Trigger warning should be self evident here.
For all that we do understand about death (it would be wrong to say we do not understand it at all – science does know a good deal), we are painfully ignorant about something every living organism faces.
We have myriad explanations for it. Among my personal favourites are “What Dreams May Come” with its attempt to reconcile multiple versions and “The Good Place” with its comedic yet philosophical approach. I especially like the focus towards the end of the series on the idea that eternal bliss is numbing with no comparative experience. We experience highs because of the existence of lows. Persistent either numbs a person to all feeling (see depression).
My personal belief is that its a state of nothingness akin to everything prior to birth. With a linear notion of time I know it can be hard for some people to imagine nothingness for eternity, but I take a great deal of comfort in knowing that I only have that worry because I am alive and conscious. I do not have the same existential crisis about the infinite amount of time that occurred before my memory, so why would the same matter on the other end?
I have also taken a tremendous amount of comfort from terminally ill and elderly people who show acceptance in their conscious selves. It’s all the scientific proof I have needed to reassure me that short of a sudden tragedy I will find peace with the idea one day. What is a scary inevitability to someone younger seems to become a natural and welcome state given enough time.
The lack of spiritual belief may also have saved my life. One of the questions that religious people, Christians in particular, like to ask me is how my attitude towards the afterlife impacts my sense of morality. If Heaven is not a goal and Hell is not a threat, why not do whatever I want? That, for me, is a simple matter of equability. I should be allowed to do whatever I want, but others should also be allowed to do whatever they want. The line is then drawn at any action where we prevent one another from personal liberty (i.e. the social contract).
It also means that at my lowest of lows death was never an appealing option. Despite all of my anxiety, the belief that this life is all I get keeps me going. If I thought there was something beyond this, yeah, there was a time when I might have considered suicide. I say that because the idea did occur to me (it was the idea that first compelled me to seek help for my anxiety).
My anxiety about the subjects tends to orbit two sides of a single coin.
First, I carry a sadness at the idea of all of the things that I would leave behind when I pass. Things I will never be able to do again, places I will never see, and how my passing would affect those still in my life at that point.
Second, and the more common, is my anxiety about how I will handle when those in my life pass. I spend an inordinate amount of time imagining learning the news about people – most often my dog given his relative lifespan or my wife. We recently had to put down our older dog after his battle with cancer, and I spent those last several months putting myself in the moment it happened, trying to imagine being home without his presence.
Of course it never helps. There is no preparing ahead of time for that. I was distraught several times in the months preceding that day, mustered what courage I could when we learned it was time, and then fell apart again in the room. It continues to hit my occasionally, but the important thing is that I’m processing it and things do get better.
Plus, I will say this for anyone who shares a similar outlook – we had that dog for five years before that day, and I would gladly take the pain of that day in exchange for those five years any time. I think that is an important context. I could have avoided the pain of that day, but it would have cost me those five years to do so.
It’s a version of my selfish anxiety. I see one of his old toys and get upset at the thought that he’ll never get to have fun with it again. He does not care because he’s not alive anymore. I care. Grief is a selfish thing (and not at all a bad thing; “selfish” gets a bad rap sometimes when it absolutely has a place, we are simply not meant to overdo it). We’re aren’t sad for the other person so much as in pain trying to make sense of our new place in the universe with this void in our heart.
Despite all that comfort I take from the idea of being unaware once I cross that point, my existential awareness drives much of the anxiety I face in my daily life. It’s concern about whether I am making the best use of what time I have and whether something is a threat to my sense of self. While I have adapted at every turn to change, the need to adapt to some future theoretical event plagues me (what if I got a chronic illness? what if I got a treatable illness, but the care is so expensive that it financially ruins me? what if I am too focused on my self and ruining others’ liberty to make the most of their life? what if, what it, what if…).