An Anxious Afterlife

Photo by salvatore ventura

I remember my first (minor) anxiety attack.

I was a 10-year-old boy, wearing navy blue slacks and a white (non-Polo) polo shirt, just like all the other 10-year-old boys. I sat within a section of chairs near the back corner of the church with my third-grade classmates.

It was the weekly mass at the Catholic school in which I spent nine of the early years of my life. On that particular occasion, the topic of conversation during the post-gospel homily was of death and how great afterlife is in heaven following death. While I began to tune out the relentlessly verbose male leader who probably hadn’t diddled any of my schoolmates, I focused upon the idea of death. And in a classic anxious pattern, I bounced back and forth between two ideas until everything felt wrong.

The first idea was what the robed man was proclaiming—when we die, our souls are transported to this magical world (which, for some reason, gets personified as being in the sky and yet for all the billions we spend on space travel we’ve not yet found this heaven place). And all of our loved ones will be in this magical world, too, assuming they weren’t gay. Everyone will be in this place as their best self and everyone will be happy all the time. It’s so great we can’t even imagine how great it is!

I was 10 and trusting of authority figures. But as I contemplated this reasoning, I sent myself spiraling down the dark and cold staircase of anxiety. I didn’t like the idea. To stay forever in a place? That felt weird and uncomfortable. (It still throws me for a loop when I consider it today.)

Yet, to jump to the counter argument (the second idea) didn’t feel right to 10-year-old me, either. In that case, the logic was that I just die. I disappear from existence. That didn’t feel right either.

It all felt very, very wrong.

So I did what I was born to do—I thought about something else and covered up the fact that there was any trace of anxiety left inside, and I went on with my day.

That event occurred about 20 years ago. Looking back on it, grown-up me feels different about the situation. Today …

I don’t trust anyone donning a robe, except my wife.

There were three priests who regularly ran my grade school masses. I now know one of the three was accused of sexual assault on young children.

The idea of heaven still makes me uncomfortable. I can’t contemplate it deeply for more than a few seconds without opening up the panic gates.

Today I’m perfectly fine with the logic of disappearing from existence, because I don’t believe that ever fully happens.

My maternal grandmother is currently my closest deceased relative. She was a wonderful woman who has been gone for 14 years. But she still affects my life. The things I’ve learned from her have made me who I am today, and you can’t take that away from me. She’s also helped to make my grandfather, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins better people. She very much lives on in our lives.

And the best part is I still see her today. I don’t mean I go to the cemetery and talk to her (we’ll save my opinion on cemeteries for another time). I mean I see her regularly in dreams. I’m not saying there’s anything magical at work. Scientifically, we’re pretty sure we architect our own dreams, although dreams are still shrouded in several layers of mystery. But, yes, I conjure up images of my dead grandmother and we interact whenever she appears in my dreams.

I don’t need to see her as her living self again. I see her in my dreams. And I see the essence of her in the people I love most.

Plus, I would be so bored in heaven I would drink myself to death.

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