What a challenging topic to write about! It is a topic that we all confront many times during our life, and ultimately with ourselves. Yet, this topic is rarely discussed with the possible exception of during funerals. Many subscribe to various religious beliefs on death to give them some degree of comfort when dealing with the loss of loved ones. During these times when we confront the thought of death and our mortality, we experience the gut-wrenching anxiety, sadness, depression, loneliness and fear.
At a psychological level, I like the works of Rollo May (April 21, 1909 – October 22, 1994), an American existential psychologist, to explain why this causes so much anxiety.
The concept of death strikes terror in people as it means existence as they know and understand it ceases. Rollo May used Kierkegaard’s ideology to address how people have a basic anxiety that centers on the concept of death (May, 1996a, 1996b; Schneider & May, 1995). He asserted that this experience of anxiety is universal but not simplistic. May argued that death and the anxieties that affect most people are not merely in regard to physical loss. Death symbolizes the loss of psychological, spiritual, and physical attributes—all of which are identified as aspects of the self (May, 1996a; Schneider & May, 1995). Therein, in resonance with Kierkegaard’s fear of nothingness, resides what May called people’s fear of the basic loss of identity or meaning. (The Existentialism of Rollo May: An Influence on Trauma, Daniel B. Pitchford, Dec 24, 2008; Journal of Humanistic Psychology 2009).
Simply put, death sucks! We live in a physical world, where the presence of people and things make us feel not so alone. We form connections, relationships which result in strong emotions that connect us with other people, animals and objects. Death is a void, a gap, where this physical connection with another is gone. There are only beliefs to what happens beyond death. These may soothe some of our sadness and loneliness, but never fully since we know that they are only beliefs.
My experience in life has been that confronting death can result in bringing new meaning to life. We learn to confront our other fears and phobias (public speaking, flying, heights) which often produce a new sense of self-confidence and exhilaration. So why not confront death? Here is my story…
My Mom died when I was in my early teens. She had breast cancer. During her last few days she was comatose in the hospital where we camped out in a nearby family room. On what turned out to be her last night on earth, she was wide awake, alert and smiling. We all came to her bedside. She looked at me and said that she would be “100% better” and that “everything would be okay”. I believed that it was a miracle and that she would indeed be better and come home. That never happened. It was only another letdown in my life until many years later when this would all make more sense.
Following another traumatic time in my early thirties, I found myself on my own once again. The fear of being alone made me panic, but this time I had multiple levels of support around me that kept me strong. I was active during this time with my own personal growth. I was determined to overcome my past and issues that plagued my life. During this time I started to volunteer. It was a great way to deal with my own pain by helping others with their own. What I did not realize at that time was that the common denominator of the volunteer opportunities I participated in all dealt with death and dying.
It started when I volunteered with a children’s international oncology camp. Here were kids of all ages, too young to have brought on cancer through any unhealthy means (e.g. smoking). It was incredibly gut-wrenching to see them in pain and knowing that many would not have that long to live. Yet watching them live life made me realize that I was the real victim there and that the children were all my counselors. They were teaching me about life. The kids came to know that they could talk to me about anything, even dying. I learned to just listen and not give false hope, but just to be there with them and for them.
On several unique occasions, one of the kids would want to talk with me 1:1. It was during these times that I heard some of the most amazing stories. I asked them how they felt about death. Repeatedly I would hear a story about their encounter with an angel or religious figure while in the hospital. They were often scared to tell me about this, asking that I do not judge them or tell anyone else. Most said that they had never told anyone else including their parents. It was my first experience with something “supernatural”. They were too young to make these up as lies, and each an isolated situation. These kids did not know each other. It was freaky to hear this and often kept me up at night.
I had become a longstanding volunteer emergency medical technician on a local ambulance. Here I would experience so many forms of illness, tragedy and death. My very first call where I ran solo was a 33yo male in cardiac arrest. Despite any efforts to revive him, he was pronounced dead at the hospital. These situations would repeat themselves often whether as an accident or illness. The realization was ever present that at any one moment, anyone, no matter what their financial or economic status was, could transition from living life to confronting death.
An opportunity opened for me to volunteer in a local home turned hospice. Here I would work with those that were dying. The role of the volunteer became evident as family members often struggled with confronting the inevitable death of a loved one. Our role was to sit with those who were dying and to provide whatever comfort they needed. In many cases, this was listening to their life stories. Their memories were all that they had left, since it mattered not what physical possessions or wealth they had. Those that had an easier time dealing with their inevitable transition had less regrets about how they lived their life. They would remind me, over and over again, each in their own way, that the way they lived their life was more important than what they did. Never did I hear anyone ever tell me that they had wished they spent more time at work. Instead, it was the regrets that they did not spend more time with their family, children or loved ones, that created the most anxiety.
In addition to the many lessons I learned from them, once again I had experienced on multiple occasions, what can only be described again as supernatural or mystical events. We were warned that we would experience these types of situations as volunteers, which became normal topics of discussion between the volunteers. Those on their deathbeds often talked about people that visited them, who turned out to be relatives that were already deceased! Others seemed to know that a long lost loved one would show up and waited until they arrived to say goodbye before they died. And then, one night, one woke out of a coma and let their loved ones know that they would be okay. Instantly it reminded me of my Mom, and that she was just letting us know that she too would be okay.
Over time I would find myself in situations where I would confront death and now provide them with comfort that they would be okay. I would share my stories when appropriate or when asked. A favorite experience of mine was listening to those who experienced near death experiences (NDE’s). I came to know one such man who has been a topic of some of my earlier posts, Tom Sawyer.
The outcome of these experiences is that I do not fear my own death. However, I will admit that I do struggle with the idea of the death of my kids. The result of my own experiences around death helped me to realize that there is indeed something more to death, which eased my own anxiety when I had to confront death around me. The net effect is that I may not fear death as much, but instead fear more about not making the most out of the life that I have. It is this meaning that I discovered along the way that has resulted in a shift in overall attitude. I do have to remind myself of this often and continue to work on it, since the ordinary stressors and events of life can taint even the strongest of positive attitudes.
For me, it is the conclusion that we are here for a purpose and that there is something after our physical existence here that gives life new meaning. But I had to go out and experience this for myself versus accept someone elses belief. Confronting death does indeed give the most meaning to life itself!!