The subject of death — and the fear of death — came up recently in another excellent Daylight Atheism post. Someone had written to Ebon Muse (the Daylight Atheism author) asking for advice on dealing with the feelings of dreadful fear and despair they sometimes had over the finality of death.
Ebon had some excellent philosophies and comforting thoughts about death, as did many other commenters in the discussion. (This piece was developed in that thread, in fact.) But I want to take a slightly different tack on this. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently, and I want to offer a somewhat different angle.
Death is natural, and we shouldn’t try to pretend that it doesn’t exist and isn’t real.
But the fear of death, the desire not to die, is also natural. (As Ebon pointed out in his post, if our species didn’t have a strong preference for living over dying, we wouldn’t have lasted very long.)
And we shouldn’t try to pretend that that doesn’t exist and isn’t real, either.
I had a very good therapist once. We did a certain amount of the usual therapy stuff: talking ad nauseum to help me gain insight into my behavior and help me choose it more consciously, yada yada yada. But a lot of what we did was simply to create a safe place for me to experience emotions that I was afraid of, emotions that I kept shoving to the back burner because they felt so enormous it seemed like they were going to overwhelm and drown me. Grief and fear over death, of course, being high on the list.
And what I found was that, sometimes — often, maybe even most of the time — the best way to deal with difficult and painful emotions is to stop trying to fix them and just let myself feel them. When I let myself actually feel my emotions, they tend to pass. Sometimes they come back, of course; but then they pass again. And they’re not compounded and made worse by the meta-fear, the fear of the emotion adding to whatever emotion it is I’m afraid of.
I will caution that this only works if you have a pretty solid foundation to begin with. Which is where all this wonderful atheist and humanist philosophy about death comes in.
The idea that loss, including death, is necessary for life and change to be possible.
The idea that your life, your slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though you die — and the fact that your life has an end as well as a beginning doesn’t eradicate that.
The idea that death is necessary to focus our lives and make us treasure the people and experiences we have.
The idea that we are free to create our own meaning of life.
The idea that things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful. (Many thanks from me go to the movie “Rivers and Tides” for getting this one across so vividly.)
The idea that death is a natural, physical process that connects us intimately with nature and the universe.
The idea that each one of us was astronomically lucky to have been born at all, and that complaining that our lives aren’t infinite is like winning a million dollars in the lottery and complaining that we didn’t get a hundred billion, or indeed all the money in the world.
The idea that your genes and/or ideas will live on after you die.
The idea that we didn’t exist for billions of years before we were born, and that wasn’t a painful or bad experience; and so as frightened as we sometimes are of death, it probably won’t be any different from not having been born yet.
Etc., etc., etc.
None of this gives us an escape from the deep fear or grief over death. Nothing gives us that. What it gives us is a solid place to come back to when the fear and grief have passed. It gives us a life preserver to hang on to when the fear and grief are gripping us, a bridge over the chasm. It gives us the strength to actually feel our fear and grief and despair… because we can trust that we have a safe place to return to when the feelings pass.
And I think that, for all the comforting philosophies we can offer, the most powerful and useful thing we can give each other in the face of death is companionship and witness. When I’m struggling with the fear of my own death, or the grief over the death of a loved one, what comforts me most isn’t ideas or philosophies (although those do help). It’s the presence of someone who loves me just sitting with me silently, letting me feel what I have to feel, not trying to fix it or make it go away but simply being with me while I feel it. It’s the presence of someone who loves me letting me know that I’m not alone… and by their presence, being part of the foundation that I can come back to when the feelings pass.
I think American culture has a pathological fear of painful emotions, and a freakish sense that they somehow make you a failure. And I know that people often feel helpless in the face of other people’s grief and want desperately to fix it, to find a magic button that will make it go away. I’ve sat with grieving friends and felt that way myself. But I also know that there is no magic button, and that sometimes the only way out of fear and grief and despair is to just go through it.
So here’s the final thing I want to say to Ebon’s inquisitor, and to anyone else who’s struggling with death:
Yes, I have those feelings, too. I sometimes have the despairing feeling that death eradicates and trivializes my life; the sense that, without immortality, my life is meaningless. And I also sometimes have the apparently opposite (but actually related, I think) experience: the despairing feeling that life itself is a burden, a parade of petty struggles and mundane samenesses that end only in nothingness and the void.
But I don’t feel that way most of the time. Most of the time, I love my life passionately, and accept the inevitability of death with a fair amount of peace. And the fact that despair creeps in from time to time does not, I think, make me a failure as a person, or a failure as an atheist. It just makes me human.
Other posts in this series:
Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God
The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many
The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises