Relationships

How Do You Think About Death? (Just an Average Tuesday Question)

ocean by nicki sebastian

This winter, I was walking the boys to school, when the strangest thing happened…

Toby and Anton were running ahead of me, chatting about a beehive in a tree. I let my thoughts wander; and out of the blue, I remembered something my mom had once said: “I’m not scared of death because after death you can’t feel anything. You just aren’t there.” But that, to me, is the scary part. Where are you? Just nowhere? Just nothing? It’s over? Suddenly I felt like I was standing over a precipice. On a regular winter day, for no reason in particular, my mind had wrapped itself around death for the first time, and I momentarily panicked.

A couple weeks later, as I was falling asleep in bed, the noise machine purring and the boys asleep in the room next to me, I started thinking about death again. And the dread and fear crept up around me, until I shook my head and forced myself to think about something else, my heart still pounding.

I’m turning 40 next week, and I’m not NOT having a midlife crisis.

Have you felt this way? I’ve recently realized, death will also happen to me. Maybe not today, maybe not next month, but it WILL happen. Before, I knew it would “happen to me,” like knew I would “die someday,” but not REALLY. Not actually.

In my thirties, there were so many things “in front” of death (having another baby, my own parents dying). Subconsciously, I figured, those things had to happen before I died. I wasn’t next up. I didn’t have to worry about it right now. It was so far away, surely.

But Nina Riggs’s memoir The Bright Hour, about her struggle with cancer, published posthumously, began to puncture my cool-headedness. I immediately related to her: we both had two little boys, we both had bearded husbands, and her inner monologue felt so similar to mine; she was a writer and a worrier, too. It felt like I was reading a book about myself. Ordering Chinese food, going to book club, saying goodbye.

The fear of flying often kicks in around age 27, studies reveal, when people start to grapple with their own mortality. They don’t feel invincible, like they did as rowdy kids and hormonal teenagers. I totally get that, don’t you? “As life experiences build up, the reality of ​our own vulnerability as human beings can set in,” says New York-based therapist Nathan Feiles.

And what about your later years? My mom’s husband, Harvey, is 26 years older than she is. Right now, she’s 66 and he’s 92. They say you should listen to life advice from people in their 80s and 90s, because they’ve been staring death in the face for years. And one thing Harvey said years ago has always stuck with me.

When I was in law school, 23 and miserable, I was visiting them in Michigan. Over dinner, I mused, “I just have to get through the last three months of the semester; I wish I could just wake up and it would be over.” Harvey jerked back, as if I had hit him. “Never wish away your life,” he told me, quietly. Over roast chicken and mashed potatoes, I struggled to see what he meant — of COURSE anyone would want to skip days that were difficult or painful or heartbreaking. But, now that I’m older, I’m starting to grasp his point. Soak it all up, even the hard parts. You are alive.

So, how can we move forward without freaking out about death? A friend recommended Staring at the Sun by Irvin Yalom about dealing with death anxiety. “It helps,” she said.

Or what if we reframe things, so that we see life, instead of death, as the mind-bending part? Writes Barbara Ehrenreich in Natural Causes: “You can think of death bitterly or with resignation, as a tragic interruption of your life, and take every possible measure to postpone it. Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and see it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.”

Now and again, I’ll be looking at my children playing on the rug and it will cross my mind that we’re all going to die someday — and then I’ll think of things like earrings, and they seem so ridiculous. WHO CARES??? We are going to die, WHY ARE WE WEARING EARRINGS. But then maybe that’s the point of jewelry? And sports? And Beyoncé’s songs? And complicated soup recipes? To be distractingly wonderful and fill up the moments and let you just play with your children on the rug?

Our close relationships ground us, too, of course. After years of living with stage IV cancer, Kate Bowler wrote in the New York Times: “A friend knits me socks and another drops off cookies, and still another writes a funny email or takes me to a concert. These seemingly small efforts are anchors that hold me to the present, that keep me from floating away on thoughts of an unknown future. They say to me, like my sister Maria did on one very bad day: ‘Yes, the world is changed, dear heart, but do not be afraid. You are loved, you are loved. You will not disappear. I am here.'”

Because at the end of the day: “We are all just walking each other home.” — Ram Dass

How do you think about death? Do you think about it? What do you believe happens after death? Are you religious? What are your views on the afterlife? I’m so, so curious to hear. I don’t have any answers!

And some comic relief.

P.S. How to write a condolence note, and “how stage IV cancer taught me how to live.” Also, do you ever worry about your partner dying?

(Photo by Nicki Sebastian.)

  1. Kate says...

    I was explaining my fear of death to a friend recently and her words have stuck with me. She said that she doesn’t fear the unknown of death because what comes next (if anything) is simply “none of her business.” I can’t tell you how helpful it’s been to think this way. Going to send her a quick thank you email right now!

  2. Rebecca says...

    Your quote “Where are you? Just nowhere? Just nothing? It’s over?” is something that occurred to me when I was in elementary school. I vividly remember staring out of the window in class (those school building rows of windows that open upward) at the trees and thinking about death in this way. And I would get so, so sad. That probably means that I needed a therapist when I was seven, but maybe I’m just very sensitive. I literally worry about death every day. And it’s definitely gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, too many people I know with cancer. These thoughts do make it harder to put on those earrings in the morning. But, as your mom’s husband said, they also make me never, ever wish my life away. Even the craziest week where I’m driving my kids all over the place, so frazzled. That’s life, it’s all life.

  3. sandy says...

    This is so close to my heart. I am four years out with Stage 4 BC so my life expectancy is closing in on me.
    My biggest fear is my boys…23, 27, 29-I can hardly think about it without a guttural scream. Will they remember the important things I taught them? Will they have successful, loving marriages? Will they parent well, if they decide to have kids?
    My biggest assurance…my husband will help guide them, along with my posse of friends. They will carry me with them and I know I will live on in a small way deeply embedded in their heart. This I know to be true.

    • Tracey says...

      Sandy you are woven into the fabric of these men. If asked they may not be able to recite the lessons you wish for them to have learned but they absolutely will have it ingrained within them. And I have no doubt that they will fail at some of the things you mention and what a glorious privilege that will be for them; they will fail, and learn and grow, like you have and continue to do. And once in a while they will ask themselves “what would Mom do?”. They’re going to be alright. I’m sorry you’re going through this. Xx

    • salbra says...

      Sandy – from a mum of baby boys, all the way over in Australia – I am holding you in my heart. You are all love.

  4. Meredith says...

    My seven year old daughter has recently been asking a lot of questions about heaven. We are working our way through Billy Graham’s “The Heaven Answer Book”, one question at a time. I love his down to earth, simple and direct responses to many questions.

  5. Lauren says...

    I think about death and dying most days, often with curiosity and intrigue, but many times with fear. A friend who worked in an ER told me there are a million ways to die. Whenever I begin a cycle of overactive imagine, anxiety, fear, I think about the million ways – big and small – that we can die. I find it comforting to realize that I have no control and that worrying about specific ways of dying doesn’t change that.

    Note: this does not translate to how I think about something happening to my child :)

  6. Mama says...

    This topic has always made my heart race and my stomach clench, even as a small child. Just beginning to read this post tonight made my hands go clammy and my breathing change.
    I’ll check out the recommended books when I’m feeling braver.
    It’s nice to feel ‘not alone’ in this :-(

    • Lulu says...

      I totally understand where you are coming from. I have a similar experience. Usually I think about it at night, when its quiet and my mind starts to wander. I am only now learning to tell myself: “It’s inevitable and that is OK, just breathe now” and try to be calm.

      You are definitely not alone.

      Thank you for being brave to share and thank you COJ for the post about this topic. I look forward to reading the comments.

  7. Mimi says...

    My dear wise friend once shared with me, “you cannot escape your own death.”
    After years of grappling with her own brothers tragic death she told me of the Sherpas he had once trained for rescue situations. There was an avalanche and all but one of the sherpas were lost. As the one survivor walked back to his village he was killed by a lightening strike.
    It was a startling, visceral reality….
    We cannot escape our own death.
    An equally wise professor once asked her class to consider with curiously, rather than judgement, the beliefs of fellow classmates regarding death, “for it is our values and needs that often dictate what each one of us believes..”
    it is a mysterious unknown…

  8. Salbra says...

    OH JUST- WOW! What a collection of commentary that runs the gamut of emotional charge and perspective. What a tribute to this Cup of Jo community you’ve facilitated Jo!

    I had a near death experience when I was late twenties and was totally at peace. I remember being discharged from hospital, standing in my sunny single girl kitchen, baking a cake for a dear girl friend’s wedding, with classical music playing and I thought “if it happens now, I feel absolutely at peace”. This I knew with all my heart and certainty.

    Now, twelve years later with two baby boys, a husband and a loving home, the fear of death stops me in my tracks, strikes true terror in my heart and overwhelms me. I’m working on the anxiety, and this post equally scared me and comforted me. Comfort in the community.

    Also, I wear my nana’s earrings almost each day, and her eternity ring every day. She’s always with me in a loving way. I grieved for her every single day for 12 years, and then I had a baby. That very day the grief moved, shook out and took a new form of love.

  9. Jill says...

    I’m a practicing Catholic, so I believe in heaven/purgatory/hell; and I don’t fear death because the Church emphasizes God’s infinite, bottomless mercy for EVERYONE. That said, I dread it. Life is messy and complicated and painful and exhilarating and wonderful and frightening and all! the! things! But I *know life*. I’ve never died before. I fear the afterlife— I even fear heaven—because I don’t know it. My children’s mortality,
    On the other hand, is the real hoodie. I feel a physical pain in my chest whenever I consider it. Every Ash Wednesday Catholics wear ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our own mortality. Seeing the ashes on my children’s foreheads makes my vision blurry.

    • Shelby says...

      Jill! Thank you for this. I am a Christian who believes in heaven and have always felt deep ambivalence about it. Being part of a faith community, I’ve always been taught that heaven is what we look forward to but I’ve always felt a dread about it as well. When you say that you “know life” I’ve never felt so affirmed in something. Thank you for sharing this, know you aren’t alone in this feeling.

  10. Heather says...

    Well, ok. Since you asked. We are all spirit children of a loving father and mother in heaven. We reached a point in our progression where we needed to leave in order to learn more and become more like them. Like teenagers leaving home. We passed through a veil of forgetfulness because we couldn’t learn from pain and struggle if we could always feel their love. We came to earth to get a body and a family, to learn right from wrong, to struggle, feel pain, gain empathy, learn to love and have self discipline. To progress. When you die you will return to your heavenly home to a loving father and mother and will live with your earthly family forever.

    • Lisa says...

      I believe the same – you explain it so eloquently. This knowledge gives me so much joy and peace.

    • Kristie says...

      This is the most beautiful and reassuring belief of the afterlife I have ever heard. Thank you.

    • Chloe says...

      Wow, Heather. Reading your post gave me chills. I really really love how you’ve phrased the transition as nothing to be worried about but just letting it be. All of these posts are so unique and I keep being reminded of the book by Dara Horn “The World To Come”. I especially like the part in the book where those of our family that have passed to the next dimension help create future children and that just because someone is not on this Earth anymore doesn’t mean they aren’t always there. <3

    • Sarah says...

      Heather, I think you must go to the church I grew up in. : ) I still believe the same things. <3

    • Meg says...

      Are you a Latter-day Saint? :)

  11. Rachel Fletcher says...

    My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 4 years ago. He is 82. The doctor told my parents he is still in the “honeymoon phase” of the disease. They visited us at Christmas and when you don’t live near your parents, you understand the reality of the illness with fresh pain each time you see them. You also want to make the moments count, but it was hard to cut through the melancholy that seemed to settle on our time together. After they left, I was talking with a friend and she mentioned the On Being Podcast where Pauline Boss talks about “ambiguous grief” and it seemed to describe just what I was feeling. https://onbeing.org/programs/pauline-boss-the-myth-of-closure-dec2018/
    I was raised in an evangelical christian home, but have wandered into a faith landscape that looks dramatically different than that of my upbringing. I am not sure what happens after we die, I just know that I do not want my dad to go through the incredible pain that sits out there on his horizon. My thoughts on end of life decisions are so different than those of my parents, but I keep them sealed up in my heart.
    My dad loves words and this summer I decided I would write my dad one letter every week until he is gone. I work full time and am in a doctoral program, but it has top priority. My dad also loves poetry and I refer often to the Cup of Jo blog post “Do you have a favorite poem” to find something new to write out on a piece of paper and slip into his letter. I recently sent “Days” by Billy Collins. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=39048 A few days later, he sent me a text. “Rachel. Thank you for the poem by Billy Collins! I love a poem he wrote called Velocity. I’ll send you a copy tomorrow. I might order a book of his poems from Amazon. Love you.”
    I will read him poetry at his funeral – wherever he might be.

    • Rachel Fletcher says...

      I’m sorry I posted twice. The first time I hit publish, it didn’t say anything like “moderating comment” and so I thought it had disappeared. I couldn’t get it off my mind, so I typed it out again. Gah.

    • Nicole says...

      Oh that episode is SO SO SO SO good— I have my own ambiguous loss and had a psychiatrist appointment that evening after listening to Pauline Boss. My psychiatrist knew of some of her work and looked at this stuff too— so if you’re curious, it’s also psychiatrist approved by an amazing psychiatrist that pretty much has saved my life.

    • Belinda-Jane says...

      How lovely that you write your Dad a letter a week. In my humble opinion the only way we can divert the fear of death is by making the most of the living. Something you are doing beautifully. Your Dad will love that xx

    • Sara says...

      This is so sweet :)

    • anja says...

      Dear Rachel, this is very close to home. My Dad has Parkinson`s, too and 2018 was a very rough year. He also loves poetry, literature altogether, for his 80 th Birthday last year, my son and I wrote him 80 postcards. If you ever want wo write, here is my address: annickyerem@gmail.com. All the very best for your Dad.

  12. Katia says...

    My family talks about death very comfortably and it’s not a morbid topic for us. It came out of necessity (when I was younger, my mom and brother were legitimately on death’s door too many times to count), and it’s a great family joke that the biggest unplanned surprise of our life is that my mom is still here. I was really stressed about it when I was younger, but I now find tremendous peace in feeling like, if I die tomorrow, it would be ok. Not because I’ve climbed a mountain or cured cancer, but because the overall sum of my days is really good in the small ways. I love knowing that, if I were to die, there would be a healthy group of people who would remember all of me – the good, bad and in-between. That’s what I think happens to you, you live on in those who really knew you.

    • Annie says...

      “..overall sum of my days is really good in the small ways”. Loved reading your comment, Katia. Thank you.

    • Mags says...

      ‘but because the overall sum of my days is really good in the small ways’
      This is one of the most wonderful things I have read. Thank you.

    • Vee says...

      “The overall sum of my days”… I love that. It’s exactly how I feel. I’m not religious so I don’t believe we go to a specific place when we die. I know that energy cannot be created or destroyed and that is comforting. I know through trial and error I have become a moral person living a good life, taking care of other people, having deep friendships, knowing true love, puttering around in my garden, finding laughter and joy. and working towards equality for all. I’ve been so fortunate to have this beautiful life. I’m so content with who I am as a person and the life I have created that it makes it much less scary to die.

  13. Anne says...

    I’m trying to imagine believing that there is nothing after death. How hopeless! How finite! I am thankful for faith that our souls are eternal and when we die, we will meet our God. It is my hope that I will spend eternity with God, who is a loving caring heavenly Father to me now, The thought of death is comforting to me because I will be with him for all eternity. This natural life is wonderful and beautiful, with all it’s ups and down, human relationships, sadness and happiness, but nothing to compare to eternity.

    • Midge says...

      Finite, yes, which makes it beautiful, to my mind. I don’t know how to articulate it well, but think of a flower. The beauty is in the whole cycle.

      No judgment, I just wanted you to know that it can be not scary and not hopeless. ❤️

    • Danielle says...

      I completely agree. I’ve recently gotten back into church and my faith, but even when I strayed I still always believed in God. I still wonder what it’s like day to day for people who don’t believe in Him. I wonder if I would feel lost and feel like something was missing? If this is it and then we’re gone, I wonder what’s the point of life then? For me death, is also a comfort and the main sadness would be leaving my family here to grieve.

    • Britney says...

      I feel the same. My faith keeps me from curling into the fetal position and shaking with anxiety of the unknowns. I think I would have a lot of anxiety about everything if I didn’t believe that there was something much bigger than myself after I die. and that it was going to be AWESOME.

      As a child, Heaven sounded boring to me. “We’re all just gonna be in this sterile white and gold place and singing all the time? But supposedly in bliss so I guess I’ll love it?” As I’ve grown up, I have a fuller understanding of Heaven. I believe Heaven will be just like Earth now, but 1000000x better. All of the beauty and creativity and interest of nature. All of the diversity of every tribe and tongue together in peace in the presence of the father.

      Side note: Back in November some readers commented on the post about Anton asking whether the universe ended. Several comments mentioned how terrifying the concept of infinity was to them as a child. I wonder if they feel the same about eternity?

    • Nicole S. says...

      Hello hello! I am one of those people who believes there is nothing after death! For me personally, this idea is about the farthest from hopeless you can possibly get. “There is no light without the dark,” is the best way I can think to sum it up. The fact that our lives are a small bright blip in the never ending universe is about the happiest, most hopeful thing I can imagine. Every day you’re alive is a celebration! There are a million possibilities and they all belong to you! And then one day you’re gone, just like everything else in the universe eventually will be. Nothing matters, and to me that’s freedom.

  14. Melanie says...

    This is quite timely.
    A few years ago when I turned 40, I started to worry about the mortality of my parents. I can’t imagine my life without them and I want to soak up as much of them and their stories as possible.
    Then last year, I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Suddenly it was me, someone who never had any health issues, facing mortality. I can relate to another reader’s comment that intellectually I am aware of the possible outcomes. As a physician, I can wrap myself up in the data of clinical trials, new therapies etc. But emotionally….how do I wrap my head around this? I have 2 young children and a husband I love dearly. I feel that I “have it easy” to die and disappear. But what about them? That part devastates me. I don’t want them to suffer. I want to give them everything of me.
    I am not sure how to live while I know that I won’t be around as long as I thought I would. I took that for granted. Do I stop working? Should I check things off a bucket list?
    I have had Paul’s book for a while (before my diagnosis), but I couldn’t bring myself to read it. I opened it this week.

    • sandra Avis says...

      I am 4 years out from a METS diagnosis. I have embraced a bit from Kate Bowler…what was once mundane is now beautiful gift. I have stopped working and made a pact with my 3 boys (living all over the country in their mid-late twenties) to see them once a month even if for a day. Our mantra is Be present, Be nimble. Peace to you.

    • Rebecca says...

      Oh, Melanie. I would feel the same way. Sending so much love to you and your family.

    • Jamie says...

      Oh dear Melanie I am so sorry. I know you don’t know me and I have no answers but I am sending lots of love into the airwaves for you. I hope they reach you.

    • Nancy says...

      Melanie, just remember that children are incredibly resilient beings. All will be ok with them no matter what.
      Many hugs to you….
      Nancy

    • Elizabeth says...

      Melanie, I just wanted you to know that I hear you. I don’t have answers to your questions, but I have faith that you will find answers as you need them. I admire your introspection, your love for your family, your wonderful ability to communicate what you don’t understand. I am so sorry you are facing all of this.
      Warmly, Elizabeth

    • J says...

      Just wanted to say that I am reaching out to embrace you as you continue your journey. I don’t have the right words to say but wish I could simply hug you.

    • Melanie~
      Thank you for sharing your story. Your family is so lucky to have you. Paul’s book opened me up to a softer perspective on life and death. I hope his words can provide comfort for you. ? ~Stacy

    • Carly says...

      Melanie, your comment brought me to tears. I hope you’re around for a long, long time to share in everything with those you love.

    • Susan says...

      Sending love and strength to you Melanie.

    • Ania says...

      Melanie, I am hugging you.

    • Laura C. says...

      Melanie I send you a big big hug. A lot of love and you will be in my prayers. If only I could help you in some way or another pls let me know.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      melanie, i’m so so sorry to hear this. that SUCKS. even from just reading your comment, i am sure that your children feel deeply, unconditionally loved by you. that is the biggest gift to them and they will carry that with them all their lives.

      this line from The Bright Hour made me cry, and i thought you might relate to it and find it comforting to know you’re not alone in this feeling. she’s talking about her two little boys:
      “Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right with in all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.”

      sending so much love to you, melanie. i’ll be standing with you in my thoughts today.

  15. Hope says...

    I’m literally LOLing bc I had a stressful day at work and now I’m finally kicking back with my blogs and a cup of tea. I was ready to read about, like, Clare V. bags, not “death is coming for us all!”

    Haha. That said, this is a beautiful post and I love your outlook.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Hahaahah

    • KG says...

      I had the EXACT same experience. Long day, thought “oh, I’ll read something fun on the Internet before I go to sleep.” That’ll teach me to use my phone in bed!

  16. Allie says...

    Speaking of Ram Dass and this very subject, I just finished Michael Pollan’s “How To Change Your Mind”. Very interesting perspectives about death in this book and soooo informative. I can’t recommend it enough.

  17. I could have written this post. I, too, am a writer, a worrier and a mother who turns 40 in a couple weeks. I’m agnostic, and I believe we truly can’t know what happens after we die, that it’s beyond human understanding. My husband is like your mom — death doesn’t bother him because he believes he will no longer exist, so he won’t feel sad. Not existing terrifies me! I’d love for there to be something. I hope there is. In June we lost my father-in-law to suicide. So death has weighed heavy, especially with our kids (10, 8, 8). They have so many pure, honest, hard, funny, deeply sad questions and I hate not having all the answers. Sometimes I fear I think about death too much. “Just enjoy the now!” I internally scream. That tactic isn’t really working haha. Happy almost birthday!

    • Tessa Valyou says...

      I feel your comment so much! thank you for sharing!

  18. Elise says...

    I’ve always thought about death. When I was 5 in bed at night I used to imagine all my family dying and cry (quietly, because I knew it would be weird if my parents found out.) Even now, I fairly regularly think about what I hope happens at my funeral.

    I used to be a lot more afraid of death, or, more, accurately, pre-emptively, desperate not to leave everything in my world behind. But then, struggles with depression and anxiety made me realize there were some things in my life I would be quite happy to see the last of*. And that’s when I started being able to look forward to Jesus bringing an end to all the messed up things in the world and in my world, though I might have to wait until I die to see it.

    *Don’t worry, I am not and wasn’t suicidal, I just think that mental health issues are a real drag :)

    • Britney says...

      I just came to understand that not everyone has always imagined their family members dying!! I mentioned my frequent imaginings as a child and now an adult, and some friends of mine corrected me. Apparently not everyone does this!? I thought it was completely normal. I can bring myself to tears anywhere just imagining the events and my feelings surrounding the death of any of my family members or myself (now that I have kids).

  19. Margaret says...

    Thanks for writing about death. It’s such a big and difficult topic that people seem to avoid talking about it. That’s so hard when you are dealing with the loss of somebody you love, or thinking about your own death.

    My first husband died when I was 25; he was 31. I’m now 32, remarried, and have a toddler. It’s strange to have moved past him in age, and created this new person that I love so much, but whom he has never met. I’m a Christian and believe in heaven, but still the finality of my husband’s absence from the rest of my life here is hard. He still exists, but he’s unreachable.

  20. Alex says...

    I’m an atheist so I don’t believe in consciousness after death, but I do think that the ripple effect of what we do during life is an afterlife of sorts. All of the people you impact pass that effect onto others. I want to leave good, strong ripples behind!

    • Kerry says...

      This is exactly how I see it too Alex — thank you for stating it so clearly. I find this perspective peaceful and comforting. But at the same time of course it doesn’t stop us from deeply missing those we’ve lost. And, damn, I want to stick around and enjoy as long as I can!

  21. Carolyn says...

    My 8 year old daughter was crying in bed this week, she was scared about all of us dying and that we would never see each other again. I told her that we will all see each other again in heaven (I truly believe this). She gasped “really”, I said, yep, that’s what I believe. Then she asked “will there be celebrities there too” , gotta love kids :)

    • Laura C. says...

      She’s lovely!

  22. A. says...

    I think the thing that makes me not afraid of death is my faith. (I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter – Day Saints) I don’t know what I would do without it. I would probably feel crippled with fear. Instead though I feel peace. I know that when I die I will be reunited with loved ones and I will still be myself. I am excited to see them again and have the opportunity to continue growing, learning, and creating in a beautiful place with beautiful people.

  23. Adel says...

    I can’t tell you how much this post resonated with me. I am death-obsessed and have read both works referenced above. Death is a cloud that loomed in my consciousness at all times, sometimes taking the shape of a fluffy happy cloud and sometimes as dark, heavy thunderstorm clouds. As a religious Jew with strong faith in the afterlife, I am calmed only by focusing on the concept that the work we do on this planet prepares us for the ultimate good we will hopefully have earned when we get there. Honestly, I cant fathom any other way of getting through this murky, confusing joy-filled yet equally (if not more for some) sorrow-filled world. I focus on the Future, while trying to make this world a better place for others, and as a bonus hope to catch some small joy and pleasure along the journey.

  24. Amanda says...

    I’m a Christian, and one of the books that blew my mind was Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. He points out that the hope of the Christian Scriptures is not that we go float off to be disembodied souls in heaven, but that eventually at the end of time we will all be resurrected again. Like, back in our bodies, but bodies that are restored, made whole. Like Jesus! The project is not that the physical world gets obliterated, but that it gets healed. This does not mean that death isn’t terrible; the apostle Paul tells us that death is an enemy. What it does mean is that death itself will one day die. (Remember in Deathly Hallows when Harry and Hermione are in Godric’s Hollow and his parents’ grave says “The last enemy to be destroyed is death”? Rowling is quoting 1 Corinthians 15 there.)

    • Britney says...

      love everything about this.

      oh death where is your sting?

    • Ryane says...

      I’m so appreciative of this post because it helps me feel less alone. Sometimes my anxious brain can trick me into thinking I’m so afraid and anxious of death because it’s waiting just around the corner for me or my husband, which of course only fuels the fear and anxiety. Thanks Joanna for writing this and thanks to all the readers who echoed you’ve been afraid too. It helps.

    • Nina says...

      I didn’t know that (HP). Thank you so much, very interesting!

  25. Libbynan says...

    Fourteen years ago, at 57, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Suddenly I had to face the fact that not only was I going to die someday; but I could die sooner than later. I knew intellectually that the cancer could kill me, but emotionally I never thought it would. However, for the seven months of my treatment, I spent a lot of time thinking about my relationship with death and my beliefs about it. My beliefs and feelings about the subject are my own and I don’t inflict them on others. I do believe that it is important to come to terms with the inevitability of death for yourself and your loved ones. I simply don’t think that it is possible to be truly happy until you do.

  26. Christina says...

    Joanna, thank you for this post! Similar to many others, this is a topic I have thought about and wrestled with. When I envision death, I imagine peacefulness and stillness. I don’t have more formal thoughts regarding that, but currently this is comforting enough for me.

    What I currently struggle with is a bit of ‘death anxiety’ and learning how to wrestle with the ‘when’ it will happen. I lost my mom when I was 2 to cancer and currently work in the emergency department where I see death come at all times of people’s lives-often too soon or due to trauma. While I can envision dying peacefully at an old age, I know this isn’t a guarantee, and I fear the alternative. Perhaps the answer, as many people have described about, is the try to savor each day and life with intention, kindness etc, but I am still trying to navigate how do to do this and let go of the death anxiety.

  27. E says...

    Your brother Paul’s NY Times article that you posted here a few years ago really made me think about death. Paul was only a few years older than me and I still think of his article often (as well as his book). When I was a kid I would ask my Dad what he wanted for his birthday and he would always reply “my health”. At the time I did not understand this since I was little but now I have the same wish. Paul’s words left a lasting impression on me and I think of your sister and niece often.

  28. Lea M Sanders-Wilcox says...

    Yes, always. But not in a bad way. I am an expert in a lot of ways. As a nurse Ive supported more people than I can count through dying, both peaceful and full violent codes. My mother had ovarian cancer and utilized death with dignity. Death is part of life. We plan so much for birth, that same energy should be put towards death and thinking about how we want to die (for everyone it’s different). Death is not just an ending, but a beginning of something new.

  29. Julee says...

    As a child I was afraid of death and dying and heaven (word to the “hates new places”).
    After I had emergency surgery after losing my child, I had a sort of realization about death: if it’s anything like fainting or anesthesia (and I think it is), it’s nothing to fear.
    There are worse things than dying.
    I have my Christian faith which gives me hope that I’ll be somewhere else after this life. My sister who died when I was young still visits me in the early morning sometimes. I can’t explain it, but she’s enough to convince me that somewhere, somehow, she’s still out there, and I’ll join her, someday.

  30. Kathryn K says...

    The book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (not the Netflix film) was a turning point for me in my thoughts about death. Loaned to me by a dear family friend who died quickly and horribly from cancer just months after I returned it, it taught me most of all that the things we fear the most about dying– leaving our children, those we’ve helped, and our lives– will be filled in by the spilling over of love we’ve shown to those left. They’ll come and take in our child, take up our cause.
    As a follower of Christ, I have faith in my own ending. But this book gave me peace about loss and, most of all, about what I’ll leave behind.

  31. nella says...

    Does anyone else feel comfortable with the idea of dying? I’m going to be 30 next month and it really doesn’t bother me. I’ve done a lot more than the average person my age and my life hasn’t been conventional. I’ve seen the world and done a lot of good. I feel like if I didn’t wake up tomorrow I left my mark and had a full enough life. Did I do everything I possibly could in one lifetime? No, but I’ve done far more than most people ever do. I never thought that I would end up with a traditional spouse and child so the fact that I don’t have that doesn’t make me feel like I would be missing out on something. I know my parents and friends would miss me, but I would be gone so . . . It’s crazy to think that at 30 you could be done, but I kind of feel like I am. I set a lot of goals for myself in college and I’ve exceeded most of them in less than ten years instead of taking a lifetime and the ones that I didn’t achieve I actively chose not to because they weren’t appealing anymore. I’m not saying I’m going to check out, but it doesn’t scare me one bit. I find it hard to believe that things could get any better than they are right now, so the idea of moving toward a lot of disappointment is honestly scarier! It doesn’t bother me to think I could go out on a high note. I kind of don’t know why I’m hanging around anymore and that’s crazy. I want there to be more, but if there isn’t it makes me anxious to think that I peaked at 29.

    • Debbie girardi says...

      Nella, there is an entire next chapter that you haven’t visualized yet. I get it and I love a person who faces death bravely, but come on, don’t you think your 30 plus self might have something as great or greater to experience or offer than your-up -to -30 -self? I think so and I hope you do too! ( granted there are challenges, people and things that you love will change, but you sound like a person who has something to offer in those circumstances) I’m 52, I loved being 20-30, but 52 has something to offer also, it does!

    • Bec says...

      I’m 30 and I feel the same. A couple of years ago I sold everything, quit my job and travelled for a year and a half and although I do want more experiences, I feel very content with my life.

  32. Jo says...

    If you spot one of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ carts you should ask them what the bible really says about death. You might be very surprised by what they show you!

  33. Ashley Leach says...

    Reading the Bible will bring you peace and comfort like nothing else. God loves us and does not want us to be afraid!! I am always struck by God’s unfailing love for us. He does not grow weary or get annoyed. He will never leave us or forsake us. I do worry about dying before my children are grown but I am very much looking forward to being with my grandparents again. Pray for peace, wisdom, and freedom from anxiety. Love you Joanna!

    “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” – Romans 8:38-39

    “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” – Philippians 4:6-7

    • Amy Greenawalt says...

      I echo your thoughts Ashley! Amen to the verses that you posted. The Lord is near and wants us to turn to Him. He is the only source to help us deal with death.

      He has helped me tremendously in dealing with death from my father dying of pancreatic cancer when I was 22 and my own decaying body when I had to have emergency open heart surgery to fix something I was born with at 30 years old.

      Joanna, my prayer for you too is that you would ask God to show you who He is. He will reveal Himself, I promise. I asked Him when I was 18 and it has changed how I view everything the past 17 years of my life. I challenge you to read the Bible and see what it says. I would start with the Gospel of John. Much love! I enjoy your blog so much.

  34. Rachel says...

    My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about five years ago. He is 82. My mom said the doctor tell them that he’s in the “honeymoon phase” of the disease. He is unsteady on his feet, a lot quieter than he ever was, and unable to do a lot of things he used to do – and still wanted to keep doing – like ride his bike along the Oregon Coast during the summer again. Some honeymoon. It’s made me think a lot more about death.

    When my parents were visiting for Christmas, I felt a heaviness to their presence. It’s like I want to make the most of all the moments while simultaneously trying to fight off feeling bothered by stupid little things. I don’t live close to to my parents and so the times we are together feel like they are suffused with this self-inflicted pressure to make it count. Simultaneously, it feels like when you’re on a plane next to strangers and you’re kind of tolerant, while remaining aloof and then the last 15 minutes before you land, you start talking about everything and anything.

    I was talking to a friend about my reaction to their time here at Christmas and she pointed me toward the On Being podcast on ambiguous grief – which is an excellent descriptor for what I am going through. https://onbeing.org/programs/pauline-boss-the-myth-of-closure-dec2018/

    I don’t love to talk on the phone – and it’s truthfully getting harder to understand my dad when he talks. This last summer I decided I would write him one letter a week, until he’s gone. I work full time and am in a Doctoral program, but I will always find time. He also loves poetry and so I try to include one poem in each letter that I handwrite onto a separate piece of stationary. I have the Cup of Jo blog post on “Do you have a favorite poem” bookmarked in my computer and I mine it every week for my dad. https://cupofjo.com/2018/06/introduction-to-poetry/#comments Last week, I sent him “Days” by Billy Collins. He texted back that he loved it and that he’s recently appreciated Billy Collins’ work entitled “Velocity”. I am going to read a poem at his funeral. I don’t know what, but I will.

    I was raised in a strong evangelical christian home. I’ve sort of wandered into my own land of faith and things like life after death feel unfamiliar to me now. I am not sure what I believe about the afterlife anymore, but I know this: I do not want my dad to suffer. I do not want his death to linger indefinitely. But it is not my choice for life (or death) and so I will continue to write letters and send poems until he is gone.

    • Rachel says...

      I posted this twice – albeit slightly different each time (good grief). The first time, it ‘disappeared’ and so I was feeling slightly grieved, thinking I’d done something wrong and so I wrote again. Why do I always feel like I have to EXPLAIN myself…?!

  35. Meghan says...

    I read an article a few years ago that really confronted death head on – the writer was think about his time with his parents and siblings (or really, anyone you love) and then did the math – how much of his life would really be spent with them? So he calculates out 18 years of living at home, 4 summers in college, a couple of weeks a year once he moves across the country, both eventually they would die or he would die. The result was utterly depressing – it was a tiny percentage, compared to how much those people meant to him. But I also found the concept clarifying. Since I, and the people I love the most, will die, how do I live my life in a way that prioritized and cherishes those relationships?

    • Meghan says...

      Yes!! Thank you, Alycia! I was googling all sorts of strange things trying to find it :)

  36. Kathryn says...

    I’m not religious and I’ve actually never been to church before but I believed that there was some sort of afterlife. I thought that perhaps our souls were reincarnated or they just floated around and watched the living do their thing. Then I had to put my dog down this past November and as I sat on the floor with his head in my lap, the vet said something about him going to heaven. It was in that moment that I realized holy moly! I do not believe in an afterlife. He was dead and that was that. It was such an insane moment of clarity amongst a lot of sadness and tears. Now, I actually feel a sense of relief in regards to my own future death. Whether I die tomorrow or at 45 (I’m 26 now) or 95, I will have lived a beautiful life and it will be over and I will not know the difference. Death completely scares me when I think about losing my family, particularly my mom. She is my best friend. I ask her advice about friendships, outfits, relationships, how to cut an onion, the best way to arrange my furniture. I honestly feel that my world may end when I lose her and that thought completely cripples me.

  37. Alexandra says...

    I’m not sure what I believe happens after we die but I do know that I was so, so moved by the vision of death presented in the Pixar movie Coco. During the movie, I found myself thinking about the people I’ve lost–grandparents, a teacher, an uncle, etc.–and pictured them watching me from whatever is beyond our earthly world and I felt so full of love. It’s really helpful to imagine that the loving presence of people I’ve known who have died will never really leave me, as long as I keep their memories alive.

  38. Sarah says...

    Reading your post and all of the wonderful comments hurts my heart. I feel for all of you with these very real fears! Personally, I have never feared my own death and I attribute this to my Christian faith. I honestly can’t imagine thinking about death without some belief in a higher power or afterlife. Life is just to grand to think that it’s all for nothing.

    After experiencing death firsthand and being in the hospital room when a dear friend and her husband held their two day old son as he died dramatically changed my view of life and death. Suffering and death hit your heart in the same way that the joy and life stir your soul. Both amazing and life altering. I believe these big questions—life, death, all of it — is God trying to draw us closer to Him. We choose to accept the invitation or not. Thanks for the wonderful post!

  39. EA says...

    After I lost a child to premature birth I was hit so hard with grief, of course. One thing I did that surprised me was in the weeks that followed I’d reach for all the jewelry I’d been saving for special occasions like statement earrings (!)

  40. Becky says...

    I worry about flying much more than I ever did in my 20s. I worry we won’t make it back to our dog. I fear she will be waiting for us and wondering why didn’t come back for her. It breaks my heart to imagine it. Every time we pick her up upon arriving home from a trip she cries to us for a good 15 mins. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great time when I travel but I love that dog, She’s my #soulmutt.

  41. kr says...

    i’m in my late twenties and this past summer i found myself worrying so much about my parents eventual deaths. but early in the fall a boy i’d recently broken up with (but was still very close to) very suddenly passed away. it was, for all accounts and purposes, illogical. it was heartbreaking. i mean, truly a grief i’ve never felt before. but it made me stop worrying about my parents’ deaths. it was almost freeing in that it’s inevitably going to happen and it could happen after you’re a hundred or when you’re in your mid twenties. it even freed me up thinking about my own death and that i ought to live as intently as i can and if there are people i love, to let them know. my god let them know!!

  42. Sherry says...

    Read Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life”. In fact all of his writings are life-changing. This man, who lived nearly 2000 years ago, has articulated an ageless problem that feels immediate and modern. And he offers an approach to life and death that focuses on presence, gratitude and acceptance. Just the continuity of his ancient preoccupations with mine, stretched across these oceans of time, is a comfort.

  43. Robin says...

    Oh man. My sweet smelling impossibly soft sixteen year old cat died on Friday. She was less active this winter, but fine, and then a week ago Saturday we noticed she hadn’t eaten that day. By Wednesday she was clearly very sick. And on Friday she was gone. It’s so hard to know what to think. I miss her. I’m so sad. But she had a good life, went quickly – what else would I want for her? For myself? I want to be here for my kids, my husband, myself. I want time, and nothing scares me more than not being able to take care of my kids. But sooner or later we have to die, to make space for all the life that comes after us. How much sadder would it be if we were the end of it? I don’t know what happens to the spark that makes us ourselves, that made my sweet kitty herself. I like to think we get absorbed back into some amorphous source that then allows the next little baby to start growing, sprout to start struggling to the air.

    • Meg says...

      Robin, I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my 17-old-kitty last year, also quite suddenly in a similar way, and it’s so tough. Even when, as you say, they had a great life and a peaceful death. I, like you, think something of us all survives, at least in some way. It doesn’t make sense to me that it wouldn’t.

  44. When people ask me why I’m a Christian, I don’t go into all the theology. It’s not rational. I tell them it’s because I’m an eternal optimist. There’s no proof of an existence of a life after this, but I don’t need proof if in fact I’m wrong and nothing exists. If that’s the case, it doesn’t hurt me now to believe. BUT what if it is real? There’s so much to be gained in an afterlife if it is. And hope to be gained in this life. I just need hope. I’m a Christian because I choose hope.

  45. Elizabeth says...

    I really identify with the Kate Bowler excerpt you gave, so much so that after being diagnosed with a brain aneurysm this past March and undergoing a craniotomy to have it clipped, I got a tattoo of an anchor on my wrist as a daily reminder. I was terrified of the aneurysm bursting begore my surgery was scheduled or something happening during surgery. I had written my 6 year old and 3 year old and husband good bye letters just in case. But then something happened the morning of my surgery and I completely surrendered and felt a peace that was not of this earth. When I share my story, it’s not the huge stuff that stands out. Yes, my neurosurgeon was incredibly skilled, but it was the moments of connection that meant everything… him staring me in the eyes and telling me I would be completely fine and that I was the one that had to believe it, the anesthesiologist grabbing my leg and staring me in the eyes and saying she only does round trips, her resident making me laugh hysterically right before I went under, the SICU nurses braiding my hair the day after surgery and making me feel human again, the teenage boy who smiled at me the day of my discharge when everyone else was looking away because I had 32 sutures across my head. Our legacies live on because of these small moments and not the ‘big’ stuff. And so while death is scary, there is so much peace in knowing that we all make a difference in a million different ways every day without even realizing it. And as I lay there before I went under, I was completely humbled that 15 people were giving up the next 6 hours of their lives to save mine and it made me realize we’re all worth it.

    • Rae says...

      Well Elizabeth, you just made me cry. What a hard and beautiful thing to share. Virtual hugs to you.

    • beth says...

      Oh my goodness, I am sobbing.

    • Elizabeth says...

      Thank you, Rae and Beth! I debated sharing but I love feeling connected to people and am glad that it meant something to you! (((Hugs)))

    • Amy says...

      Thank you for sharing your story – you tell it beautifully.

    • Mary says...

      I love what you’ve written Elizabeth. I’ve had a few operations too and am glad to have confronted my own mortality. Life is all about the small things for sure and you’re so right – we are worth it, each and every single one of us! I wish you continued health and happiness.

    • Shirley says...

      Elizabeth, your writing is amazing, truly. I lost both of my parents and my brother lost his young wife, all in the past 3 years. I did not shed a tear while reading these comments until I read your story and burst out sobbing. I’m so glad you are okay and brave enough to share your story. I agree with you about the small moments. Life is made up of the small moments.

      My very favorite quote (which gave me all new meaning after I lost those I love): “Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.” ― poem by Mary Jean Irion,

    • agnes says...

      Thank you for sharing Elizabeth, what a moment. I’m so happy you received so much and were able to perceive it… Take care!

    • Elizabeth says...

      Thank you all so much for responding to me!! Now I am the one sobbing. How lucky we all that this space exists to connect with each other. Shirley, I’m so sorry for all of your losses and thank you so much for sharing that beautiful poem. Big hugs to you all and thank you so much for being so generous and kind with your words to me. It means so so much!!

  46. MelTown says...

    Oh, this is a topic I ponder CONSTANTLY. It was baked right into my evangelical upbringing. From an early age I was terrified of death, and Hell, and even Heaven. God seemed so vengeful and scary I had a hard time imagining that Heaven could be pleasant. Besides, I hate going to new places.

    Then, in 2014 terrible things happened. Six beloved family members died within six months while I was raising a two year old and a newborn. Slowly my faith started to crack, and death became commonplace. It sounds so morbid and dismal, but while it was the saddest period of my life so far, it freed me from everything. Now death doesn’t seem so scary. Dying does, but death is just a thing that happens.

    In 2017 I was pregnant with my third baby and was diagnosed with a scary complication that could have meant the end of my life. Then that resolved and she was born and a new dangerous complication cropped up. Again, I survived but one thing became very clear to me. I am not afraid to die, but I am afraid to live an unfulfilled life. I also learned that the most terrifying thing of all was the possibility of leaving my children motherless. So I quit my shitty job, and working hard to build a life I want to live, and I’m trying desperately not to die until my kids are very old.

    And on that last note, my grandfather just turned 100 and I’m walking the line of expecting to live a very long time while also knowing I could die tomorrow. It does complicate things not knowing how long you have left!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      MelTown, I love this comment. First of all, and most important, I’m so sorry for your losses and that impossibly difficult time in your life. And it’s fascinating (and buoying) that your perspective on death changed so profoundly. Finally, the line “besides I hate going to new places” made me laugh out loud and should be framed on a wall somewhere. Sending so much love to you, as always.

    • Tricia M says...

      Hi Meltown,
      My mother died recently aged 105 so I can understand how you feel abut your grandfather. When people live that long it’s always a case of “will this be the last time I see them, the last birthday or Christmas we share together?” People were always saying to me ” Well, you’ll probably live to a ripe old age too” but no one really knows. No matter the age of the person dying , it is always a tremendous loss. They say children anchor a mother to life. I admire your bravery in quitting your job and making the most of life.

  47. Ariella says...

    I’m an Orthodox Jew, and we have very specific guidelines for burial that includes the preparation of the body. I’m part of our communities small group of women that take responsibility to lovingly care for and dress every single woman in our community after they pass away. It is the most beautiful work I have ever done. The first time I was standing over the body of a woman I had only vaguely known, whose body had been worn by life and recent illness, I suddenly found myself talking to her mother in my head. Its every mothers nightmare to not be there for their child when they are in need. But I was there, a whole room of women were there to care for her. We washed her and dressed her with our mother hands, and I felt tremendous peace. Death can be as beautiful as birth when we are connected to the people who have come before us and when we have hope for what is coming after. Standing there, I knew I had brought her mother peace. And I found my own peace knowing other women would be there to love my daughters (Gd willing after very long and happy lives). Like anyone else, I have my own anxiety from time to time. But I try to remember that first moment of clarity when I really felt how connected we all are and the joy of being sent out into whatever is coming next by the loving embrace of women who care about you.

    • Jackie says...

      As a mother this feels profoundly loving and kind work. Their mothers are rejoicing your care, what a gift you give.

    • Amy Lynn says...

      Ariella, what a beautiful, comforting idea. I’m so grateful you wrote that. In my religion, members of the same sex help dress the body for burial also, and I’ve never found the idea so loving until right now. I’m in tears as I consider this new perspective; taking care of a woman for her mama, for her grandma, for all the women who would take care of her if they could. What a gift. Thank you for sharing.

  48. Jessica DeStefano says...

    WOW! You are just an amazing writer. Of course, I have thoughts like these. But your simple, eloquent writing goes right to the heart. Thank you for taking on all of the topics, big and small, on your wonderful blog. I have been a reader for some years now, and I can’t express how much pleasure your words have brought me!

  49. Jessica says...

    I cared so much less about death before I had a kid. The world would go on, I would feed some flowers, some people would be sad but they’d be ok if I had the time to love them and tell them before I went. I’ve had fun, it’s been good. If I die it has been time fully spent.

    Now I have a toddler and the idea of me dying is terrifying. No one (with all due respect and love to my husband) will ever understand this child like I do. No one loves him like I do. He would never recover.

    I can go when he’s grown up. When his love and need for me has mellowed to that benevolent neglect we, at best, have for our parents. But not until then.

    Needless to say, I work out more and drive *a lot* more carefully now!

    • Katy Grubbs says...

      Ugh, yes! I relate to this so much! I feel the exact same and I’m such a nervous driver now as a result. Now that I have a toddler, I’m keenly aware of all the “dangers” of life. Having him has made me truly realize how precious life is.

    • Erica says...

      This! I feel the same way. Death was never something I worried about or even considered until having children. I have two young boys and the thought of not being there for them, of leaving their lives too soon… the mere thought makes it hard for me to breathe. For me it’s exacerbated by two health concerns I had following the birth of my second (one which included biopsies etc). And even though everything turned out to be fine I can’t seem to shake the worry that some unknown thing is lurking beneath the surface waiting to snatch me away. So yeah…now I’m a crazy hypochondriac on top of it ?‍♀️

    • Vela says...

      I feel the exact same way. It’s as if Motgerhood opened a door to death anxiety that wasn’t there before. My daughter is 9 years old, and the thought of not being there for her makes me panic. I’m in the process of making a will. It helps a tiny bit, but the anxiety still claws at me. I lost my mother at 9 through divorce and mental illness, and I know exactly what that hole feels like.
      I fear that if I died early, while my daughter was young, I’d be causing her the biggest trauma. It hurts my heart to think about it.

  50. Lauren says...

    My parents both turned 70 in 2018 and for the first time in my life, I feel tripped up in the reality that they will not be around forever. I adore my parents. For all their flaws, they are warmth and comfort to me. Imagining them being gone would be a gigantic canyon of emptiness. When the thoughts of this sneak up on me, I feel shrouded in uncertainty, sadness. I’ve always figured there was an age you reach when suddenly you come to terms with death – of those more important to you, and of your own mortality. I know I haven’t reached that insight yet.

  51. Anne says...

    The realization that someday I would just not be here hit me when I was in the fourth grade. I don’t know why- nothing significant happened that year that I can think of, but suddenly I couldn’t fall asleep without my mom next to me. It hits me every now and then, totally out of the blue. I’ll be watching a funny show on TV and then, BOOM! My stomach drops and I’m panicking about not being here one day. I shake it off and make myself think of something else, or I start chattering about nonsense to my husband so he will talk and make me forget. I don’t have kids yet, but imagine it will hit me differently when I do. Scarier? More perspective? I don’t know.

  52. Jessica says...

    Would you consider doing a post on “May to December” romances? (There is a 28 year different between my partner and I – 30 and 58. I would read more about how others make the age difference work…)

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Yes would love to!

  53. Ally says...

    I think what scares me most about death is how suddenly and unexpectedly it could happen – there’s that quote along the lines of “People who die today, had plans for tomorrow”. And that’s what keeps me up at night! Unless people have a terminal illness or are very old, death can strike while you are in the full swing of living, with no warning to you or your loved ones, and I find that absolutely terrifying. That along with how we will go – apart from passing quietly in your sleep, the options out there aren’t very kind (cancer, car accident just to name a few). Have you read “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin – 4 siblings who are told by a fortune teller the day and year that will die and how this affects how they live their lives, it’s so interesting and makes you really think about how you might choose to live differently if you knew your “end date”.

  54. Michelle says...

    i probably think wayyyy too much about this. the uncertainty of it all, combined with raising two young children, combined with watching my parents and my husband’s parents creep ever closer to old age means my anxiety about death seems to be at an all time high these days.

    my whole life my busy brain has been my constant companion, i just can’t imagine it shutting off. i can imagine my body being gone. i’ve been there front and center through the physicality of aging so it makes sense that eventually, if i’m lucky, my body will get older and softer and wrinklier. but I just can’t get on board with the inner me being gone. that part seems ageless and it’s so scary to think one moment i’m there feeling and thinking and living a million things all at once and then…I just won’t be. people i’ve known that have passed on live inside me in my thoughts and memories so when I go, those thoughts and memories go too. so not only do I die, but they die again too? this is getting far too deep for a tuesday afternoon.

    by the way, my good friends Lisa and Lori are trying to reimagine the way death is talked about in general. it’s a fun party game and an excellent conversation starter. https://thedeathdeck.com

  55. Peg says...

    Joanna, I’m surprised you didn’t mention your brother-in-law’s death at a young age. I was a hospice social worker for 10 years before going back to oncology social work, and since I worked in a hospice house and was present for many deaths, I can tell you that most people who go through an illness are ready. They aren’t afraid to die but are afraid of dying, meaning the process (being in pain, having trouble breathing, etc.). Personally, I am nowhere near ready, but I’m less sad about the thought than I was when my 2 sons were young.

  56. Christy says...

    I had this experience once when I was a little girl playing Barbies at my friend’s house. I was staring at the black tiles we were sitting on and something just *whoosh* opened up my eyes to the fact that I was going to die someday. I wasn’t scared but did feel a dizziness and disorientation. The only times I think of death now are (1) worrying how much it will hurt when my loved ones die and (2) worrying how my young daughter would feel and survive if I died while she still needed me.
    P.S. Joanna, you’re a great talent. Your writing is never forced or awkward or pretentious or anything but natural. You’re somehow easy to read while conveying deep, important information and ideas. I’m lucky I get to read you.

  57. jade lees says...

    I am not religious (I’d like to think I am spiritual) but I am a fainter and I should imagine that is what death is like. It is incomprehensible to imagine nothing – not even blackness but it is only when you regain consciousness after fainting that you realise you have. I assume in death you simply never know you have died. I also take comfort in the idea that you cannot destroy or create matter – in the Circle of Life kind of way. I just had a discussion with my parents (both 65) last week where I mentioned in passing realistically we only have 20 years left together and I think it completely shocked all 3 of us. Realising your own Mortality is never an easy thing.

  58. First of all, love the Seinfeld clip… Regarding my thoughts on death, I think about it more the older I get. I worry about something happening to my kids the most but I also worry about dying too young and not being around for them when they grow up. I also am more afraid of flying than I used to be when I was younger and more naive. I do try to live in the moment as much as possible…
    Shelley

  59. Julie says...

    Motherhood has made me think quite a lot about death. Because when you create a life, you also create a death. A death that is hopefully far, far in the future, and long after I’ve passed. But a death nonetheless.

    My greatest fear is something happening to my 3 1/2 year old son, and my second is something happening to me, and how that would devastate him. (All the morbid thoughts, all the time!) But the trick to motherhood (perhaps) is internalizing all my fears and paranoia, and not letting that get in the way of his developing into a free and secure human.

  60. Kellianne Ritter says...

    Sometimes the idea of not emotionally running from death anymore–just doing the thing already–seems fine to me, until I consider my kids. I had an emergency c-section with my first. After I got home, I was showering and suddenly had this nightmare scenario come into my mind: “What if I had died in that operating room, and my daughter never knew me?” I just stood in the shower and bawled. Kids totally tether you to your own life.

    That said, some surprising personal experiences indicate to me that the parent-child relationship continues in some way after death. Maybe that’s why we panic so much about it? Because we sense that it needs to continue, but we don’t yet know that it will? Anyways, I think it will.

  61. Courtney says...

    Hi Joanna– I really admire your honesty about this tough question. I have wrestled with fear of death, too.

    I’m a follower of Jesus (but not the kind that supports our current President or his policies! Quite the opposite, in fact..). According to my faith, humans weren’t originally designed to die. So, our visceral aversion to death actually makes a good deal of sense within the historic Christian faith. The book of Ecclesiastes talks about humans having “eternity in their hearts”– basically, we know we were meant to go on beyond death. And the good news of Jesus is that he defeated death, so that all who are joined to Him by faith enjoy life forever.

    If you’re interested in learning more, I really appreciate the work of Tim Keller, a minister in Manhattan and NYT bestselling author. His “Making Sense of God,” is a great place to start. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01COJUG58/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i9

    May you find and know peace!

    • Stephanie says...

      Thanks for sharing this Courtney. ❤️

    • Katie says...

      Courtney, I appreciate your comment. So thankful for the hope that lies within me because of the work of Christ. (And I love Tim Keller!)

  62. JM says...

    I’m a long time reader, and I just wanted to comment because this post really touched me. Death has been on my mind lately as I recently lost my grandma (after 95 years), and unexpectedly had a death of someone who worked in my building. It was really hard. I am not really sure what happens after death, and I think about it sometimes. The lack of certainty can be hard, but one good thing is that experiences with death really help you appreciate the moments you have, and can inspire you to appreciate your life more, along with the memories of the person who passed.

  63. Sarah says...

    I’ve built a strong peace through bike commuting. When I started riding six years ago, I realized the only way to do it safely is to believe that everyone is trying to kill you. Every car taking a blind right turn, tourist looking for a parking spot, idiot screaming through a yellow (red) light. I find it calming to logically/healthfully assume the worst in this, and test it as a broader metaphor. There will be terrible surprises and unfair collisions, yes. And ouch. But there’s also a lot of power in paying attention and seizing all your available control, and to live aggressively as protection in general.

  64. I started thinking a lot about death after I read your late brother-in-law’s book, and The Bright Hour, and then the work of the mortician YouTuber Caitlin Doughty. It’s definitely something I contemplate regularly and it helps me realize how small most things are and what is truly important.

    When I first moved to Oregon, I was so upset by the fact that if I died I would likely be “laid to rest” here, not where I am from. I realized that I had come to accept my new home when I had the passing thought a few months ago that if I died, I would be fine being laid to rest here. It was an epiphany of sorts about home and belonging.

    Thank you for sharing this, Jo! Definitely one of my favorite posts you’ve written.

  65. Ashley says...

    I’m 32, and my first son, Jack, will be turning one next week. I’m a Christian—and before having Jack, death seemed at least far *enough* away to not worry me. But since he was born, it’s been the shadow over each day. Fear of dying and missing something with him or my husband, or dear of my baby boy dying early, which I can barely even type out without fear. This year, for me, was the year my faith in Jesus went from a comfort to a challenge. It is one thing to trust God with my own life (and death)—it is a whole other enormous thing task, one I am still working through, to trust God with my baby boy. I think becoming a mother changes the way you think about death forever because you’re no longer the youngest generation. And because you’ve never felt the kind of crippling, beautiful, life-ruining and life-giving love you feel when you become a mother. Before it was, God, what do you want me to do with my life? Now it’s, God, I will literally just fold laundry and clean the bathroom for the next 80 years if you’ll just let my people live long lives and love you. The Bible says motherhood saves women, and I always felt kind of offended by that—but this reality of death, this understanding that it inevitable and suddenly with you in your thoughts—for me, it’s been the driving force to know God and be close to Jesus in a way I’ve never wanted to before, honestly. I think before Jack, it was mostly earrings and Beyoncé songs. I feel like motherhood has cut me down to the very core of what it means to exist. I am forever thankful. But always a little bit terrified.

    • Rachel says...

      I’m not a Christian but my twin sister is and her little boy died at age 3 1/2 from the flu… I will never understand how she could believe in a “GOD” who would do this? God wanted him back? By believing in him I guess she will see her son again someday? I just can’t get behind this “GOD”.

    • Len says...

      This is so beautifully put, Ashley, thank you. And as a Christian, I understand Rachel’s incredulity. If someone ever expressed that idea to me about God, I’d have to walk away. It’s not hard for me to understand why people use clumsy and strange explanations like that in their attempts to comfort people they love…but when people actually think that way about their own tragedy? I don’t fully understand. My God is against suffering, against death. But perhaps saying “God wanted him back” helps a grieving mother remind herself that as much as she loves her son, God loves them both more than she can ever imagine. And maybe if I ever experienced such a tragedy, I would think along the lines of: “God loves him deeply, and he is happy to have him back.”

    • Kristina says...

      Ashley, you’ve articulated my own thoughts so well.

  66. Andrea says...

    I loved The Bright Hour. As I was reading, it my husband would walk into the room, see me bawling, and ask why I was torturing myself. How could I not? Dying is a new fear for me now that I have a son (I don’t want to miss anything he does!) and I devoured every word she wrote about her experience.

    The part where she goes to the silent retreat and then quickly comes home when she realizes she wants to spend every possible minute with her boys? Sometimes that part randomly pops into my head, takes my breath away, and makes me squeeze my beautiful little boy just a bit tighter.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Oh my gosh yes! That part comes to mind for me every week or two. What a moment.

  67. Carla says...

    My father died of cancer in 2016. He was diagnosed that year and went through 2 rounds of chemo. I was a daddy’s girl but I never felt more close to my father than those few weeks when they were staying at our house. Every afternoon, my father and I would hang out in the garden and talked about things that we’d never tell my mother lest she’ll become angry or sad.
    Middle of December and we all knew his days were numbered. Everyone knew. Him, his friends, us, his siblings and mother, my cousins and nieces. Each day, they visited him. Each day, I spent hours lying beside him holding his hand. I cried a lot in that room. Days after his wake, I was smiling, laughing like nothing happened. I told myself, I’ll do what I have to do to move forward and not fall into deep sadness. But my son, who’s very close to my father is always reminding me that my father had passed away. Randomly he’ll tell me “Mama, I really miss Papo.” or he’ll tell me a lot of things that he remembers about his grandfather. My father bought him a bike. It’s already damaged and sitting at our backyard but I don’t have the heart to dispose the bike.
    Last December, we went to my parents’ house. One day, my son came to me and announced that he already prayed. When asked what did he pray, he answered “That Papo is still alive.”

  68. j says...

    I think about death, and see death, all the time. I am a nurse and am lucky enough to be a witness to people’s lives. I have taken care of the entire spectrum of life from tiny NICU babies to 100+ year olds. It’s not death that people should be concerned of, it’s how they are going to die. I have seen more “bad” deaths then I can even remember … they are buried deep inside me and never talked about. There are always the deaths where we walk out of the room saying “That’s not how I’m going.” More often than not in these situations the family lives all over the country, no one knows what the patient would have wanted, family isn’t ready to accept death, or there is no written documentation the patient had prepared (such as a living will).

    If I ever receive a terminal diagnosis and things aren’t looking up I’m going to give hugs to all my doctors & nurses, thank them, and promptly leave all medical treatment behind. I’ll rent a beach house and anyone can come and hang out with me at the beach house. There will be fires, s’mores, and a whole lot of hot tea, reading, and pasta.

    • What a sensible wonderful choice that I wished more people considered when faced with a end of life decision. I work in a hospital too, and to see people undergoing uncomfortable tests and treatments breaks that seem futile and pointless. They should be in warm cozy beds, with candles and music or the sound of the ocean, and loved ones to hold their hands. That would be how I would choose to end my days if I could

    • Karyn says...

      That is exactly what I would do!
      After witnessing so many heinous deaths caused through cancer and other terminal illnesses, i know for sure how I don’t want my last breaths to be. Give me sunshine and beaches and hugs from those I love and I will be fine!

  69. Erin says...

    About death and earrings: My favorite aunt died when I was pregnant with my first child. Pancreatic cancer, she was only 60, and she was gone really quickly. It was awful. I had always pictured her loving & spoiling my kids just as much as she spoiled me when I was little. I still feel sad that she didn’t meet my sons.

    I have a few things that belonged to her, including a pair of her earrings. (She was very stylish.) I wear them frequently, especially on days when I feel I might need a little dose of extra courage. So, earrings … perhaps you’re wearing them in case they’ll someday be handed down to someone who needs a tiny dose of your superpowers after you’re gone. :)

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      Oh my gosh, Erin, I’m in tears! Xoxo

    • MelTown says...

      Oh Erin, I love this so much! When I ended my 15 year career I wore my late grandmother’s pearls to my exit interview. She took zero crap and never minced words and I wanted to channel her energy…and it worked! I bravely said everything I wanted to say and I was so proud of myself afterward. I think she would have been proud too.

    • Erika says...

      What a delightful thought, Erin! I too wear my grandmother’s diamond earrings, even on t-shirt days, when I want to feel close to her for a period.

  70. Laura says...

    as a lover of Jesus (what a dear, wonderful man He is) I must admit that I think about death sparingly. Like it’s the ‘in between’ here and eternity… a very thin line. Of course there are moments where I fear death in that it means losing someone I love, even if it is only momentarily. That separation is so painful but I am comforted by the belief I have that I’m currently living on one side of eternity and will one day go to the other side. It fascinates me to know that other people have gone before me and I wonder what that’s like. But I guess I’ll know someday! (Hopefully later rather than sooner, there’s a lot I’d like to do on earth) :)

    • Ni says...

      Amen!

  71. E says...

    I just gave birth to my first child 4 weeks ago. While I was pregnant with him, I thought a lot about his limited perspective in the womb, how curious it is that he had no knowledge of what was waiting for him on the outside, and what the process of being born might be like for him to experience. It struck me that being born might be a lot like dying in the sense that we make this transition to something that is completely unknown. Since then I’ve thought of dying in terms of being born, and that thought feels hopeful and comforting. What if dying is just like that? You think you have a sense of the totality of things– your life, the earth, the universe, time. But in actuality, what if you’re only experiencing a limited view of things, and death is being born into a wider experience where you realize there is so much more… more space, more life, more love waiting for you out there, and you had no idea. Who knows!?

    • Jackie says...

      I love this perspective so very much, thank you for sharing. And congratulations on your new little love. You’re in the thick of things now, but know from one mama to another that IT GETS EASIER and you’re doing your best.

  72. Charlotte says...

    I once asked my boyfriend how often he thinks of death and he said every few months. I was rather embarrassed to tell him I think about death and dying multiple times a day, every day. It can be as simple as reading about a historical figure (say, Abraham Lincoln), quickly doing the math in my head to see how old they were when they died (56), and then subtracting my own age from that number (28 years left to go, yikes!). I do it now without even thinking about it. It’s like my own personal formula to calculate existential dread ;)

    I’ve worked to try cope with my anxieties over death without judging myself for having them– which is what we do as a society, especially in western culture (Focus on living! Don’t be so morbid!). It’s why I was embarrassed to admit to my boyfriend how present the idea of death is in my day to day life. I think making death a taboo subject only heightens our fears about it though. Examining the nature of death is simply an extension of examining the nature of life, and of course, as Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

    As a benefit, continually being aware of your mortality does have the wonderful effect of helping you let go of stuff you don’t care about. It doesn’t matter! You’re still going to die anyway!

  73. Elizabeth says...

    I’ve never really felt afraid of dying, but I read a book recently about end of life planning called With the End in Mind by Dr. Kathryn Mannix, a British palliative care doctor, and I can’t stop recommending it to everyone I know. I found it to be extremely comforting and informative and it’s given me strategies for talking with my parents and older relatives about their wishes when the time comes as well as a starting point for thinking about what my end of life wishes might be. It’s worth a read!

  74. Inch says...

    For me, the hardest part of grappling with death is the ensuing existential crisis: If we just live and die, where’s the meaning or value in anything? And when I was wrestling with that issue in my 20s/30s, the best answer I found was from Joss Whedon’s Angel:

    “In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win. [But] if there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. Because that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it. All I want to do is help. I want to help because, I don’t think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

    This quote helped me enormously to understand that although I will never know to a certainty the afterlife that waits for me — though as a Christian, I hope for one and believe in one as a article of faith — the “not knowing” should make this life more precious, not less. If this is all there is, then this is everything.

  75. gfy says...

    Because of depression I grappled with my relationship to death quite early, as a tween of around 11 or 12. Long story short, considering death on the regular saved my life. The mechanics of that sentence basically led me to learning to enjoy and cherish each moment as if it were my last. (I am so OK now, happy to report, ie : lotta hard work yada yada).

    Not to be a downer but I use that same technique now when I consider the wild acceleration of climate change and what that means for humanity. I cherish EVERY tree and breeze and every bit of natural beauty I can (while trying to remain calm about scrutinizing each of my purchases and habits) because there appears to be no knowing where we will be in 20 years.

    I am a book person so reading about life after death experiences helped me understand A LOT. Later in life I fainted in a way that blocked my breathing and had my own “white light in the tunnel” experience so I believe that the whole tunnel experience IS an actual thing that happens, at least for some. Those stories people shared were super important to me learning to feel ok and even excited about what comes after “life” as we know it. I am not at all religious but am a spiritual/skeptic meaning I am a believer in a greater reality that we can tune into and interact with in a beneficial way but extremely discerning about where, when, who, and how.

    One of my favorite books is called Many Lives Many Masters by Brian Weiss.
    https://amzn.to/2wl1gSW
    I couldn’t get into his other books but this one I found really interesting. Also read long ago but remember thinking it was useful was On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler Ross.
    https://amzn.to/2FPRaRU

  76. Lena says...

    Over the last two years my mother (64) took care of her dying parents (92&93). Shortly after their deaths, I realized when I am 92, my youngest will be the age I was when I had him – 41. For a brief period this was very upsetting to me. Who will take care of me? Who will take care of my children? They will be too busy to do what my mother did! And then I realized they will have each other and likely friends who’s parents are dead or very old as I’m not the only old mom out there (though it feels like it sometimes). I was suddenly very comforted by this. And I tell the kids this – someday I will be gone and you will have a long life together ahead of you. Isn’t that lucky for them?

  77. Laura says...

    I am a Christian, and based on teaching from scripture I confidently believe that human souls live on forever after death, either to live in the presence, knowledge and worship of God forever (heaven) or to be eternally separated from God, life and love (hell). I’m almost 30 and I am starting to think about this more, especially with 2 little kids that I love so much it hurts and can’t imagine being separated from by death.

    The Bible says of those who love Jesus, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”, and I find SUCH comfort in knowing that I don’t have to “figure out”, ignore or rationalize my death in order to be prepared to meet it; my Savior loves me so much that He has made a way through His sacrifice on the cross for me to leave the pain and injustice of this earthly life behind and LIVE FOREVER in true peace and joy in His presence!

  78. Amanda says...

    I’ve spent my entire life wanting to scream at people, “don’t you all realize that we are going to die?!” “How can you get coffee and pay the cab and read the New Yorker? We are dying people!”

    I’ve calmed down as I’ve gotten older
    and I experienced a peaceful moment once when I thought about death. It was a finish line and I was old and it was okay to let go and feel nothing because when you are tired and weak it feels good and right.

    We all lose one another along the way and as this happens so we begin lose the dread of death as well I suppose. Wanting and waiting to get to those that we’ve missed.

  79. Tricia says...

    My father just passed away last night. I keep thinking about what my grandfather said to my sister and I when we were discussing death. He said ‘Living is the most painful and hardest, dying is easy’ I find that to be so comforting.

    • Prayers.for.you-:(

    • Hilary says...

      Tricia, I am so sorry for your loss.

  80. Louisa says...

    Mostly I can’t believe any of this is real. Death seems believable. Life is the great mystery.

    Last night my daughter came into our room very late just to say “mom, sometimes I just love you SO much.” This is real? This is happening?

    • Marlena says...

      Louisa, I’ve had this very thought before as well. How odd it is to exist at all! Recently I was staring off while reading a book and I looked at my hand and I thought, “Hmm. How funny a thumb is. I have a thumb. What a weird thing.” It makes me laugh now but I was in all honesty baffled at how ludicrous having a thumb was at that moment.

    • Heather says...

      I have that same thought over and over! These beautiful little humans are mine? I’m in charge of THEM? Who is in charge of me? Life IS an amazing wonderful mystery!

  81. Michelle says...

    Nine months ago, I was at my father’s bedside as he passed away, a week after we made the painful decision to remove life support. He had been sick for awhile – had a feeding tube to eat, had survived 3 rounds of chemo, cardiac arrest, and a diabetic coma. We had him for years longer than we ever thought we would, but still it was hard to say goodbye – until I saw his face as he passed away. He looked happier and more at peace, than he had for the past 10 years. It was beautiful. Being by his side in his final moments at times felt like torture – but mostly it was an honor. Though he is gone, I see him all the time in my dreams jolly and happy again. He is physically gone, but his spirit and love are always with me. Love remains.

  82. Kristina says...

    I recently read Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife Kindle Edition by Eben Alexander III M.D. and I’m not so scared anymore.

    • Nora B says...

      I loved that book. It reaffirmed what I have felt and believed since I was a small child. Life in earth is a blip, a dream in the eternity of our souls. Thank you, COJ, for this beautiful post.

    • gfy says...

      Ooo yeah that was good too.

    • Lea says...

      Loved this book and its soothing voice!

  83. Marlena says...

    I used to be a Christian and back then, the thought of death sent me into negative spirals, even though the assurances of my faith were that it would lead me to “paradise”. I am an atheist now and I see things come and go like grass and flowers and I think “that’s me too.” I’m going to go one day too and there is no reason to feel like that should be different for me. I don’t need to live forever. Now is good.
    The moment that usually grips me and makes me ponder death and life and impermanence is when, in the dark, I am patting my boys’ backs and singing to them for bed. I think the darkness of the room lets my brain rest for a sec and I always end up thinking that one day I will look back to this moment. THIS VERY MOMENT. And remember my children being so small and singing to them to go to sleep. It’s a sweet and mildly bitter feeling. But it also enhances my drive to be present for those moments. Because they are here and then, whoosh, they’re gone. So I soak it in like a sponge.

  84. AJ says...

    I don’t think I’m afraid of dying right now. I say ‘right now’ as I realise this can and will change, depending on the context and stage of life. I came scarily close to death almost a decade ago – it would have been a sudden, unexpected, horrendous death (I was violently attacked on my way home). I survived, but the emotional trauma was pretty devastating. It wasn’t so much the thought of having come close to death, but wrapping my head around the shock that fellow humans may have caused it, so pointlessly and mindlessly and easily, for the sake of stealing a bag, a phone, a wallet, imagine if my family had lost me like that? I was in my 20s. But I survived, and the wounds did eventually heal and I forgave – even started to pity – the people responsible. When you begin to really grasp that life is sort of fleeting and it can all end, in the blink of an eye or through drawn out illness, you do start to value life a little more, or see it more clearly, perhaps. There can be so much richness in that. I don’t have a family of my own yet, there’s so much I haven’t done or achieved and I’m not even 40 – but I honestly think I feel now, if I had to die soon, I would die grateful for the life I’ve lived, and happy. Maybe being forced to confront my own mortality, although it was horrendous at the time, helped free me to see that it’s life that really matters. There is real comfort in knowing you’d die happy and content. That doesn’t dismiss the pain and grief of loss, or the scariness of death, but it does help bring us back to focus on being alive. I don’t believe in afterlife, but I believe we all leave an energy trace, in life and in death. But that energy is manifesting now, while we’re alive, and seeking out the good, positive energy, and spreading good, positive energy, is how I’ve learned I like to live.

  85. Temme says...

    I just saw the peter Jackson WWI documentary called “they shall not grow old”. I highly highly recommend watching it and if you can, seeing when it plays in a theater. I saw it last night and it totally amazed me watching actual colorized footage of these kids on the western front. It’s heartbreaking to think that life and death are both so fleeting. We’re just a blip of existence. It makes you want to hug everyone you meet.

    • Laura says...

      Thanks for this recommendation. Also for this: “We’re just a blip of existence. It makes you want to hug everyone you meet.”
      Yes <3

  86. Stella says...

    Sometimes, exactly as you describe, I’ll be in the middle of an everyday task and it will suddenly overwhelm me that death is 100% guaranteed and, most likely, there is nothing after you die. It’s an overwhelming feeling that is impossible to get a hold on. Similarly I sometimes think about the earth and then the universe and how there MUST be something beyond the edge of what we know. More space? More nothing? Out of nowhere it can literally take your breath away. But actually I find comfort in the fact that however fiercely we love others and want to protect them, we’ve all got this on our own too. Whatever life and death throw at us, we got this. My parents, their parents, my children, their children, we’re all equally strong. Like Snoopy says, one day we will die but on all the other days we will not. And after that? We will take our place in the family of things.

    • gfy says...

      Death is no longer a guarantee. Have you read up on science lately? Because it is being said that science is LITERALLY close to eliminating human death. WOW. For perspective on comprehending this consider how crazy it would have sounded to someone born in the year 1900 to hear that man would be walking on the moon in their lifetime? Cars were just barely conceived, not even widely available. Interesting times, interesting times…

  87. Kirsten says...

    I think about death ALL THE TIME. I used to be very at peace with the idea that I was going to die. I’ve had the privilege of being with grandparents as they died and it didn’t scare me. I did always have this drive to do as much as possible, like try a million hobbies and read as many books as I can and make complicated soup because I always felt like “I don’t have forever here, gotta make it count.” But since I had my daughter I’ve been a basket case. I’m terrified of dying young and leaving her and missing out on the lovely, mundane moments in her life. And I’m likewise suddenly terrified of losing my partner and having to raise our family without him. It’s so annoying! I hope that gripping fear eases as I age, rather than intensifies.

  88. CEW says...

    I thought I obsessed about death before…after having a kid, I rarely go a day without thinking about it. Oof.

    No answers here either. Not religious, just enjoying the ride as best I can. Life is really good, and I feel lucky to be alive, healthy, and surrounded by love. Now I’m starting to really ask myself, how can I help others? That’s where I’m beginning in an attempt to create meaning from my life.

  89. My dad died unexpectedly several months ago, and my grief has included wrestling with the vast, deep, absolute nature of his “gone-ness.” When people die, they aren’t gone like a sweater we left in the movie theater; they are GONE gone, they are “away” on some far more mysterious and unknowable level. Contemplating that has been harrowing at times, and confusing, too. Then the other day I was thinking about my daughter, who is now four, but who *didn’t exist* before she was born. She simply wasn’t here! She was “gone” in just as vast and complete a way. And I saw a sudden symmetry; that when we die, we are as utterly, unknowably, vastly gone as we are before we’re born. Yet it isn’t scary to think about before we’re born. That time before we’re born seems full of possibility, maybe because we know that whatever and wherever we “are”, we’re in line to start one hell of an adventure. Somehow seeing this possible symmetry has helped; I’m able to contemplate death-gone as similarly benign, and as possibly a prelude to something as incredible as life.

    • Marlena says...

      Savala, I’m sorry for the loss of your dad. I lost mine too suddenly 5 years ago and saying it was not easy is the understatement of a lifetime. I still feel his “gone-ness” (an excellent way, by the way, to describe that horrible empty feeling.). Big hugs from over here. I hope you are finding slivers of light in the midst of the grief cloud.

  90. Robyn says...

    ?

  91. Katrina says...

    We are going to die, WHY ARE WE WEARING EARRINGS.

    Oh Joanna! This post hit me straight in the heart. I came to motherhood fairly late, I turned 45 recently and I have a 1 year old and a 3 year old and at times I get so shocked at the idea that I am going to die and not be there with them at some point. It grips me around the throat and I feel I can’t really breathe if I think about it too much. I feel like we could take cues from the way other cultures view death (I need to look into this much more myself), I think in Western society it’s the great elephant in the room. We don’t talk about it at ALL. And so it becomes the monster under the bed. Conversations about it, like yours here bring it to the light and perhaps that is the key to not being so horribly fearful of it?
    Thank you for this post. Scary but necessary to talk about.

    • Katrina, I absolutely agree. I lost my dad after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer – the first time I had really experienced loss, truly, with someone so incredibly close to me. Being 26, a large majority of my friends still have both parents, and some grandparents. I felt exactly that, it was always an elephant in the room. Once, I was with family friends, down the hall, and I could hear them talking about how they wanted to bring it up to me.

      I understand it is a very sensitive subject, but I believe the more we are able to talk about it and understand it, we can help each other grieve and understand that it is a part of life, and we shouldn’t ostracize or forget about those who go through it at different times than us. We shouldn’t judge how others grieve, but learn through understanding and compassion.

  92. Jacy says...

    This has been preying on me too recently, for the first time since I was a kid. I am suddenly so worried about leaving my two little girls behind!

  93. Sophie St says...

    When my children (9 and 6 y-o) ask me about death, I ask them “do you remember how was life with the dinosaurs ?”. They would answer “of course, not! We weren’t born yet!”. “Well, death is the same feeling – I guess”. And usually they smile and go back to their activities …

  94. Lulu says...

    As long as I can remember, I have always had an understanding that life is right now. Have I wasted days or years “wishing away my life”? Sure. I’m a human being. But there has always been a little voice inside that would say, “stop doing that, you are wasting your life!”. As far as I know, I only have one.

    I seek solace in discussing with my family how much we love one another through the lens of knowing we will be parted some day. We’ve tried to normalize the discussions of death so final wishes are known as we’ve lost people who didn’t provide that and chaos ensued.

    Some in my family are devoutly religious and believe in the traditional concepts of Heaven and Hell. Some don’t fear death because of it. Others still do. I don’t believe there is anything after. I believe we, as human beings, are innately energy and when we die, our energy emanates out and then dissipates. To consider my life force/soul, whatever you call it, as spreading out into the vastness of this planet and universe when I die, feels beautiful and complete.

  95. Axon says...

    I couldn’t possibly answer this question in a comment. There is so much to say. But I would love to point you to the Instagram account of an amazing woman – a woman, a mama, a wife, in her 40’s – staring death in the face with incredible grace and courage. But she will be quick to tell you that the grace and courage are not of her own. She will point you to the precise location of her hope (and mine) so much much better than I ever could. Her name is Jennifer Naraki. I know that she would love nothing more than knowing that her story might bring another human being a real and living hope.

  96. Shayda says...

    As a member of the Baha’i Faith, I believe in the next world (“heaven” if you will) and that everyone will have a place there for the soul to continue its journey. Baha’u’llah writes “I have made death a messenger of joy for thee…wherefore dost thou grieve?”
    I DO believe that I will be reunited with my family and friends and those who passed before me.
    Having said that, while death is not something I fear, it is something I try not to dwell on. The next world is something incomprehensible for me; the soul’s journey is not made for my rational mind. A great analogy I love is this: Imagine the baby in its mothers womb. How could it comprehend a world other than what it experiences as it grows and develops? And why these arms and legs that serve no purpose in that world? To explain our world to a baby in the world of the womb would be impossible! And yet, the baby is eventually born and a new world awaits.
    This is how I think of death; we are simply passing from one world to the next. ..The next world will not be the same as my current one…although it is important that I develop my soul here in this world (through prayer, kindness, love, service to others) to bring that with me as I journey to the next.

    Such heavy thoughts for a comment on a blog. I hope I was able to articulate myself in a clear way. Xo

  97. I often find my mind tip toe-ing to the edge of nihilistic thoughts as well (what IS the point of earrings afterall?? I am going to die some day and none of it will matter!). After voraciously devouring the warm blanket of comfort that is “All About Love: New Visions” by bell hooks, I am reminded of a similar thought– LOVE is the reason. It is the reason for life itself. Love is the familiar hand we grapple for in the dark, the ultimate verb that ties us all together and grounds us to this brief blip in time and extends to the Great Beyond. Highly recommend this book to absolutely any and every one. It helps, resolutely.

  98. Irina says...

    Thank you for touching on this topic. Fear of death can be such a difficult thing to verbalize, for a number of reasons.

    My death anxiety usually takes the form of disbelief/horror that the segment of time I get on this Earth is so minuscule compared to the vast expanse of unfolding human and natural history. It pains me to think of all the things that will come after me that I will never get to experience: great books that will be written, amazing works of art that will be produced, scientific discoveries that are unfathomable to us today, landscapes and cities that will look nothing like the present.

    For me, the above is also tied to a sort of self-questioning that I struggle to put into words but that goes kind of like, “What does it mean to be ME? To see the world from inside my head? Why am I me, and why am I me right now, during this particular time in the universe’s history? And, can this feeling of ‘me-ness’ really cease to exist when my brain and body stop working?”

  99. Megan says...

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately too. This idea that we all will experience death. And then I start thinking, like you, what are we wasting our time with all of this nonsense for. But then I also find it very freeing at times. I’ve had a very stressful couple weeks at work and as grim as this sounds I find it comforting to say to myself that none of it matters. It sounds very dark and a bit nihilist. But it’s a way of reminding myself that a missed deadline isn’t the end of things and to not get caught up in it and miss out on being present in the moment with the people around me.

  100. Mara says...

    Joanna, do you think your mom might do a guest post on having an older husband? My mother is in a similar position (71 with an 88 year old husband) and it has recently become quite difficult for her. Your mother has shared her wisdom with readers before, through you, and I’d love to hear from her on this!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      I’ll ask her!

    • Carol says...

      I would love this as well!

  101. Valeria says...

    Yes, my dear, I’m so scared I would not let my thoughts stay on this subject for more than a blink of an eye. I didn’t feel this way when I was younger and alone, by then I was scared of nothing at all. Than I fell in love with my husband and I started fearing to lose him, or him to lose me. Don’t even talk about how scared I am now that we have two kids. Beside my fear (as if it is lighten up by this), stands what I’ve learned about death in this piece of life I lived until now, saying goodbye to friends and grandparents: the overwhelming love I’ve felt, the responsibility of memory, the awareness that in that moment you hugely experience life.

  102. I think without death we would not truly cherish life. Knowing that our time here is finite makes being alive so much more wonderful. What is dark without light? What is summer without winter? To have and know one, it’s opposite must exist.

  103. Sarah says...

    – My dad is in his late fifties, and has taken to measuring out his live by quantity of summers. He’ll say things like, “I’ve got about twenty-five good summers left”. Summers, when you’re young, are comprised of these long, drawn-out and dewy days, but when stacked against the late mid-life, seem so fleeting and so very extra sweet.

    -Sam, my fiance, and I talk about death and try to come up with ways to comfort one another. It inevitably leads to a plan to be buried together in some sort of sexual position. It is good to laugh about this stuff, especially with the ones you want to hold on to. Sometimes when we are hugging I give him an extra grip and imagine that that is how it will feel to die, just a real good hug, like a life raft hug you give when things are very difficult. We can only hope.

  104. Emily says...

    Such a timely and beautiful reflection on death. My mom has been hospitalized for 5 weeks now – diagnosed with advanced Stage 4 ovarian cancer and starting treatments – and seeing her fear and anxiety around the idea of death has really made me reflect on and deal with my own feelings about my mortality. I love that idea of life being the interruption of our nothingness, not death being the interruption of life.

  105. Lauren says...

    I love that quote by Harvey, “never wish away your life.” I have also benefited from the wisdom of someone much older. Last year, I told my 88-year-old neighbor friend how concerned I was that I might not get this one opportunity that I really wanted because I was simply too young. She stopped what she was doing, looked at me, smiled, and said, “dear, wouldn’t that be the most beautiful thing? To be rejected for your youth…” Her words hit me straight in the gut because they were just so true and honest. I have tried to live everyday since with a bit more gratitude for my youthful inexperience.

  106. Omaya says...

    A mantra I like to remind myself of when I am distracted by fear of death: “I was perfectly content before I was born, I shall be the same after I die.”

  107. Katherine says...

    I apologise if this is a bit morbid, or a bit upsetting-but in many ways I wish there was more conversation about the actual process of death, what someone may experience, and what it may look like to people who are watching their loved ones pass away. Most often in Western society (sorry this is quite a generalisation) many people will die of older age and a disease associated with this – cancer, dementia, heart disease. I think that more discussion about death, the fact that medicine has to stop at some point, and that maybe we should think more about what we would want at the end of our lives, may help us to manage our fears better.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      I think (hope!) that this is becoming more commonly discussed overall. My sister works in the “end of life” space, and there are more books, articles, conferences, etc about creating a more thoughtful and conscious death experience than before.

    • Read “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande. It addresses these issues and is a wonderful book. Required reading.

    • MCW says...

      Katherine, you may also want to check out How We Die by Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland. Fascinating and oddly comforting in its straightforward approach- it still sticks with me 20+ years later.

    • Carolyn says...

      There is a really eye opening book called Being Mortal, written by Atul Gawande that explores the modern experience of mortality. I wish I had read it before my my mom passed away because it would have made her less fearful. It is a really well written; the author himself is a doctor. It might help you to address some of the really raw, honest issue you addressed.

  108. Megan says...

    Thanks for this. This is strange but hang with me. I try to think of the unknown AFTER death the same way I think of what the unknown BEFORE birth. When I was floating around in my mom’s belly at 9 months, I could have never known all that was waiting for me on the other side. I didn’t even know there WAS another side. But then, suddenly, we’re born, and OH MY GOSH. A whole world! One unimaginable world. I think of death the same way. I’m not sure I believe in heaven. I don’t know about any “after life,” and I cannot conceptualize death, really. But then again, in my mom’s belly, I could not conceptualize “birth,” either. Who knows what waits for us on the other side, both in birth and in death? Only those who get there before us know that.

    • Kristin says...

      Yep, this is comforting for me too. Whenever I worry about death, I ask myself how it was before I was born. And then it doesn’t feel as scary, even if the answer is “nothingness”.

    • Jane says...

      Megan, that’s exactly what I told my children when they asked about death! You described my thoughts very well. I find this view comforting and logical, even though I still grapple with religious questions as well. If my faith in God is well-placed, nothing will separate me from His love. And it comforted me in caring for my dearly loved mother, having a sense that the people who loved her and went on ahead of her would somehow be there for her. These things are so hard to articulate!

    • Denise says...

      OMG, I didn’t know there was a word for this. My Grandmother did this, cleaned out the whole house and labeled all the things she was passing on “for Carol” etc… Grandma is still alive, though, ten or more years after the big clean out. Is it still death cleaning if you live a long time further? Also, oddly, we’re of Swedish descent though we don’t hold much of that culture anymore. I wonder where my Grandma learned this from. I’ll have to ask her.

  109. J says...

    Have you read “many lives, many masters” by Brian Weiss? It is out there but a theory i kind of enjoy that takes away the finality of death. I once had a dream that i was dying and it was kind very peaceful. I was just laying down and it was like someone was turning off the lights slowly and i was inundated with a feeling of peace i’d never felt before. In my dream i knew i was dying and thought, oh this isn’t that bad. If i get anxious about my own mortality i think about the feeling in that dream and the Brian Weiss theory – it’s not so bad and your soul goes on to another chapter, this isn’t the end.

    I frankly get a lot more anxious thinking about a loved one dying. In that scenario it’s not peaceful for me and i’ll be left with loss and heartache. Frankly i rather think about my own death than a loved one’s!

    • Chelsea says...

      I loved that book too! It’s really given me so much peace, the idea that this particular life is just a chapter in our soul’s journey and development.

      Books and articles by Dr. Ian Stevenson have given me even more comfort – he was on the faculty at the University of Virginia and dedicated his career to researching reincarnation from a methodical, science-based approach. His research took him around the world for decades and many of his cases are mind blowing.

      Here’s a NYT article on him if anyone is interested https://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/26/weekinreview/conversations-dr-ian-stevenson-you-may-be-reading-this-in-some-future-past-life.html

  110. Sandra says...

    I am amazed at people who don’t have death anxiety. I’ve had it since I was 9! I am religious, but our church is fairly liberal and I’m religious in a very questioning way, so that doesn’t always provide the comfort of some sort of guaranteed afterlife that some people have.

    It has gotten worse since I’ve turned 50. I’ve probably shared this analogy before, but for me life is like being on a weeklong beach vacation. At the beginning you are super excited and looking forward to all the fun that is to come. By Wednesday you realize your trip is half over, but you still have several nights left so you’re aware of passage of time but still excited about the things you have planned. After that it’s Oh F*ck, It’s Thursday! We only have 2 days left! I need to go snorkeling, and parasailing, and take that sunset cruise, and go kayaking, and….anyway, that’s what my early 50s are feeling like. Oh f*uck, it’s Thursday and I’m running out of time!

  111. Katie says...

    I appreciate your touching on this topic in your gentle, curious way. It crosses my mind all too often. The pain of this thought, of not having enough time with the ones I love, can be unbearable. I think it really hit me in high school, after my mom had heart surgery (it went fine, but the thought that I could have potentially lost her has indelibly stuck). I also then wonder why do I follow this path in my mind, and do others? It’s heartening to read I am not the only one!

  112. MJ says...

    Hi Jo,

    Wow. I thought I was the only one. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for having the courage to wonder.

    I had my “mid” life crisis when I was 16 after suffering a loss. I too felt that all the superficial things in my life were suddenly mere distractions (I am 23 now and specifically remember reading one of your gift guides at the time!). I became completely undone. I don’t think I have fully recovered the ignorance I enjoyed when I still thought of death as something abstract.

    What did help me was reading Tolstoy’s “Confession” and realizing that I had an advantage others my age did not – clarity. Of course I make mistakes and enjoy “wasting” time watching Frasier or keeping up with pop culture and trends…..but I also live purposefully, I prioritize people over things, and my family is my first priority. I know I must make my time count, that no one else will seize the reins and do it for me (thankfully), and that when it is my time, I won’t be regretful or wistful for past mistakes or missed opportunities. xx

  113. Amy says...

    I was slapped in the face with death anxiety in my mid-20’s (including the fear of flying mentioned here). But after seeing my sister recently die of cancer in young-adulthood, that anxiety (and anxiety in general) seemed to dissipate. It was like I finally realized none of us are getting out of this life alive, so we mine as well enjoy the ride and not worry about the inevitable. I now truly get what your step-father means about never wishing those bad days away.

    On a separate note, three cheers for Nathan Feiles – the therapist mentioned in this article! He helped me overcome so much, literally life-changing.

  114. Sonja says...

    I think J.K. Rowling said it best through the ever wise words of Dumbledore, “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” And to quote a friend, “Two things can be true.” All to say, this life is but one piece of our souls adventure and what are our souls but heaps of love; of the divine, our children and family and friends, the loves of our lives. All just glittering and living. And while I believe all that to be true I am also terrified. And if death weren’t at least a little terrifying then why live life at all?

    • Rachel says...

      beautifully articulated. thank you for sharing such wise words.

  115. Lara says...

    For the past decade, this snippet from Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows has stuck with me:

    “There are far, far worse things in the living world than dying.”

    Since I read that, it has proved true on numerous occasions.
    Of course I see it every day on the news but, closer to home, I have seen loved ones going through horrorific experiences (and, myself, had the unpleasant experience of being unable to protect them).

    Partly as a result of these experiences, and partly as a result of ageing, the concept of death has become less frightening to me, and the sheer blessings of (to name a few) physical and mental health, love, shelter, friendship, family, education, sleep, food and drink, security, privacy, stability, freedom from persecution, and safety have become even more precious and fragile.

    This brings me to another quote, in a similar vein, which has stuck with me for roughly the same amount of time, this time from Twilight:

    “Death is easy…peaceful. Life is harder.”

  116. Ella says...

    I agree with this so much Grace! It breaks my heart that not everyone has that assurance

  117. Steffi says...

    One of my favourite books is ‘Sophia, Death and I’, where Death visits a pretty random guy who is supposed to die within the next three minutes. But then, the door bell rings and spoils everything. Death is on vacation for the first time in eternity, and he joins the guy and his ex-girlfriend Sophia for a trip to visit his mum. Death’s first train ride is full of wonders, think sliding doors and it’s hilarious. Since then, I’m not really afraid of Death anymore.

    • Alison says...

      Did a google on this and realized I can only find the book in German. I would have to MAJORLY brush off my HS Deutsch to undertake such a book, but dang it sounds fun!

    • gfy says...

      Reminds me of a very underrated Brad Pitt movie called Meet Joe Black. On Netflix now I think.

  118. Tricia says...

    Right before the immensely loved (by myself and many others) Irish poet Seamus Heaney died, he sent a text to his wife: Noli timere. It means “Be not afraid.” I cling to that statement when thinking about both life and death. When I’m feeling anxious, I also like to dwell on some of my life’s most extraordinary moments, which makes me less fearful of death somehow…the births of my two children, swimming in the ocean with sea turtles, riding a bike downhill surrounded by the Irish countryside and nobody but cows and sheep to hear me laughing…

  119. sarah morabito says...

    ALL THE TIME.
    Especially as I near 39. I think often of the mother’s that have passed (my neighbor growing up passed at 32 leaving 3 young children) and I recall the feeling after having my first baby at 33, that one day, she will be on this earth without me and I just sobbed all the way home from the hospital….hormones! Mortality! The late night thoughts are the worst. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. XO

  120. katie says...

    After watching three grandparents die slow deaths (one from cancer/emphysema, one from a stroke and another from cancer), I fear suffering more than death itself. It’s heartbreaking to watch those you love slowly lose their faculties over the course of a year+ until one day they’re stuck in a bed, perhaps at home or in a hospital or in a nursing home, waiting for death. They can barely speak. Or move.

    All I wish for me and the loved ones left living that their deaths are quick.

    However, I have asked one thing of my husband. That he lets me go first. It’s obviously something I know he can’t give, but I sure do hope it works out that way. Yes, I’m totally selfish.

  121. Emily says...

    Thank you for sharing the story of your conversation with Harvey. I am in the middle of a hugely tumultuous time in my life, personally and professionally, and as literally everything is changing around me, I have often found myself saying that I just want to fast forward to when things are settled. This really resonated with me and has reminded me to step back and appreciate all the good that is happening and to recognize how much stronger this experience is making me.

  122. Lana says...

    I’m reading Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott right now, and because I’ find myself so overwhelmed by her words in the very best way, I looked up her TED Talk. She also used this Ram Dass quote when she spoke of death. It is so moving and such a lovely thought. I rarely think of death, but I do have a bad habit of thinking the littlest thing is the worst. I remember the first time I felt a swollen lymph node in my newborns neck and was convinced it was cancer. Scariest half hour of my life. I think having people you live more than you live yourself makes death seem scarier. You don’t want something to happen to you bc the thought of missing their life, the mundane moments and the extraordinary ones, feels unbearable.

  123. I’ve come to think of the afterlife as perfect understanding. I think all of our souls will be reunited with the greater being (God, universe, etc) from whence we came, and with that, we’ll come to understand the logic (or non-logic) of everything, good and bad. We’ll understand the pain we caused through our lifetimes, but we’ll also understand all the good that we achieved. Getting the answers to all those big questions feels comforting to me, and it also provides a sense of justice for those who live their lives causing a lot of pain, if that makes sense?

    • Kate says...

      Yes. Very similar to my thoughts. Perfect understanding, and thus, perfect acceptance. And I am also holding out hope to be reunited with my beloved Grammy.

  124. I am a gardener. What dies in the fall, comes up in the spring. This planet has a life force. When I die, it will be a privilege to join it. Atheist, by the way.

    • Kathryn says...

      I love this.

  125. Emily says...

    This is possibly one of my favorite posts of yours, Joanna. I’ve been thinking about the same topics over the past week; it’s reminded me that I need to read your brother-in-law Paul’s book again. I’ve read it once a year around this time, but have to wait to retrieve it from my parents’ house when I visit next week.

    There’s something about this time of year — the new year, winter, I’m not sure — that makes me think more about death, dying, and what it means to really live. I don’t have any answers either, but I feel like the closest I get to having any are from reading the words of people who have faced death more acutely (Paul, Nina, and Viktor Frankl, for me). I’m interested in how everyone else ponders these questions, and if there are other books/writing that other people turn to.

  126. Maria says...

    wow. THIS is fantastic: “Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and see it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.”

    This is sort of how I think about death, but written far better than I ever would’ve articulated. I’ve read/heard many times, to paraphrase – no matter how long you live, you’re always dead longer. That’s always stuck with me. It’s just so true. And final. Life is so finite. And SO. DAMN. SHORT. Even a very “long” life in the scheme of things.

    We think we matter so much, and even the most “important” amongst us – those with the greatest influence, etc. even if they do very important things, I often wonder – will they even be remembered in 100 years? 1000 years? How many people alive today will be remembered like Dante, Aristotle, Jesus, etc. Somehow these thoughts calm me to some degree. Life is so crazy fleeting, we really have such an infinitesimal sphere of influence in our lives – we’re here just to live, this flash of a moment in time.

    I do find it overwhelming at times (sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way – like most things, depending on my frame of mind) to really think of and try to comprehend that the universe is infinite. Infinite! What an absolute mind bender! And my place in it, I don’t even know if I constitute an ant’s existence in it, so really – death? Does it even matter? Of COURSE it matters to us individually, but intellectually and as a whole – does it? Our lives are merely more energy for the universe, part of this greater, incomprehensible whole. Crazy and daunting for sure. So sure, I give death and existence an occasional thought. ;)

  127. Mims says...

    OK, I’m a freak. As a college freshman I found a lapel button that read “get over yourself”. I was also majoring in Geology and was being exposed to awesome amount of time the universe and earth have been around and what an insignificant moment we humans have been on the scene. Now I am a physician and almost 60 and have seen and assisted people in dying and I am not afraid. I do not cling to life, nor do I dismiss life or wish it away. We humans are so small in the eye of the cosmos and we need to have more humility about our comings and goings, as actually those activities are causing suffering to millions of people and animals and the ecosystems and weather of planet Earth. My philosophy is to be here now, enjoying, giving, creating and trying to do so with as little impact on the planet as I can. I look forward to the transition of what is to become. I do not believe in heaven per se, but do think there is some kind of reunification with the energy of whatever is out there and perhaps some kind of re-incarnation: if only as a carbon atom in a dust mote or a grain of pollen in a flower. I got over thinking I am special. We are all special and deserve a decent life, so I make choices that help everyone to simply live and that helps me sleep at night. Amen.

    • sarah morabito says...

      this is awesome and so well put.

    • jules says...

      Beautiful!! I’m saving this to revisit later. Thank you.

      Every time I hike in the desert (about 2x a year, I live in MN) I feel the rebalancing effect of geology. Big, beautiful rocks that were formed over millennia, stood for millennia and will indeed continue to stand. Trump, Hitler, Genghis Khan, the crisis of the week before on the global scale or my own tiny arbitrary existence – whatever else has or will come to the earth is meaningless to them. That always leaves me feeling strangely light and optimistic.

    • Sasha L says...

      Mims, very wise, thank you for sharing. Sometimes I look at the mountains, rocks, rivers when I’m hiking and feel very very small, in the best kind of way. It’s comforting.

      I also think about grizzly bears and try not to be too afraid, but hopefully it would be quick. And hopefully the Bear would get away with it too. And also decide humans aren’t worth the trouble. Or I think about mountain lions. They say you don’t see them coming (neck, from behind), very very quick. It’s weird and morbid, but every time I make it out alive it’s like a little feeling of triumph and aliveness. Thinking about death can really remind you how alive you are, RIGHT NOW.

  128. Jo says...

    Nice and light, way to go CoJ!

    But really, this has been on my mind A LOT recently, and it just occurred to me that my own death anxiety was triggered by my lovely mother-in-law’s death over the summer (how I hadn’t made that connection yet, I don’t know—the human brain is a maze). I so relate to your comment about things we expect to happen “in front” of death. I’ve always felt insulated against dying because there are lots of people ahead of me in the queue. But my MIL passing away much sooner than expected has brought home to me that not only is the line moving swiftly, but sometimes we’re plucked from it out of order. Ugh.

    As literally morbid as this topic is, I feel a bit better knowing that others are also struggling with it. And down with complicated soup recipes forever!

  129. Laura says...

    I, too, suffer from death anxiety. I have an 18 month old baby girl and my biggest fear in life is leaving her too soon. But when is too soon? I was 15 years old when my dad unexpectedly left this world. I felt like my whole world crumbled to pieces. Even today, nearly two decades later, I mourn what could’ve and should’ve been. I wonder if he misses me and if he thinks about me as much as I think of him.

    Strangely enough, about ten years ago in college, I opened up to a friend about my dad. She lost her brother in a tragic way as well. She went to a medium that was able to communicate with her brother. Trust me, I was quite the skeptic. I felt bad that she was (possibly) duped. But I had some spare cash and figured I put my name on the waiting list. I put down a fake name and a Google phone number, and figured if I didn’t think about it in two years (how long the wait was!), i just wouldn’t go. Two years went by and I was still curious. Well, the medium shared things that were nearly impossible for anybody to know. One thing she mentioned was my dad’s wedding ring. When my dad passed, my mom gave me his wedding ring to hold onto. No one knew that, at all. The medium said my dad thanked me for holding onto it after all these years. Of course, when I share this experience with others, they’re skeptical. But I do believe there is another world out there with our loved ones watching out for us, and for me, that makes dealing with death anxiety a little easier.

  130. Elle says...

    My friend recently told me a story about the child she nannies. His fish was dying, and he was having her read “One Fish, Two Fish” to it in the days leading up to its death. When it was finally time to part ways with the fish, his mom, trying to be honest and informative said that his fish was going to die and that he wouldn’t see it anymore. The kid replied, “Can we not say die? Can we just say it’s fading away?” Kids, man!

    • LLL says...

      We want the name and number of that medium!

  131. Lainey says...

    What a great post. I’m 44 now and it sometimes strikes me that I am – if I’m lucky – already halfway through. The chances are that I have more life behind me than in front of me – and that’s a sobering thought because I don’t feel old at all. I don’t think about death much because I, too, find the idea of nothingness disturbing. But one thing I have noticed is that, in my 40s, I’m very fixated on pinning down the “essence” of me: what do I really like doing? What do I really find interesting? Where and on what do I want to focus my time and energy in the second act of my life, as my years run out? It feels like a time of consolidation – I want to have a clear idea of who I am and what I enjoy so I can make the most of this precious life.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      oh my gosh, YES! “Where and on what do I want to focus my time and energy in the second act of my life, as my years run out?” i feel this so, so much. in my twenties and thirties, i worked so much — and felt good about it. i was building my future, etc. but now, i just want to slow down, soak up my children, spend time with family, etc. facing my mortality has made me redefine my definition of success in many ways. so curious to hear from others, too.

    • Erika says...

      Yes. This. Priorities. I was a workaholic, crazy hours, for many years. And I loved it. That got me to where I am now. To the place where I know me and can do me. To the professional place where I have the flexibility to prioritize what I choose. At 23, I would have prioritized all the wrong things (the size of my thighs, what InStyle told me was fashionable). At 43, I know what is important and can devote my whole self to it. Just like Lainey said, “essence.”

      CoJ, thank you for handling a topic like this. Reading Nina Riggs now. Hard but true. Painful in all the ways that make me live my life better. Thank you, to her and Paul for doing such hard work and letting us all learn from it.

    • Gena says...

      I so relate with your comment Lainey – I’m 42 and have been thinking about my impact on this life and on the people around me. Who am I and who do I still want to become? It doesnt help that it feels that time is speeding up as my kids get older. There’s still so much I want to do. The other night my 9 year old came into my room, crying, “I just don’t want you to die!” Gosh, me either!

    • Lainey says...

      Having children has definitely brought things into focus. My teens and 20s were all about exploring life – trying lots of different styles, music, films, books, looks, etc. But in my 30s my time and energy (not to mention money) were almost entirely taken up by my young children. In many ways that was really helpful as when I came out the other side I realised that I’d really missed some things (reading, creativity) but not others (TV, office life), while motherhood had brought issues such as the environment and social justice to the fore. As you all say, now in my 40s it’s time to slow down, soak up the good stuff and prioritise – just when time feels like it’s speeding up!

  132. Emily says...

    This is possibly one of my favorite posts of yours, Joanna — I’ve been thinking about the same topics over the past week. It’s funny as it’s reminded me it’s about time to reread your brother-in-law Paul’s book, which I’ve read once a year since it was published (going to retrieve it from my parents’ house when I visit next week).

    There’s something about this time of year — the new year, winter, I’m not sure — that makes me think more about death and dying and what it means to really live. I wish I had answers, too, but the closest I’ve feel like I’ve come to any has been from reading the words of people for whom the reality of one’s death has loomed closer (Paul, Nina, and Viktor Frankl, at least for me). I’m interested in if anyone else has books/writing they turn to when pondering these questions.

  133. savana says...

    I can’t even believe that I’m stumbling on this article right now. As I sat down on my computer I was just thinking of this, as I often do. I’m 26 years old and this is a constant fear that’s recently put me into weekly therapy. I’m thankful to read that I’m not alone and feel a sense of peace reading this.

    Thank you.

  134. Kristen says...

    After I turned 40 years old my mortality hit me smack in the face like never before. I am now 45 and my time on earth feels finite and yes, it can overwhelm me. My parents are aging, my mom was diagnosed with dementia last year and my dad is 78 caring for her. I don’t have kids and the idea of my folks not being here freaks me out. So yeah, I’m not as cool about death as I want to be. My sister if very religious and has said she is at peace about my mom and mortality and I believe she is. I would like to get that place too.

    • gfy says...

      A post on when, how, and the cost to put a parent into an assisted living situation or the like would be REALLY interesting.

  135. Traci says...

    I’m a Christian (not one of the crazies, ha), so I’ve grown up believing that I’ll go to heaven to start a new, fully alive, fully whole life. Now that I have my own family, the pain of death is scarier, and honestly, it takes more faith to find comfort in my beliefs, but what is belief in anything without risk?
    When my younger sister passed from cancer at 5, my parents held her hand as she stopped breathing. She gasped and said, “momma there’s a man waiting to hug me,” and my mom told her, “honey that’s Jesus, and he can’t wait to hold you,” and she passed. Remembering that experience gives me rest that whatever is coming, it will be good.

    • Ella says...

      That is so beautiful, Traci! I just got goosebumps reading about your sister’s experience.

    • Carrie says...

      Your story made me cry. I am a Christian too, and I believe I will go to heaven after death as well. My fear is experiencing a painful death, and not so much death itself :( My fear in particular a car accident. Whats worse is the..paranoia, I guess you could call it, of dying in a car wreck is always kinda somewhere in my mind so it makes me fearful all the more that it’s there for a reason..like it’s intuition.

    • Marlena says...

      Oh my heart. Your mother essentially said, “Go on and meet him” to your sister and that just ripped my heart in two. What a stunning picture of a mother’s love.

  136. Ashley says...

    I have no fear of death itself. I am a Christian and believe, without question, in heaven and hell. The book of Hebrews has a beautiful passage about our short time. It says, I’ll paraphrase, that we are foreigners and nomads in this land. Not homesick for where we are or have been, but homesick for the future heavenly home.

  137. Calla says...

    Wow thank you for these thoughts! This resonated so much with me especially this part “think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and see it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us”

    That reminds me of something I think about a lot, there is a scene in the John Travolta movie Michael (the one where he plays an angel returned to Earth for the very last time) where he is out in a field and just taking in the sky and the wind and plants and the dirt talking about how much he will miss it. I think about that whenever I am getting overly stressed or in my head about something, that if it was suddenly taken away from me, how much I would miss just walking outside and drinking coffee and funny memes and the smell of my apartment. And dogs. It’s all extra. We get to be here and experience these things, and everything else, including the privilege of our problems, is extra.

  138. I think it is not death that scares most of us, but the dying part that is a big unknown, it will come for all of us at sometime and we will all have a different experience of it . As I got to my forties it is a more present thought then it was 20 years ago. Can I say one thing that made me happy and less scared, was being able to buy my burial spot? We got my parents a spot on a lovely rose garden and as the spot next to them was free I brought it, so that I know when it is my time I will be able to be laid to rest next to them. It gave me some solace to know that I would be close to my loved ones and be surrounded by flowers, and not be left to get dusty on someones shelf (I plan to get cremated).

    Although the logical part of me thinks that death is just a nothingness like before we were born, there is the part of me that thinks that my parents and grandparents will be there to meet me, with all the friends I have lost and all the cats that I have loved skipping around their feet happy to see me.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that’s all so beautiful, julie.

  139. Mo says...

    Thanks for this honest post! I remember a post awhile ago when you were thinking about a 3rd baby and a friend brought up the idea of death anxiety, moving out of the baby having phase of life is a marker moving toward death… I thought a lot about that and it hit a nerve for me. I have 2 beautiful boys myself and Have decided 2 is our number :) I’m a person of faith and death, by far, has always been the hardest subject for me to reconcile with my faith. I remember reading an interview with Betty White awhile ago and she said her mother would always say when someone passed away, “Now they know the secret.” I find that really comforting. Thanks Jo!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      “now they know the secret” = i love that.

  140. Oh wow, this was so, so comforting to read. I’ve been struggling with this exact feeling of anxiety towards death in sporadic bursts for as long as I can remember, since childhood. And I had always felt so incredibly isolated in my feelings because no one else seemed to have the same sense of panic at the idea of ceasing to exist. Thank you for writing this post. <3

  141. I think about death a lot recently as it feels like I have been surrounded by it in past months. We lost our beloved dog last spring and my husband’s father just before Thanksgiving. I have two little girls and have been forced to think about it and explain what I think death means and what happens after to them. I don’t think death is final. I think those we love are still here somehow.
    Recently, my husband had a dream where he saw his father. His father didn’t seem to know he had died. He asked “why don’t you call me anymore? Where’s Mom?” That really touched my husband. Perhaps his dad is still here we just can’t see him. Since that dream my husband has been lighting a candle and talking to his dad every night. It has helped his grief tremendously to think of death not as an ending but just another phase of life.

  142. Nina Campos says...

    Totally off topic but I have been following you for YEARS and first and foremost just want to say a gigantic thank you for everything you do to produce this space. Would your mother ever consider answering a few questions for readers about the age gap in her relationship. I have been dating someone 20 years older and other than celebrity couples, I cannot find many real life examples of people who made this choice and what their reflections on it may be. Anyways, you feel like a friend and since you pointed it out in this column, I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask.

    Much respect and gratitude.
    Nina

    • AN says...

      So much ‘yes’ to this, please, Jo and Ma Jo! I’m 14 years older than my wife and would so appreciate some insight into what to expect and how to prepare for the next bucket of years.

  143. Kristin says...

    I have thought about death numerous times a week since I was a child. Is that weird? I find it easier to think about now that I am an Atheist. One guy explained it in a way that struck me as oddly comforting: What was it like before you were born? Do you remember it? Were you afraid? Of course you were not. Death will be the same. It will be just like before you were born.

    No one knows for sure, but that seems less scary to me than being teleported somewhere or the whole drag of having to go somewhere when I don’t even know if I’ll like it. An Introvert even in death. Ha!

    • chefellen says...

      This is exactly how I feel as an Atheists as well. It became less scary to me when I thought about before I was born and that I never knew I didn’t exist and that was okay. At 55 I think about death less than I did in my 30’s and 40’s, probably because my children are grown and partly because I just want to focus on life and not on death. It will come.
      What I do focus on as an atheist/humanist is being the best I can be while I’m here and that is so comforting. Show love, show compassion, make an impact, give back, laugh, eat well, explore, have fun and live the best you can. If you get 80+ years, it is a gift and wow, it is so freeing to see my life this way.

    • Alison says...

      You and me both, Kristin! I am also an introvert and have been so curious about death for as long as I can remember. I do agree that my Atheism has brought a better sense of calm than anything religious did when I was growing up. It keeps me more present/kind knowing this is it.

      The one thing I always struggled with was losing my husband, or my dying prior to him, but I found this wonderful quote from Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s wife) and it eliminated all anxiety I had on this topic as well.

      “When my husband died, because he was so famous and known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me-it still sometimes happens-and ask me if Carl changed at the end and converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive and we were together was miraculous-not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance. . . . That pure chance could be so generous and so kind. . . . That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space and the immensity of time. . . . That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me and it’s much more meaningful. . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”

      If anyone is also just curious in thinking more about the process after death (of your remains), I found the book “From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death” by Caitlin Doughty to be a phenomenal read and very thought provoking.

    • Anu says...

      That is beautiful Alison! Thank you for sharing. My husband and I grew up in different countries, speaking different languages, and met in a different, third country, so we often have that sense that it’s a miracle that we met and are together, but this puts it so much more eloquently than we ever could. I’ll share this with him.

  144. Grace says...

    My faith is what grounds me to the idea of death. Some days, I’m so anticipatory for heaven that I legitimately get excited to be welcomed into that true home of mine. I understand that many people don’t have the same assurance, and I understand why. Risking to believe in something you can’t see can be terrifying and so anti-what-we-are-taught. But think about the things you already have faith in: that your children will grow into beautiful adults, that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has. The best parts of what we have on this earth weren’t created by us: sunlight, the moon, love, sadness, the desire for relationship. This points to something greater for me and I’m looking forward to the day when I see the greatness face-to-face. In the mean time, I’m going to try to keep loving and being loved.

  145. Illana says...

    This is such a beautiful post, Joanna! One thing that comes to mind is something a meditation teacher said to me. “We think that time is linear; it’s not. It’s: Moment, Moment, Moment, Moment.” Since sometimes the phrase, “be in the present” is tossed around casually, I often like using “Moment, Moment…” to anchor me instead. I think part of our collective fear of death might have to do with the constant rhetoric around it — we have all these expectations about how life is supposed to go, the boxes we are supposed to be able to check off, the bucket list. And we all so badly want those things promised to us. And there’s this crazy disconnect because we KNOW none of it is promised, and in fact the unhelpful superstition is that we’d better not even talk about all that too much. I’m glad for opportunities like this to bring it into conversation, because it helps.

  146. Dianne says...

    Thank you Joanna for writing this beautiful article about your thoughts about dying. I’m a nephrology social worker and I deal with patients passing, yet I struggle with even the slightest thought of dying…being a mother in my early 40s with three young children. Your article brought something to think about but I was not so sad reading it! Very thoughtfully written!

  147. jen says...

    I’m in my late thirties and I’m frequently struck by my peers’ new realization of their mortality. I have many friends my age who have only just begun having their grandparents pass. In some ways I think it’s an extraordinary privilege but on the other hand the losses I’ve experienced during my life have given me so much. I do not take my life for granted. I know at any time I can be struck by a car, lose control of my vehicle, have my child pass from some quick and unforeseen illness, I can be murdered, or felled by cancer. It can come when you’re two, twenty, thirty, etc…We never know.

  148. Sasha L says...

    I loved The Bright Hour. Gosh what a beautiful book.

    Death doesn’t scare me, for myself. I’m not sure why exactly. It’s honestly comforting to me, that NO ONE gets out of here alive.

    But I live in fear of the deaths of everyone around me. My husband. My daughters. My dogs. I know it’s coming for all of us, in random order, but it’s not death that’s frightening, it’s living…. Without them.

    • Ro says...

      I feel the same, Sasha!

      I also feel afraid for my own death because of my two young kids. It’s less about me being afraid to die (not that I’m not!) but I’m TERRIFIED of leaving them.

    • Sasha L says...

      Ro, yes! When my children were small I worried about them too, who could possibly love them as much as me? Now that they are grown, I don’t worry about that, they will be ok. But I still worry about losing them. I don’t think I could bear it.