Issues of death, loss and bereavement enter counselling conversations regularly. Anxiety about death (those overwhelming thoughts about death and dying) isn't necessarily about bereavement and it strikes me that this is something that isn't openly discussed very often When it is, the person experiencing those feelings can be confused about the strength of feelings, where they are coming from, why they can't turn them off. They often feel silly too knowing that their thoughts are irrational so talking about it can cause embarrassment and discomfort.
In this spirit of being 'comfortable with the uncomfortable' I thought I'd put some proper thought into it again and that refocusing brought me to this book, Staring at the Sun by Irvin D Yalom. As is the wont in the counselling vocation, I have turned the reading into reflection. When have I felt that I couldn't avoid thoughts of death? Surprisingly, I have realised that there have been lots of different triggers:
1. (Unsurprisingly ...) When someone has died
It is probably expected that when someone dies, we can't ignore that we are mortal. This realisation:
has been harder to ignore when the loss has been of someone young
has been harder to ignore when the death was entirely unexpected
has been harder to ignore when someone my own age has died of something medical
has been harder to ignore when the death seems 'unfair'
have not only been for people that I know - have you been shocked by the death of a high profile person that you have never known but you have felt their loss.
These feelings are on top of the overwhelming feelings of bereavement which might include emotions such as guilt, shame, fear, regret, confusion, relief and more. Even though most people accept that everyone needs time to grieve the loss of a loved one, the bereaved person can feel incredibly vulnerable and lonely, after all guilt, shame, fear and confusion are not easy subjects and the fear of judgement drives the bereaved person to silence, and hoping that these overwhelming feelings will subside sooner rather than later.
I feel its fair to say that most people expect to live into their 70s, 80s or longer. However, every time there is a landmark birthday, we are brought sharply to acknowledge how much of our life has gone by, not usually, how much is left. I have had conversations with people for whom hitting 50, 40 even 30 who become a little obsessed with the feelings of dread that come with reaching those markers. What is worth noting though, is that it doesn't have to be a birthday with a zero in it - for me, 28 (not sure why!) and 39-40 both brought very strong awareness of my not being able to live forever.
3. Never-ending negative new stories
It seems that sometimes I turn the news on and all I hear is bleak stories of war and death, and images of vulnerable people subjected to deprivation and atrocity. Furthermore, charities have learned the best ways to pull on heartstrings so as to generate the necessary income which allows them to function and offer essential services: abused children, neglected animals, starving people. It is hard not to have our attention focused to the hopelessness of existence and the difficulty in fighting the inevitable.
Yalom talks about the relationship of us coming from nothing and we go to nothing. Can't really be denied but for me, I think it's more that I have found that it is not unusual to hear of someone's passing within a very short time of hearing of a birth so life and death, paradoxically, sometimes seem to go hand-in-hand.
These are my reflections and experiences and I acknowledge that everyone's experiences are their own. Your own experiences may be similar or different. However, they are real, this is a real thing and I hope you have someone that you can talk to about them when you need to.