Hello, Death, My Old Friend
I have thought about death since I was a child. I can remember being as young as 6 years old and listening to popular songs about death (my go-to song at that time was “Reflections” by Charlie Daniels). I was 7-going-on-8-years-old when John Lennon was murdered. I was a huge Beatles fan and loved John Lennon in particular. I was glued to WNEW radio station, which played Beatles and Lennon & Ono music repeatedly for days. To this day, when I hear Strawberry Fields Forever, I am transported back to 1980.
As I grew older, I began to obsessively think about my father’s death. I grew up fearing and hating my mother, and I was terrified that my father would die and leave me alone with her. The fact that he turned 56-years-old the year I turned 10 did not help (I am the youngest of ten children. My mother turned 41 the month after I was born, and my father was 46-years-old when I was born). I knew my parents were “old” compared to my friends’ parents, and I knew “old people” died, so I basically lived in perpetual fear that my parents were going to die. Being a child of the Cold War and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation didn’t help, either.
As a teenager, I found solace in Goth and Alternative music, and was obsessed with bands like The Cure, Depeche Mode, and the Smiths. Their dark, brooding themes brought me so much comfort. Songs like “Black Celebration” and “Blasphemous Rumors” by Depeche Mode made me feel less alone; less crazy, and therefore, happier. I often felt powerless and trapped; had several bouts with depression, and contemplated suicide on more than one occasion in my teens and into my early twenties. I can say with utter confidence that this music saved my life.
Once I hit my mid-twenties and I was able to move out of my childhood home and begin living my own life on my own terms, I thankfully became a much happier person. My obsession with death became happier, too. It morphed from a morbid fear into a motivating factor. Instead of death being this thing I couldn’t control that might render me alone, vulnerable, and powerless, I began to think about how I wanted to live my life. If I had a difficult decision to make, I began to think about how I might feel on my deathbed if I did or did not do the thing I was having difficulty deciding whether or not to do. I wanted to live my life to the fullest and have the least number of regrets when I died, so I lived with the constant knowledge and thought that my life was brief, and I should do as much as possible to be happy and have the fewest regrets.
Then 9/11 happened. I had just started a new job I didn’t want at an investment bank in SoHo, NYC, about a mile North of the World Trade Center. The offices occupied a 9-story building with roof access, and I caught the live show of people jumping to their deaths and the towers falling. I walked home over the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn with the toxic cloud of ash and debris creeping across lower Manhattan and the East River, and the fear that another plane could come at any moment, destroying the bridge we were walking over.
I did not realize it at the time, but in retrospect, I recognize that after 9/11, I stopped thinking about how to live my life with the least number of regrets and began to live my life as “safely” as possible. I not only stopped thinking about death as a motivating factor; I stopped myself from thinking about death at all. While many people saw 9/11 as a catalyst to change in their life, it became a catalyst of risk-reduction for me. Instead of fearlessly pursuing a job in the non-profit world of reproductive rights and justice, I made sure I had safe, corporate jobs with a high salary and good health insurance. I was miserable, but I was “safe”. I wasn’t questioning systems of inequity; I was keeping my head down and my gaze averted. I no longer thought about how I might feel on my deathbed. I made sure to avoid thinking that I’d ever have one because the thought that I could die on my way to, from, or at work scared me more than anything I had ever feared in my life.
For about twelve/thirteen years, I basically existed… drifted through life barely conscious. My resume showed a progressive climb in responsibility and success, but emotionally, I was languishing. I grew fatter and more tired, eating my feelings. My salary grew, but so did my debt. I was very much adrift, and very much not at peace.
In 2013/2014, I began to get a nagging feeling and having recurring thoughts I hadn’t had in quite some time (and never quite in this way). I began to think and feel repeatedly, that if I did not make some serious changes to my life, I would have regrets. I wasn’t necessarily conjuring thoughts of my deathbed, but the concept of regret became louder and more persistent in my mind and heart. The problem was, I no longer was sure of who I was, and I had over a decade of fear, a mountain of constraining consumer debt, and years of what I considered bad decision making behind me that led to a gaping hole in my confidence and ability to move forward.
Despite the gaping hole in my confidence and the mountain of consumer debt, both of which threatened to metaphorically bury me, I set out on a quest to make changes in my life that I felt brought me further away from regret. I began to meet with an HR representative at work who helped me identify successes and set goals, both small, simple steps I never had and never knew I should have taken. In 2016, I began writing my blog — even though it was only 4 or 5 posts, I had done it. I finally started writing sh*t down and sharing it. In 2017, I took what would be my worst and (hopefully) my last corporate job ever, and in 2019, I started a job at an organization dedicated to advancing proactive policy to ensure that all people have access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion care.
When 2020 started, I was just beginning to feel that I was finally emerging from this 19-year emotional stupor that had been brought on by 9/11. Then came SARS-CoV-2, a.k.a, the COVID-19 pandemic. Death would once again feature prominently in my thoughts.
In the days leading up to quarantine, I realized I hadn’t felt this visceral fear of death since 9/11. At the same time that COVID-19 was sweeping the Earth and creeping closer, and closer to home, my father-in-law was in hospice at his home, dying of cancer. I knew I was starting to spiral emotionally again, but this time, I didn’t want to retreat in fear. This time I was going to face my fear of death. I began Googling how to help people deal with death, and I came across a TEDx talk by Jane Whitlock, a death doula (according to Wikipedia, a “death doula or “death midwife assists people with the dying process, much in the same way a midwife or doula assists a pregnant person with the birthing process”).
On March 13th, 2020, I left my office in New York City, and began working from home, as America began its infuriatingly complicated relationship with quarantine, masking, coping with, and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wee hours of March 31, 2020, my father-in-law died of cancer. On April 17, 2020, I enrolled in an online course with The University of Vermont to earn my End-of-Life Doula Professional Certificate, and on July 30, 2020, I received my Completion Certificate.
While I have yet to put my certificate to use as a hospice volunteer, my positive relationship with death has returned. I am once again living my life with the knowledge of my own death very much at the forefront of my mind — not because I am terminally ill (I am not); not in a “Gothy” or morbid way; not because I am depressed; not because I am fearful, but because I am finally back in an emotional space where I have the energy and feel safe to embrace my mortality. COVID-19 continues to ravage humanity across the Earth. There is war in Europe, and the threat of nuclear annihilation is back like it’s 1983. My husband has chronic health problems. I am older and entering the decades where death becomes more “normal”; more “expected”; less of a shock, but I have never been happier. I am going to die. The time I have is limited, and rather than being terrified by that limitation, I embrace it. I have a LOT in me that I want to do and say, and I can’t imagine I will ever feel “ready” for death, but if it comes tonight or tomorrow, I am okay, and my goal is to remain okay with my death until the day I die.