Are you afraid of death?

I’m not sure why but I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. Maybe it’s that we’re getting closer to Christmas and my mind’s been turning back towards the past, or that we observed Remembrance Day on Sunday and it’s been lingering in my thoughts. It’s not unusual for me to think about death; I’ve always thought that death, though sad, is a natural part of life and there is beauty to it, if you know where to look. But for some reason it’s been different this time.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve felt depressed, but my thoughts have lingered more on the process of dying than they usually do. I’ve had people I’ve known and loved in my life pass away before their time and it was painful; they didn’t seem like the same person and it was very difficult seeing them like that. Peaceful certainly isn’t the right word for their passing, but it was almost a relief to see them go in the end, their agony relieved. We had a chance to say goodbye, something a lot of people don’t have; for many people death comes suddenly and everything that they wanted to say or do is suddenly out of reach. That’s the kind of death I think must be the most difficult to adjust to, for everything to be normal, and then suddenly so different.

My poem from a few days ago is about death. I tried to write it in such a way that the reader could take what they wanted from it, but my inspiration was death. I had been thinking about what it must be like to know you’re dying, to know this or tomorrow will be your last day. What must that be like? Can any of us really know until we’re facing it ourselves? I think if it were me I would be trying to remember the moments of my life, perhaps the regrets as much as the achievements, the friends I had and hopefully would still have around me, and taking the chance to say goodbye.

I think under those circumstances death would be peaceful; perhaps still not something I would be ready for as I’m not sure I ever could be, but at least surrounded by family and friends I would hope it would be a time of remembrance rather than sorrow. Respectful. But to be honest I’m not sure if I believe that’s what would happen. I’m not sure what I believe any more.

I’m not afraid of death. If for some reason I learnt tomorrow that I only had a few days left to live, I wouldn’t fear it; I might be angry, or sad, or any of a thousand different emotions that I couldn’t possibly describe, but I wouldn’t be afraid. I consider myself a spiritual person rather than a religious one; I don’t know if there is something after death, but I would like to feel there is. But even if there isn’t that’s not something I would fear; death is natural and as long as we meant something to someone, that they held us dear in their hearts for a time, then I believe we live forever.

What I am afraid of is leaving people behind. Of leaving things unfinished… of starting down a path and finding I can only follow it a certain way. That to me is the scariest possibility of all. People say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I don’t believe that. Does anybody seriously believe that? It’s certainly better to have experienced than to have experienced nothing, but to have loved and lost is to have left someone behind… perhaps someone who depended on you, and needed you, and suddenly you aren’t there. Yes, if you’re the other person, you can love again and the pain will ease in time, but the relationship is different. Not better, not worse; just different. There’s something lost you can’t get back.

I suppose my one greatest fear in life is that I won’t measure up to my own standards. I look at myself and I’m relatively happy with who I am; I won’t lie and say that there aren’t things I wouldn’t change, moments I wouldn’t live again, or friends I wish I had stayed in touch with and miss dearly, but I take all that as a part of what makes me who I am. But no-one knows what their future will hold and I don’t know where I will be in twenty years. I hope I will be successful in the ways that matter; earning a respectable living, being a good person. I’d love to have a novel published, obviously, and to be secure in where I am. But I’m not sure I will be that. I feel like I’m at a stalemate right now that might last awhile. And if that’s true and I don’t achieve what I want, will it have been worth it?

I don’t know. That’s the one thing I can’t answer and that’s not me being negative, it’s simply that I do not know. How do you weigh what your mind says is possible against what your heart says it wants to achieve? By what measure do you weigh the soul of a man? By the life he has lived, the sights he has seen, the people he has loved? I would hope it is that, but is it really? I lost a friend when I was very young. It was a senseless death, just one of those things that happens for no real reason. I think she would have been a great person and I often wonder what she would be like today. We’ll never know, but I often think of her. And maybe I hold myself against that sometimes, even though I don’t mean to.

So I think that’s what I’m afraid of; not of death, but of what death represents, the measure of what you leave behind. Of course in the end there’s not much anyone can do except to live and value each moment, but I don’t think a lot of people do. I think a lot of people really are afraid of death, or if not death then of the unknown. They push it back as long as they can; they destroy their bodies in the pursuit of youth, they create conflict, they try to be remembered. We have an unhealthy relationship with death, particularly in Western culture; it’s a part of our lives but we try to ignore it or not think about it. And when we are touched by death, we grieve, which is natural – but we don’t always remember. We don’t see beauty, memory, life. And if we don’t do that, I’m not sure we really live.

My favourite poem is Kipling’s If. If you can dream-and not make dreams your master; if you can think-and not make thoughts your aim. I love those two lines in particular; I think they say so much about being creative, but also for how we should treat each other and value life. To dream, but not to dream so far that the dream becomes bitter when it doesn’t become true, in relationships, in life. I think that’s a good way to live and that’s what I try to do. I think most people probably would too, if they thought about it. It just saddens me when I turn on the news and all I see is… death isn’t the right word. Carnage. There’s nothing natural about what we’re seeing on our TV screens every night and that’s why I think it’s all the more important to hold onto some of the more peaceful aspects of death, if we can find them. That’s what I tried to represent in my poem.

Anyway, to anyone who’s got this far, sorry if this seems like a darker post… I’m just in a bit of a melancholy mood at the moment. I’ve said more here than I intended to, more about myself than I usually do… and that’s okay because increasingly this blog is becoming a window to my thoughts on life, and I can’t do that without investing some of myself into it as well. And it’s helping me sort through things more than I expected.

But I’ll have something lighter for you tomorrow.

5 thoughts on “Are you afraid of death?

  1. C.J., don’t be sorry about this post being darker..That’s just fine with me…Actually, what matters is the inspiration you had writting about death..That’s the beauty of creation…

    Thank u for sharing this because I am afraid of death and I think about it a lot…I believe that my fear arise from not being at peace with myself …I feel that I have done a lot in my life but still have so much to do and don’t want death on my agenda…But, being in my early forties and half of my life has gone by I feel that there is not much time left to accomplish it all…I am willing to change my beliefs by reading more books on the subject to enjoy a better peaceful life on earth….

    Did I ever tell u that I have traveled with Aussies and people from New Zealand before??

    CJ: Colourful, thank you so much; your words mean a lot to me and I’m grateful for what you said. The main reason I wanted to write this post was to describe the inspiration for my poem, but I’m still exploring my thoughts on death and I wasn’t sure how it would sound. I thought it might seem bleak, but I’m glad you didn’t find that.

    I think death is something we’re all aware of but try not to think about; it’s painful and we try to live with it without being too exposed. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it does open up a range of emotions when suddenly we’re forced to face it. I think you’re right, the first step to changing that attitude is to make peace with yourself, to redefine your priorities and find your path… I’m not sure I’m there yet. I wish you all the best in your journey as well.

    And no, I didn’t know you’d travelled with some Aussies and New Zealanders. Where were you travelling? I hope you were treated courteously; we tend to be a bit rowdy when we’re in groups! 🙂

  2. cj, Whether your writing is dark or light, it’s always deep. I’ve been waiting to comment until I was able to sit down with your long and heartfelt post, and to do my best to give it its due. It looks like you’re having one of those introspective periods, eh? I’ve picked out just a few things to respond to:

    I had been thinking about what it must be like to know you’re dying, to know this or tomorrow will be your last day. What must that be like?

    I don’t know this for myself, but I was with my mother when she was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and decided not to seek aggressive treatment, for a variety of valid reasons. The docs gave her 2-6 months; nearly immediately she told me it would be four. (It was). During the four months we knew she was dying, we were able to process a lot of feelings and events. She felt remarkably well for much of this time, and I felt weird when she wanted to plan her memorial service, and had me write everything down. It was sort of amazing to be that close to that process, and I think she had a great death, if I may be allowed to say so. She was only uncomfortable for a few days near the end, and had good drugs for that. I will always value the hospice organization and philosophy, I’ve been involved with them during the deaths of several others I’ve been close too, and they were a great deal of help with my own grief processing. Anyway, I feel through these experiences that death can bring remarkable healing.

    What I am afraid of is leaving people behind. Of leaving things unfinished… of starting down a path and finding I can only follow it a certain way. That to me is the scariest possibility of all.

    As far as “leaving things unfinished” goes: I’m more and more in agreement with the philosophy that we can never get “it” done. Most of us don’t sit in a chair quietly waiting to die, so there will always, always be unfinished projects, relationships, goals…so, it just makes sense to me to allow each day to be as meaningful and joyful as I can. The “life” then takes care of itself.

    People say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I don’t believe that. Does anybody seriously believe that?

    I have to admit, I do. You do go on to say that it’s better to have experienced, then not. My personal belief system comes into it here, and it may not be yours, that all relationships are really eternal. The fact that I invested emotional energy in a person, and they in me, means that energy still IS – only transformed. That’s not much comfort in the first hours of grief and readjusting one’s physical life to the absence of the person, but it can be a comforting realization, later. There are healthy ways to continue the relationship.

    I feel like I’m at a stalemate right now that might last awhile. And if that’s true and I don’t achieve what I want, will it have been worth it?

    I hope your stalemate may transform into something else, soon, cj. I would hope for you that you can take joy in the joy you bring your readers, myself included. The only trouble with an achievement, is that when it’s done, it’s, well, done. It’s true your novel may, and probably will enchant readers for years to come. But would even that be worth more than the joy of creating it?

    Ah, you’ve gotten me to wax melancholy and philosophical here. I’m so moved by how personal this is, and how you’ve shared that your writing is evolving that way. I think that is the best kind of writing.

    CJ: Introspective would be one word for it, Muse. I’m still not sure what brought it on… I’ve just found myself thinking about death and what’s important to me, and it’s not the same as it was. Perhaps I’m just getting older and starting to see things differently. I suppose creative people find inspiration wherever they can and if it’s light or dark doesn’t matter, as long as there’s some truth in it.

    I’m sorry to hear about your mother, but it does sound like a peaceful death, if there is one; you had the time to work through your feelings and say goodbye, find some kind of closure. To have dignity in death, as in life, is a beautiful thing. The hospices perform a remarkable service, helping the dying and their families; they rarely get the recognition they deserve.

    And I agree with you about leaving things unfinished; there’s no way we’ll ever be able to complete everything we want to… I meant it more on a personal level. We all have a few goals we define ourselves by, and connections with people; to leave that unfinished, or that connection broken, is more what I meant. All we can do is value each moment; still doesn’t stop my mind from wondering, though. 😉

    To be honest I’m not sure what I believe happens when someone dies; I would hope that there is something after death, and I like what you say about it, relationships being eternal. It might be that I haven’t felt that connection with someone yet, so I can’t know. And it’s interesting what you say about achievements too… once something is done, it’s in the past, and we focus on something new. For me, that might seem like my writing, but I actually don’t think of it that way. I mean, I’d love to have a novel published, but I’m happy just writing. The achievements which matter to me are the personal ones; what kind of man I become, what kind of provider, friend. If on the whole I’ve done more good than ill… the stalemate is more the direction overall, not one thing. But I’ll work it out. And writing and knowing I have loyal readers helps. 🙂

    Thanks again, Muse; you’ve given me plenty to think about. And I like this new direction too, with the blog… I realised when we were talking about personas that I could (and wanted to) talk about things in a more personal way, and could do that and still keep some privacy as long as it was on an emotional or intellectual level. It just brings it to life more, and you’re right, it’s the best kind of writing – and that’s all that should matter. 🙂

  3. C.J., Muse,

    I should have talked to Muse when I was freaking out on the feeling not having time to accomplish it all…We cannot have it all and we do have to make choices…In that case, I might as well choose things that fulfill my desires because then I might have some regrets along the way..Our inner voice is the one to always listen..

    My experience towards death has not been easy to deal with…When my mom died of breast cancer I was only 23 years old and the mourning was very painful ..My mom just couldn’t cope with her having cancer…On the other hand, my dad had a totally different attitude…He accepted his cancer with more wisdom and died peacefully…But, it doesn’t make the mourning easier though…Actually, I don’t think we ever accept death, we just learn to live with it…

    The Aussies were very good to me and I like very much the accent..Actually, I have heard a lot when travelling thru Europe that Aussies’ way of living is very similar to Canadians…I did have Aussies and New Zealanders room mates when working in London for 6 months…

    CJ: You’re right, CV, we all have to choose what we think we can achieve, because if we listened to our desires alone we’d have a million things we couldn’t achieve in even a thousand lifetimes. I think having a few goals that we hold on to is a healthy thing; it challenges us, but also gives us the feeling that we can achieve something, that our life does have meaning… defining what those goals are is the difficult thing. Maybe our inner voice is the only thing that can tell us. I know it’s rarely led me wrong.

    I’m very sorry to hear about your experiences with death… the mourning is never easier… the person means something different to us, so the pain is always different. I know with my friend it was difficult, partly because I didn’t really understand… now it’s lessened into sadness, particularly when I think of her family. I’m not sure I could ever accept death either, but I hope I could make my peace with it… maybe that’s what we all hope, in our own way.

    I’ve always thought Canadians and Australians have a lot in common too; we have similar values, heritage, and our versions of English have evolved similarly from the British form. Sometimes it seems like a very small world, doesn’t it? Glad you like the accent too; I’m not sure how I feel about it sometimes, particularly early in the morning! 🙂

  4. I got to your blog via your Mum’s .)

    I believe this time of year there are more thoughts about death as the move into Winter draws out attention to it – the leaves change colour and die etc – it is a very visual reminder of our own demise and eventual decay. It is quite a healthy reaction iykwim.

    CJ: Hi shukr, thanks for the comment. My mum’s very excited to have started blogging, so I’m happy to help her get things set up. 😉

    I think that’s a good point about death and seasons. Winter definitely feels more sombre and brings up those feelings. We’re moving into Summer now in Aus, but that’s similar as well; it represents renewal and rebirth, and our thoughts turn back to the past, to people who have passed away.

    I think a lot of us deny our experiences with death or don’t want to face our mortality, and that’s what I don’t think is healthy. But perhaps that’s just a part of getting older as well, and we all deal with it in our own ways.

  5. wow very insightful post. i’ve been going through some similar thought processes, conceptualizing death is so hard because it’s nothing tangible or concrete. i worry mostly of people close to me leaving me, or death in some random bizarre manner. i’m not afraid of death my old age, but i’m afraid of not experiencing everything on earth, and afraid of leaving this earth and not to really have loved anyone, or to be forgotten like a blip that almost was never there. i feel as though i’m going crazy thinking about it too much, there’s nothing i can do or change about my future trajectory but it scares me, and because i began this pre-occupation it’s hard to stop right away. i feel it pops up at strange times and it makes me feel all hazy and dream like. i need to come back to reality, but i really enjoyed your post, made me think.

    CJ: Amanda, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think you’re right about conceptualising death; it’s hard to imagine how to feel because we can’t know what the experience is like until it’s our time. I’m sure that’s why a lot of people are afraid of death; it’s the unknown they’re afraid of as much as anything else.

    It sounds like we’ve been thinking about the same things… death itself doesn’t scare me, but the idea of leaving someone behind or not fulfilling everything I feel I should plays on my mind a lot. The thing I’ve come to realise now is that the more I think about it, the more I’m playing into my fears. If we’re afraid we won’t experience life, then we’re really holding ourselves back because then we’re not experiencing anything. Of course, changing our thought pattern is easier said than done…

    I’m not sure if that helps, but I’m glad my post meant something to you, and I wish you the best in your journey. And thanks for stopping by. 😉

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