Sunday, January 17, 2016

Death Terrifies Me

(Note: This blog post also appears on The Huffington Post's blog site as "Death Terrifies Me: Too Many Questions, and Not Enough Answers.")

Death terrifies me.

I'm sure it's because I'm getting older, but recently I've started thinking more and more about death. I'm 54 years old as I type this, which is, I'm reasonably sure, several years beyond the halfway point of my life. (I think it's a pretty safe bet that I'm not going to live to be 108.) And while death has never been a comfortable subject for me, lately that discomfort has intensified.

There are so many triggers in my world these days that make me stop and think about just how damn old I am. Business executives look like they're teenagers. Star athletes are younger than my kids. Records I used to listen to as a high school student are turning 40. Etc.

Over the summer, my wife and I had to buy a new washer and dryer. Not to sound morbid or anything, but I started wondering: Is this the last washer and dryer I'll ever buy? The same thing went through my head when we bought a new mattress, too. All of a sudden I'm doing a lot of math in my head, and all of the story problems contain the number 54.

"Dean bought a new washing machine when he was 54. If the average lifespan of a washing machine is 14 years, will Dean ever have to buy another washing machine? Show your work."

I can't help it. That’s how I think. I know that age is just a number, and 54 isn't really that old (is it??). I mean, in my head I still feel like I’m 18, and I feel pretty damn good physically, too. So why worry?

I worry because death is the ultimate unknown for me. Nobody knows what happens when we die, and that uncertainty scares me. When you die, do you stop feeling everything? Or does your soul live on, allowing you to observe and feel stuff going on in the mortal world? Do you really go off to heaven or hell, depending on what kind of life you lived? Or do you reincarnate and come back to earth as a cat or some kid who's just being born?

Too many questions. Not enough answers.

I also worry about how my two boys will fare when their aging parents are dead and gone. I know that since my own father passed away almost three years ago, I find myself missing him more than I ever thought I would. My dad and I didn't even get along for most of my life, and I still miss him. I oftentimes wish I could call him and ask him questions when I have to fix something with the tools he left me. And when some crazy play happens in a football game I'm watching on TV, I still kind of expect the phone to ring and my dad to be on the other end asking me, “Did you see that?!” Because that's what he did.

Last month, I had to be put under general anesthesia when I went into the hospital for a procedure on my heart. Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have thought twice about it. But now? I have to admit, there was a voice in my head telling me, "Hey, some people go under and never come out of it. Good luck." (On the other hand, maybe that wonderful feeling you have while being put to sleep by the anesthesiologist is exactly what death feels like. How awesome would that be?)

So I've decided I’m going to start reading some books about death. I'm going to start with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's seminal book, On Death and Dying, and move on from there. I hope to read scientific books, spiritual books, and even books by or about people who saw the white light and maybe had a talk with God before returning to life.

What I hope to accomplish is simple: I want to become more comfortable with the idea of death. I want to get to a point where I'm (reasonably) okay with dying. Obviously, I don't want to rush things, but as I get closer and closer to that day, I don't want to be terrified. I want to be able to accept it.

I've wanted to write about my fear of death for quite some time. I wasn't planning on doing it today, but this morning I woke up and saw a post my oldest son--who has been struggling lately--made on Facebook last night. It was a video for John Mayer's song "Stop This Train," and it included the lyrics. One of the verses goes:

"Don’t know how else to say it
I don't want to see my parents go
One generation's length away
From fighting life out on my own."

When I read those words, I knew I had to write this blog post today.

My father was the first person I ever watched die. I was at his bedside when he took his last breath at age 86. My mother may be one of the healthiest people on this planet, but she’s almost 85 now. And my wife's parents are in their "sunset years," too. Yes, death is inevitable, which makes it hard not to think about it. I just don’t want to be scared when I do.

"Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome." --Isaac Asimov 
(Note: “Stop This Train” lyrics © 2006 by John Mayer/SONY/ATV Music Publishing LLC)


  1. My advice to you is to stop worrying about death and live each day fully. Find joy and meaning in everything you do. Appreciate the small things because it's the seemingly insignificant gestures that loved ones remember. As for wondering about life span vs major purchases, again, don't worry...or do as I do. My husband and I bought a sofa as newlyweds. It lasted the entire 37 years of our marriage. As a widow, I purchased a replacement. I'm not shy telling everyone " this is the last sofa I'll ever buy"!

  2. I like Olga's advice above. For everyone it is different but people say working in a hospice teaches one not to fear death. For me what made the difference was having my mother with us in her home for 4 days after she died. She looked so peaceful and having her there gave us all time to pick flowers from her beloved garden and put them in her coffin and say lots of goodbyes.
    'Yes', I thought as I looked at her, 'I could do that!'

  3. It is easier to embrace death when you believe it isn't the end, but the beginning.

  4. At 45 I lose a classmate almost every year now. But I no longer say "he died too young." I hope I haven't gone past my halfway mark but if I die tomorrow I will die young but not too young. In my life I've fallen deeply in love twice, had my heart broken once, overcome challenges, and been defeated by them. I want more, but I have been given a fair amount of years and am more or less at piece with what I have done with them.

    I recommend the books you mentioned but I caution you on your expectations. You will not gain control over death by reading about it. If I dare give you advice I would suggest focusing on the privilege of growing old which is denied to so many.

  5. When I was your age, I had the same appliance-based concerns. Four of them went bad, one after another. Given an average life-span of 15 years, I first dreaded they’d all go on me together again, but then I thought, “I probably won’t outlive them anyway.” That was twenty years ago and we’ve both beaten the odds. And, I’m still healthy, having worked hard at staying that way all this time. I’d rather die on my bike than live on my couch. Not so I can live longer, but so I can feel better while I am alive. “Fit at Fifty” apparently doesn’t translate into longer lives. It does drop your odds of having “4-5 chronic diseases,” down to “0 to one.” I don’t want to live in clinics and hospitals. Get your spiritual and material affairs in order, then get out and live! Like you do with your blog. 

  6. I`m 25 and I`m allready thinking about death. I guess everyone does, just few are brave enough to tell. I think people should talk more about death, share their concerns. Maybe if death would be a normal topic, everyone could be less scared of it. I appreciate your post. Greetings from Italy