I used to feel really prepared to die. I did. I didn’t have a death wish, and I wasn’t necessarily eager to go, but I definitely felt ready. Lately, though, I have swung completely the other way. I obsess over the possibility of my death. And it is not only mine; it goes for my wife and children as well. I think about it way too much. Worry. Fear. Dread. They are all part of the package. But why? How did I go from welcoming death to obsessively dreading it? How did I get this way?
When I was a kid and young adult, I didn’t think much about death. Like most people at that age, I felt pretty bulletproof. It simply didn’t occur to me that I might die at any moment. In my mid-20s, I went through a spiritual overhaul. I spent a lot of time contemplating God and my place in the Universe, and I became much more clear about what I believed. I felt intimately connected—united–with everything. It was a beautiful way to live, really. During those years of blissful union with the Divine, in particularly rapturous moments, I found myself saying out loud, “You can take me now, God, if you want. I am ready any time.” I guess I was just really solid in my belief that, no matter what form we are in, it is All God and will never be otherwise. The end is not in doubt.
With that thought as my foundation, it really just didn’t seem to matter to me whether I was “alive” or “dead”. The difference was only a superficial one. I loved the life I was living here on Earth, but I figured the next part was at least as good, so why not? I could go either way. When I heard of people dying, I thought two things: 1) Good for them; and 2)Bless their loved ones. I went along that way for a lot of years, loving life but welcoming death. The Grim Reaper was certainly not my enemy, nothing to fear.
That all changed suddenly on a hot Friday night in August of 2008. It was not a car accident, terminal diagnosis, or some other brush with death. No, it was, in fact, a brush with LIFE. My daughter was born. My whole world changed in a flash. The sun rose and set in her eyes. I hung on every breath, and the slightest smile from her could carry me through the day. But it was not this immense joy that she—and later her brother, too—brought to my world that completely turned my relationship with death. Rather, it was the responsibility. Yes, suddenly I was completely in charge of raising and nurturing this magical little creature to adulthood, and it needed to be the most loving, joyous upbringing ever. In order for me to insure that she had her greatest friend and protector, I needed to stay alive.
In that instant, death became my sworn enemy and greatest threat. It is true that my spiritual foundation did not suddenly fall to shambles. I still believed that All is God and that the end is not in doubt. I still believed it was going to be beautiful on the other side. And I knew that everyone on Earth figures out a way to carry on no matter what the circumstances, so they would make it without me. But I couldn’t have that. The idea of leaving them behind is a torturous one for me. Everyone always says that the worst thing imaginable is having your child die. I can see that so clearly at this point, which is why I have come to obsess in my dread of my children’s deaths. I have been reading and re-reading John Green’s novel, The Fault In Our Stars, lately. Its leading characters are kids with cancer, and I am just sick the entire time, not just in imagining my own children suffering from something so awful, but also in thinking about their parents. What an awful, helpless feeling!
But I think that not so far down the ladder from that pain must be the idea of dying yourself and leaving your kids without you to raise them. Talk about helpless! A couple of years ago, my cousin Heide died of cancer. She was the mother of two amazing little girls. I have thought about her and her family a million times, both during her battle and, of course, after it ended. I can’t stop imagining how helpless she must have felt, knowing that she was not going to be there to nurture and watch her girls grow up and become women. I would be absolutely shredded by it. Just thinking about it knocks me into a state of shock. Unselfishly, I want to be of the utmost service to my kids every step of the way. Selfishly, it would absolutely eviscerate me to miss out on their daily magic. I want to be the shepherd, but I also want to be the witness.
It is also for these reasons that the thought of my wife’s potential death haunts me as well. As I said, I need my children’s upbringing to be the absolute best, most loving experience, and she is a crucial part of that. The kids need their mother, and she needs to be their mother. We have a vested interest in living this earthly life for a while.
Does this mean I will stop freaking out about death and return to my “Take me any time, God!” mode when they reach adulthood and no longer need the shepherd? I imagine the dread will diminish some, but not entirely, because the witness will still want to witness. I have no doubt that thoughts of missing out on their lives (and potentially the lives of their children) will keep me wanting to stick around to a ripe old age. Still, I think I won’t be as clingy to this life as I am now. My seeming desperation to live right now will more likely become a mere preference for life over death. Hopefully I can always maintain my focus on the present, secure in the knowledge that the best way to make the most of my time here is to stay in the moment rather than obsessing over the past or future, a future which certainly will include all of our deaths.
How about you? How desperate are you to keep living? Grab your journal and pen, and dig in. How do you react when you hear of someone dying? On a scale of one to ten, how peacefully do you think you would accept the news that you have only a year to live? How much does your family situation play into that rating? How much do your spiritual/religious beliefs affect your feelings regarding your acceptance of death? Has your acceptance of your mortality changed over the years? Do you think you would accept a terminal diagnosis better for yourself or for a family member? Obviously this topic is a deep and challenging one, but I believe it is very revealing and thus highly worth your while. So write! Then, leave me a reply. I want to know: Are you clinging to life on Earth?
Live like you mean it,