Growing up in a small, isolated mining community far away from large cities in my childhood and teenaged years, I don’t recall really being aware of death. In our isolation, likely also do to the absence of the Internet at that time, we didn’t hear that much about death. Sure, if you watched one of the two channels on TV at news time, you’d hear about wars off in distant lands and the occasional murder in the rough areas of the capital city.
Even though both of my Grandfathers had died before I was eight, mostly due to their lifetimes of smoking and drinking, which even as a young child seemed sad but logical to me, I wasn’t very aware of death. On one occasion where someone from our elementary school died tragically and suddenly, we weren’t told much about the situation and the family moved away shortly after that. We didn’t see them day-to-day: how they were living their lives after losing a son, a brother.
Then, in a matter of a year when I was in my mid-thirties, my mother died and I had two miscarriages. The year before, my dad’s brother died, as well as his best friend. The reality of the pain of losing people you love felt so utterly physical to me, some days I wasn’t sure how I kept going. After losing a dear friend of hers, and my mom (her BFF), my Aunt said, “It’s like all the air gets sucked right out of you and you have to work hard to inhale again.” I now knew what that felt like.
But grief felt different than thinking about death. I was sad, but didn’t think about my death or others: I was feeling the pain of the loss, not preoccupied.
Then I had children.
I only recently became aware I think about death quite often when I was listening to the CBC radio program Q, and turned the volume up when I heard a parenting writer was coming next (I’m a psychotherapist & parenting educator). It turns out she was a hilarious comedian — I laughed my way through the first part of the interview.
The tone of the interviewer’s voice changed and my body froze when she asked Emily Flake, author of Mama Tried, about the first sentence in the last section of her humor book, which is “I think about death all the time now.” I started crying. I had to concentrate hard on keeping my car on the road the rest of the drive home on a busy highway. It’s one of those a-ha moments that send shivers through your body and makes you sweat. When I got home, I reached out to her on twitter, and had a copy of her book in my hand by the end of the week.
I felt relieved: Oh, thank goodness I’m not the only one. When my husband takes my children out for a day or overnight trip, I have a hard time stopping my mind from running through scenarios of what life would be like if they got in a car crash. I imagine the doorbell ringing and how the police would tell me, how I’d react. When I’m on my way to present at a conference or parenting workshop on the other side of the country, I think about how my family would carry on without me if I didn’t make it back.
I started off fighting these thoughts, even shouting, “Stop it!” to myself (to the dismay of my airplane seat mates), in attempts to slow my pounding heart and not think of such scary moments. After reading Commander Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth — he’s a retired astronaut who walked in space and commanded the International Space Station, I finally surrendered to these thoughts. Hadfield said that preparing for every outcome facilitated calm and rational thinking in the event a scary situation arose. When you had already planned for things to go wrong, when they did, you could more easily problem solve.
As a therapist, I have used a similar technique with my clients. When they’d say, “I just can’t imagine life without him,” I’d say, “Let’s do that… let’s imagine how your life would be if you were on your own. Where would you live? What kind of place would you have? Would you still have the same job?”
So I followed Chris Hadfield’s and my own advice and actually thought what life would be like if I, or any of my family members, were gone. I remember the first moment of doing this, which was terrifying. I told myself I was allowed to think about that for about fifteen minutes and then I had to stop.
I know to some small degree what that life is like. Each day in my Facebook feed, I read rip-your-heart-out-of-your-chest words from moms who have lost children, loving partners lost, and moms leaving young children behind. I read and feel the words of those living this experience. I saw situations where both parents died, leaving young children to move away with extended family members, whole families except one child dying in car crashes, floods, or tsunamis (I bought the book Wave, but haven’t been able to read it yet). A feeling or experience that used to feel far away, happening to people I didn’t know, suddenly was part of my days. I actually have had to take some Facebook breaks.
I can’t say that surrendering to the thoughts of what life might be like without the loves of my life has “cured” me of the power of this thinking, but I’m feeling a little braver to be away from them. Although I have had my heart ripped out by social media, I’ve also seen, and experienced this with the loss of my dear mom, that you can go through these experiences and still have somewhat of a happy life. Sure, I think about my mom every day, which sometimes reduces me into a crying lump, but I’m still very happy. I have consciously decided to love fiercely and trust that if anything happens, I’ll be hurt, but still breathing.
“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” Yoda: Revenge of the Sith
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