[Editor’s note: Every week, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party.]
Dear Andrew W.K.,
I’m afraid of death. Not just my own death, but the death of my loved ones, too. I’ve never really lost anyone very close to me and I just can’t imagine what I will do about it.
Lately, my fear of losing someone close has been taking over more and more of my thoughts. I keep imagining my parents dying in a car crash, or getting that late-night phone call that one of my best friends is suddenly dead and gone. I feel really anxious, and the more I try to stop thinking about it and put it out of my mind, the worse it gets and the more I obsess about it. What should I do?
Dear Dreading Death,
We realize that everyone, including you and me, will die. However, as certain as we are of this inevitable death, we are equally uncertain of exactly what death entails, or exactly what occurs to someone when it happens.
The only way to entirely avoid the unknowable experience of dying is to never have been born, and that’s obviously not an option for you or me or anyone else alive right now. And the only way to entirely avoid having to experience others dying is to die before they do. And ending one’s own life simply to avoid having to deal with another’s death is hardly a reasonable solution to the problem. Really, there is no exact solution at all. Instead, we can only develop different ways to think about death and try to learn to face it with dignity and as much understanding as possible.
Our main worries and anxieties seem to center around the fact that death is unknowable, and yet we do know that we’ll experience it. And despite how pervasive and inescapable death is — and despite it being one of the single experiences we all will have in common — it remains supremely mysterious and impenetrable. All of our various encounters with the unknown are essentially extensions and variations of the ultimate unknown: death itself.
But as much as we don’t know about what happens when we die, we also don’t know what happens to us before we’re born. Despite all our efforts to understand what is happening in life, we still don’t know much about what life actually is — how it exists, why it exists, where it goes, or where it came from. Death is wrapped up as an elemental aspect of the same mystery that surrounds life. Our inability to know about what happens when we die is reflected in our present inability to really understand what is happening right now while we’re alive. This is quite frustrating, and it makes sense that all this not-knowing can cause us stress.
It’s possible that most of our anxiety surrounding death and our awareness of its impending occurrence is actually just an extension of our current confusion about the mystery of life in general. We want control and security and certainty, but most of the time, the closest we get to any real comfort is a type of self-induced mellow oblivion, achieved by making extreme efforts to really not think about life (or death) or anything much at all. It feels momentarily easier to just distract ourselves with other thoughts, or no thoughts, than having to face head-on the most pressing aspects of the situation we’re in: What is this whole experience we’re having?
So we often want to hide away from having to ponder this too much or too deeply — and that’s understandable. Being alive is incredibly intense and incredibly confusing. Death is even more so. In fact, we may never really find the answer to what is going on with either of them. It’s possible that the true nature of reality is simply beyond our comprehension. The whole truth may just not be available to us. Or, on the flip side, the truth is so available that we can’t even see it — we only see a faint reflection of it. It’s much like the way we can’t see into our own eye using our eye; we need a mirror. Maybe death is that mirror. Maybe death is a reflection of life, so we can see it and examine it and appreciate it.
Maybe instead of being afraid of death, we can look at it as something beyond fear. Maybe we can decide to counteract our instincts to avoid contemplating it, and instead ponder everything about it as deeply and fearlessly as possible. And maybe, if our meditations on death can’t tell us something about dying, they can tell us something about living. Maybe it can make life mean more. Life certainly feels more precious when we really fully consider the fact that it won’t last forever. We’re all aware of how fleeting and fragile life suddenly feels once we see someone else lose theirs so easily and randomly. Perhaps that is showing us that, somehow, death is meant to teach us how to live.
Most of all, remember the following: When someone dies, our experience of that person does not die. It changes, it transforms, but it survives inside us. That person’s existence continues on with us, for as long as we continue to exist. In fact, our experience of a person who has died not only continues, but it can grow and deepen. Our thoughts and memories of that person can reveal a deeper insight and understanding of that person than we had even when they were alive. A new kind of love develops after they’re gone, with new levels of appreciation that we simply didn’t have the means to comprehend during their physical lifetime. It’s not clear why this is. But maybe, as we so often do, we can experience a version of this growth and understanding and appreciation before that person is gone, simply by fathoming the fact that they will eventually die. This shouldn’t be depressing; it should be enthralling, it should be affirming, it should be inspiring, and it should be motivating.
In this way, you’re doing yourself and your loved ones a real service by fully contemplating the fact that they are here now but won’t be forever. You’re not taking their presence for granted. Hopefully you can turn your anxiety and worry of losing them into a joyful exhilaration that they’re actually here with you right now. Be with them, experience them, hug them, laugh with them, cry with them, and love them all you can.
We may never fully understand or know where we go after death, or where we were before this life, but while we are here — in the midst of this incredibly rich and overwhelming adventure of existence — we must do all that we can to completely appreciate and experience ourselves and those around us. By loving our life and the lives of others with all the energy we have, we can truly show ourselves and eternity that we’ve done our best to have earned this precious gift called “life.” Don’t be afraid. Just be alive. You are right now. And it’s beautiful. Stay strong.
More:Ask Andrew W.K.