Fear of Dying
Several years ago, when I was still a child, my single greatest fear wasn’t that I was going to die – it was that my mother would. At the time, I was young enough to consider myself more or less immortal – life extended before me as an endless sea. But I was old enough to have grasped that at some point in time, that endless sea would sort of shrink into a puddle, a most finite expanse of water.
My mother mostly laughed when I padded into her bedroom, crying that I didn’t want her to die. “I’m not planning on dying yet, honey,” she would say, and comforted by her presence I’d fall asleep in her bed, secure in the knowledge that she’d be here tomorrow too.
Tomorrows pass quickly. It is no longer quite as certain that my mother will be here tomorrow. It raises issue – topics that are difficult to discuss when one is in the best of health, are touchy, toothy things when the “if” of dying has converted into a fast approaching “when”.
I suppose this is when having strong faith bolsters the fragile human soul. The concept of a hereafter, a reassurance that all will not end when we suck in that last gasping breath, is a lifeline to those among us who simply cannot get their heads around the “not existing” part.
Since man first began walking upright, the questions of where we come from and where we go to have been rebounding in our brains. Primitive man stood outside his cave and gawked at the stars overhead, wondering if perhaps that was where we came from. Some not so primitive men still hold to the rather odd notion that we are the offspring of an alien race, sent down from a distant galaxy to colonise Earth. Hmm…
As our Stone Age ancestors followed the herds of big game from one location to another, they told each other stories. I bet already back then many of the stories were girl-boy stories, I bet quite a few featured handsome broody young man in a loincloth who has problems expressing his feelings (he’s vulnerable within his shell, you see) until SHE comes along, all tight mammoth skin and dreadlocks decorated with knucklebones. Misunderstandings, heartbreak, separations and reunions follow…. Yes, yes. You get it, right? Besides this particular story is most hale and hearty even now, several millennia later, except that these days broody and handsome is an unhappy millionaire with a dark background and she has lost the mammoth skin in favour of lacy underwear and designer heels.
But apart from the light entertainment offered by timeless rom-com, these flint wielding ancestors of ours also spoke of existential issues. How do we know? Because of the way they buried their dead, preparing them for a journey to the hereafter. All over the planet, our very distant ancestors seem to have found it necessary to bury tools and clothes with their loved ones. At times a faithful dog or horse is included as well, at more gruesome times the companions include other humans, seemingly killed for the express purpose of accompanying Mr Number One to the afterlife.
These days, we have a predilection for cremation, which might make things difficult should Resurrection Day ever come – assuming you subscribe to the version where the dead rise from their graves. These days, we rarely send along a dog or a bagel. Should there be a life after death, we assume dear departed will fix the sustenance thing by themselves. But even in these days, we still wonder; what comes after death?
Personally, I believe humans are more than their flesh and blood. The thoughts we have, the experiences and memories, our dreams and ambitions – surely they add to the total mass of who we are. Does all that disappear? Is there a whispered “poof” as everything intangible that made a person into a specific person is erased – for ever? Or is it this cognisance, this collection of half-formed thoughts, of remembrances and hopes that constitute our soul, and if so, does it float off to a HEA moment? Deep shit, isn’t it?
My mother and I have rarely spoken about faith. I know that once my mother believed very deeply in God, but that she never quite forgave Him for allowing her mother (my grandmother) to lie abed for years, slowly shrinking into nothing, before she died. I also know that for years my mother kept radio silence vis-à-vis God – until the day when I hovered so close to death that she clasped her hands and prayed for my life. That time, it seemed God listened – or maybe it was the doctors who saved me. I wouldn’t know, being too young at the time to have anything more than the haziest recollections of lying in a tent filled with ice. Whether this event led to a reopened conversation with the God of her youth, I don’t know. The issue of faith is far too personal for me to pry.
Now and then, my mother will make the odd sarcastic comment about the hereafter. “I’m not so thrilled at the thought of wafting about as an amorphous spirit,” she said once. “I mean, what’s the point of an afterlife if I can’t hug and kiss the people I love?” Which is when I realised that my mother and I have a great deal in common, starting with a romantic streak that hopes that there will be opportunity to love – in the full sense of the world – on the other side as well.
I think the problem with dying is not the actual dying part, it is the not knowing part. Us modern humans don’t like it when we’re not in control of our destination – and this is definitely one of those occasions, isn’t it? I suspect it was easier to die some centuries ago. First of all, because everyone had at some point or another seen somebody else die, while to us this is mostly a process draped in the shrouds of hospitalised care. Secondly, because at the time no one had as yet begun to question the existence of an afterlife – at least not openly. Going to heaven (or hell, gulp) was a truism, sort off.
All of us will die – someday. But until we do, let’s make sure our tomorrows count. Life is a gift, and whether finite or not, the one thing we know for certain is that THIS life, THIS moment will never return. A wasted minute can never be recouped and used again later, a day spent bemoaning the downsides of things is one day less to praise the joy of living.
When I die, I want there to be someone I love beside me. Someone who holds my hand and croons me gently out of life and into the unknown. And when I am truly gone, I want that someone to open a window so as to allow my soul to soar into the never-ending deep blue of the star-strewn skies.
As to what comes after, well as one formidable lady in my acquaintance once said, “I have no idea what will happen after death. The only thing I know is that I will be taken care of – somehow.” Not a bad thought, hey? I mean, either there is God and his angels, and rolling green meadows and gambolling lambs (I have a very traditional view of heaven) and it will be happy days ever after. Or there is nothing, in which case it won’t matter. We will simply sink into universal oblivion and if we’re lucky our body (or our ashes) may one day be reborn – as harebells in the sun!