How I Manage Thoughts of Death

There is an old saw about what is appropriate to discuss at a social gathering: Never bring up religion, politics, and abortion. I would add one more: my death.

There is a level at which it is safe to talk about death. Generally we can recite obituaries as long as there isn’t too intimate a connection. Among family and friends, we can note the passing of loved ones, acquaintances, teachers, classmates, and neighbors. It can be very comforting, in fact. Revealing the fatal prognosis of a loved one to our intimates is an essential part of grieving, as though the weight of grief is lightened when we all bear it together. But these examples are about the deaths of others. There is no true comfort zone I have found in which thoughts of my own death can be expressed without upsetting people.

Discussing my death in the context of my final wishes

The safest discussion I’ve had about my death was couched in the familiar terms of final wishes, living will, durable power of attorney, and DNR (Do Not Resuscitate), with official documents to be written and revised, and finally signed in ink by my own hand. It resembles a business transaction and therefore provides a buffer between our feelings and the grievous event of my passing. It is not an easy discussion to have with loved ones, but we have become more comfortable the more we talk about it. I think it’s helped a lot that we all share a dark sense of humor. Yet there is another level of death thoughts I’ve only expressed to loved ones a tiny bit.

I don't want to be left alone in the world

I’ve told my three siblings I hope I’m the first to go. I do not want to be the “last man standing,” having to bury everyone I love, left utterly alone in the world. This desire appeared shortly after I developed multiple sclerosis. Part of my death wish came from a fear of being left alone at a time when I might be at my most disabled. But I wasn’t talking about taking my own life. I only hoped that pneumonia would take me sometime between ages 65 and 70, early enough to be enjoying quality of life in the company of my loved ones. I’ve always been one to leave a party at its peak. Staying too long is usually a mistake. This has been my hope for years. But it has changed.

Thriving despite MS and having a change of heart

For one, I’ll be 63 come November and I’m enjoying an upswing in both my general health and my MS symptoms. 65 is just around the corner, and I’m pretty sure I’d fight tooth and nail to survive a bout of pneumonia! I have plans and goals and dreams now, and there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all I want to do. I’m much more confident now that I’ve been living alone and thriving better than ever. I’m convinced that is the key to my change of heart. Eight years ago, my fear of abandonment became a reality when my husband divorced me. My worst fear came true — and it was the best thing that could ever happen to me.

Gaining independence

Abandonment was just the kick I needed to discover how truly independent I can be. For me, solving a series of how-can-I-do-this-without-asking-for-help problems not only boosts my self-confidence, it changes the thoughts in that endless loop of messages that run through my mind. More and more, my thought loop is populated with story problems. If I go on vacation with my sister and we’re gone for six weeks, how much money will I need to make between now and then to meet my expenses?

Still very conscious of death

It’s not that I don’t think about death anymore, quite the contrary. I lost two friends in 2020 and keep in touch with the bereaved loved ones. These recent deaths made me face the searing falsehood that each time I lose someone I’m going to better understand death. It doesn’t. I know now that if I lost a thousand loved ones, it still wouldn’t make any sense. How can they be so vivid and alive and make me love them one minute, and then disappear forever?

Part of being human

The response to this question is always a deafening silence, and that’s as it should be. I’m much more interested in questions than in answers that strike me as glib and hollow. As for my own death, that deafening silence is likely what keeps me well away from the edge of the abyss these days. Sometimes I hear a faint voice asserting a kind of rationale, something like: Kim, you are the only one that won’t experience and grieve your death. That’s for your loved ones to suffer through. There’s really not much for you to work out. One way or another, you will end — and you’ll be the last one to know. And if there’s some way we persist after death, you’ll slog through that, too. You can only go forward. Knowing that you have an expiration date simply means you’re human.

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