How #TheGoodPlace Is Helping Me Face My Fear of Death

Death! I talk about it a lot, don’t I?

In my defense, there’s been a lot of it about. My last but one entry talked about two peoples’ deaths – David and Lyra. Two different people with two different – and two violent – deaths.

So forgive me, it’s been on my mind. It’s always on my mind, really. I’ve talked at length in this blog about my death anxiety – thanatophobia for the Greeks out there – and its vampiric impact on my life. I’ve been in therapy for it before, but it was the wham-bam-thank-you-mam CBT, which did nothing to address the elephant in the room. Or, in Phillip Larkin-speak, the wardrobe.

The elephant is trauma. It’s terror. It’s checking for breath with a mirror when you’re 6. It’s shameful grief, collective grief, lost grief and grieving. It’s feeling it is shameful to grieve. It’s trying to understand why I am the one who wakes up screaming, and not my husband. He has watched countless people die, but he’s not afraid. (He’s not a serial killer – he was a carer for 8 years).

The Grieflings

I started therapy (again) a few weeks ago. This therapist is of the psychoanalytic variety, so some of it so amorphous it’s hard to get a grip on what it is actually is, and what we’re talking about. I went, ostensibly, for my anxiety. My anxiety – again, which I’ve written about at length here if you want to hear more – can occasionally be so incapacitating I struggle to cross a road. Far from impulsivity, my primary problem, for some years now, has been indecision.

When I sat down in front of the therapist – the kind of slim, green jumper wearing kind of one – I decided I was going to talk about death. Because I have come to realise that it is the genesis of my anxiety, all of it.

I am sometimes so afraid of crossing the road because I’m afraid a car I will hit me. I am sometimes so afraid of meeting new people and making a friend because they will die (ha, I mean, this is valid, let’s be honest now). I am afraid of happiness because it will end – I am afraid of all endings. I am afraid of saying something stupid in front of someone or to someone because I am afraid it will harm them. I have felt unsafe my whole life and I need to be safe and to keep people safe. Basically, here’s that big

D again.

I can’t actually remember the first session now, except that I cried for around 4 hours afterwards. I talked through some of the losses in my life. Throughout my life, it has been a procession of violent ends. Vicky, who killed herself, she was 16. My dad, of alcoholic liver failure, when he was 47. Brendan, who died of an overdose when he was 32. David, suicide, when he was 40. Lyra, murder, she was 29. That’s not including the constellation of troubled but then distant friends who lost their lives, the grandparents and my childhood too. My sister jokingly and affectionately says death stalks me. It does sometimes feel that way. (Edit – reread this recently and since this blog post, two more of my friends have died. Our beloved Sam Challis died in March 2020, just before lockdown proper hit. And the amazing Dawn Foster, immortalised and eulogised elsewhere better than I ever could, died in July 2021).

These losses are complicated and different from each other. Anyone could understand my grief at my dad’s death. But they’d have understood it a lot more if he’d died of cancer and had been a smiling Werthers Original type dad, and not someone who died how he died, and had lived how he lived. The head tilt, “At least he’s not suffering anymore” is coded, “At least you’re not suffering anymore”. But we were, just differently. In the same shame we lived with while he was alive – your drunk dad – there was shame when he died, too. How can you let someone you love so much die like that?

Lyra and I were not best friends. She is so widely loved and adored I have felt another sense of shame around my grief for her. I have felt I do not deserve to grieve and that my feelings are stupid. I don’t grieve for her or know her as people close to her did and do. My feelings are tied up a bit in the crushing sense of regret – that I pushed her away when she was being kind to me and that I wasn’t kind enough in return. I was no loss- she had so many people to love and be loved by – but I wish I hadn’t allowed my own grief in 2018 shut me down to our friendship, and I am trying so hard not to let my own grief shut me down again. It’s tied up too in just sheer anger and rage on her behalf, that she was taken as she was. It’s tied up in fear of the future. She was one of my biggest champions moving back to Belfast – telling me, you will be happy, you will have a career, it won’t be like it was back then, things are different. And then she dies, and how.

But they are my feelings – I can’t deny that they are. They may be wrapped up in the other unresolved grief, in the other unfair, horrible, violent and just not fucking right deaths of people who had so much more to give and who deserved so much better. But they are still feelings that have left me howling on my bed in the foetal position, and now in therapy, trying to make some sense of them.

So I’ve been trying to talk a bit about them. The shameful grief of my dad’s life and death. The unseen grief of David with no place to go but a scarf I wear and a voice in my head. The formative grief of a beautiful 16 year old friend ending her life, and the trudge through mud almost 20 years later to a tree you vividly remember. The collective grief and rage of Lyra – rightly so – but everywhere, hard to escape from, knowing your own tiny speckness in it all, but it still lays you out crying and not knowing who or what to turn to.

I think this is why I am so afraid and Robert isn’t. He saw people feeling ready. My experiences of death have been people who are not. Who shouldn’t have died. This does not make me special. I am not unusual – lots of people have experienced lots of losses, and of people closer, in ways much worse. But I can’t picture another experience of death. I can’t form another image in my head that isn’t the face of people I have loved not being ready. And I’m so afraid for myself and the people I love because that idea is agony to me.

Whenever you’re ready

So, what’s this got to do with the Good Place? Are you just tagging your post this for the clicks?

No! Well, a wee bit, yes.

My second session was on a Friday morning. I love the Good Place. It’s something I watch with Robert, but I knew what was coming from the episode title. So before I went to my session, and without telling him, I watched it by myself. I knew I’d have a possibly unpredictable reaction to it and I wanted to be alone with it to process it a little. Which was just as well as I sobbed for about 2 hours and then had a panic attack for another.

How is that helping me cope with my fear of death?

Because I was still crying when I got to my therapy session. I didn’t stop crying all the way there, and I didn’t stop when I was there. I didn’t apologise and I didn’t try not to cry. I just kept at it. Had a cry, in public, in front of someone else.

How are you so certain?

The therapist asked me this when I told him what I thought happens when we die (nothing, basically). I’m not certain, I can’t be, nobody can be. But I’m as certain as I can be. And I think this certainty of one thing or the other is shaped by our experiences of death. If someone has a, “good death”, you could well imagine they are free and their soul has gone somewhere. Likewise, you could well imagine that is the end because they change so much in that moment- but either of those things, you can imagine and the imagery isn’t coming from fear.

I said I don’t find debating the what ifs comforting or useful. So maybe then what is the point of this therapy?

I still need comfort. I still need a way to navigate these feelings so that I can live my life. I have so many regrets and my absolute greatest will be that I wasted my life worrying about death. Because that wardrobe’s going to crash right onto my head one day.

“Picture a wave”…

I’d never heard of or read about Buddhist conceptions of death, beyond reincarnation. I am drawn towards the finite perceptions. I am drawn, generally, towards the topic, though also repelled by it. I can’t, for example, really tolerate graveyards. I hate zombie things, and I have a bit of a discomfort around, “old” things. But I like Camus and existentialism. It terrifies the shit out of me, but not in that cold, creeping way a graveyard does.

Other things I’ve read posit that we all become energy and give back to the world when we die. Through natural processes, through, “ripplings” as Irvin D Yalom described, through what we leave behind in art, love, music. So a sort of reincarnation, really.

There is one place I always find comfort, and that’s by the sea. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s something as elemental as the song of the waves. Whenever I’m feeling low or untethered, I am drawn towards it. Which maybe is why Chidi’s speech above gave me more comfort than I can express. It is an idea of death I’m okay with, and one I can intellectually reason with. It’s an oneness and going back to where you belong – not away from, not leaving. It’s a concept and one explored in public and collectively that helps me to find a language to express and explore it.

Love and grief

 It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.

Nick Cave

It occurred to me in this session that I had stopped remembering the people I loved or cared about who had died. I had stopped recalling their faces (voices, harder). When I get too emotional or feel overwhelming feelings, I shut down. For all my splurging on here over the past decade, and on social media in the same, I am a guarded person emotionally in real life. I geyser out occasionally, then when overheated, shut down. Sometimes for an evening, sometimes for months. Sometimes it’s feelings that feel so private and personal and sharing them makes them someone elses’. But they’re mine.

I have been trying to forget. I have been dishonouring them by not allowing their ripplings to ripple. How do I remember?

Anyway. Here are some unformed thoughts on this unformed therapy and unformed focus. Will it help? I don’t know. At least I’m thinking about this stuff without my shut down switch going off. That’s progress, I guess.

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