Musings on Mortality: Current events can escalate death phobia

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It starts with the denial of death. We are pretty sure that we won't die anytime soon so we don't give it much thought. Why obsess over it? It will happen one day, but not today. So, we make decisions about our lives that do not include dying. As far as figuring out why we're alive in the first place, that can wait, too. We have time. Or, we deal with our denial of death by believing that we, the individuals we are today, will live on eternally after we depart this earth. I have noticed that even though we are convinced that our lives are everlasting, we fight, tooth and nail, not to die.

Death-denial morphs into death-phobia. This is when we stay clear of any indication that everyone is mortal. We stay distracted. We don't project into a future that does not include us. We avoid thinking about and filling out advanced directives. Why think about that now? We hold onto youth for dear life. We treat the aged as second class citizens. We tend to view dying as someone else's problem, like the medical professional's. For most of us, we hire strangers to care for our dead. We prefer to let someone else prepare the body of our loved one for burial or cremation.

This is our implicit and explicit agreement as a culture: Keep death out of the picture. Stay busy. Thus, we go through our lives sheltered from reality, which impairs our ability to become mature human beings. We see this immaturity magnified by those in power, for they are the most death-denying and death-phobic ones among us.

Paradoxically, what weighs on the minds of many of us today is the very question we've been inculturated to suppress: How are we going to die? We can't listen to a news report or read the news without wondering about "how." Will I die from lack of sufficient health care and coverage or my inability to pay for it? Will I die of the consequences of climate change and environmental degradation? Will I die in a nuclear war with Russia or the North Koreans? Will I die at the hand of someone who despises me because of my religion, gender, race, or sexual orientation?

Most of us have managed, for most of our lives, to deny and stay clear of our mortality. Those days are over. The grim reaper is appearing in the dreams of many. How do we process the potential threats to our lives? We do so with collective fear and anxiety that is palpable.

So, how do we live in the thick of such fear?

In addition to action to forestall and possibly eliminate some of the potential threats to our lives, I believe we need a crash course in dealing with our death-denial and death-phobia. In part, this is what my column has been offering. Our current anxieties are escalating, compounded by the recognition, coming from all directions, that our lives feel endangered. However, how each of us will die is an unknown. This was true before the election and it is true after. What is known is that at this moment, we are alive. Hence, we have the opportunity to learn how death-phobia and death-denial has brought us and our leaders to where we are today. Let us try to extinguish some of our fear by preparing ourselves to die. How do we do that? We can start by asking ourselves how death-denial and death-phobia play out in our own lives. Another good question to ask ourselves is, why are we alive?

Deborah Golden Alecson is a death, dying and bereavement educator and speaker who resides in Lenox. She is the author of three books that deal with her personal loss. Learn more at deborahgoldenalecson.com.


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