anything but the world that comes in through my senses and, as far as I know, may as well not exist when I'm not looking at it. (Quantum physics would say--with a side order of probability waves--that I may not be too far wrong.)

So here I am, a finite person capable of understanding eternity; in fact, incapable of understanding the concept of non-eternity. We all have little universes inside our heads; and when we are not focused on anything else, it is very easy to get lost in them. I have fewer distractions than most people do. And yet... even though my own mental universe is the only one I will ever perceive... there is something about other people having their own mental universes that makes them extremely important. That you are also looking out through your own eyes at this dying universe is a fact I can never experience for myself; but, for some reason, there's an impulse in me to make your universe better. I don't know why. I only know that if I can't leave something behind me, maybe in your universe, then when my own ends, whether in eternity or in nothing, what will be the point of its having existed at all?

There it is: Eternity in my head; altruism in my heart; denying death; and yet in front of me, every time I see things decaying to their most probable state, every time I understand that entropy points only one way, is the reality of death.

You can understand, can't you, why seeing this reality every day mightn't make one at least a little anxious? The biggest question in the world, and we have to leave it unanswered until it doesn't matter what the answer is!

I don't have any profound insights here. I don't know any answers. The existence of the supernatural isn't a firm answer; it's a guess (with what I think to be a very high probability of truth). Naturalism is only another guess. Agnosticism is quite unsatisfying. There's no way to get a firm answer anywhere. Maybe that's what they hide from children when they hide from them the reality of death--that there aren't any answers, not one-hundred-percent answers, except, "I know I exist now. But what, then?"

It's funny how much time is spent telling parents how to talk to children about sex, and how comparatively little is spent teaching them about death. Most everyone is going to face that question; and for some of us, like it does for me, it will color everything we think and do.

Parents, it's the worst thing you can possibly do to hide death from your children. Pretending it doesn't happen; pretending it can't happen; pretending it's so far away as to be ridiculous to even think about... none of that will do any better than just turn it into the shadowy monster in the dark, that you can't look at for fear of how terrible it might be.

Have you ever watched a horror movie, the sort where the monster is kept out of sight for a long time, to heighten the suspense? And have you ever seen the monster pop out, and been frightened for a while; and then realized that yes, it is terrible to look at; but that the fear of it, while you were refusing to look and covering your eyes, was more terrible?

Death is like that, too. Teaching children to hide their eyes does no good; because there's simply no way to walk out of the movie theater without seeing the monster. It may be a hard thing to tell a little one, "No, I don't have any perfect answers, either," but at least it is honest. It is better for a child to face the monster with someone to hold his hand, than to grow up hiding and cowering and fearing the unseen.
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