My friend C always tells me she is not afraid of death. She does not want to die and she hopes to live a long and prosperous life — but she is not afraid to die. Hearing C say these words makes me inexplicably uncomfortable, but I always half-heartedly tell her “I understand.”
Ultimately, neither of us will be able to dodge death, but I am afraid and she is not, and I wish I could understand my own fear. As the Brittany Maynard story garnered national attention, I was both amazed and perplexed by this woman standing utterly fearless in the face of a tragically early death.
Maynard, who recently ended her life under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, was only 29 years old when she learned she had terminal brain cancer. Maynard decided to live her final months knocking items off of her “bucket list” and surrounding herself with loved ones.
She peacefully ended her own life before the terminal cancer could take away whatever comfort she had left. I imagine Maynard gradually came to terms with the situation and ultimately was at peace with her end. Again, I'm left wishing I could understand my own inexplicable fear.
The obvious truth is death is everywhere. It’s one of the very few certainties of life. Other than birth, death is one of the only common experiences every single human shares. Death is not some anxiety-invoking, open-ended question mark; it is a powerful, definitive and bold period that conclusively signals the end of our stories.
Someday, somehow, every single one of us will slip into the oblivion of death, as that period punctuates the final notes of our lives. There is nothing I can do — nothing anyone can do --, yet I am still scared, as if planting some angst in death will somehow help me avoid the supremacy of the circle of life.
I have always felt this irrational sense of angst, which is why I was so surprised to feel comfort and peace of mind while following Maynard’s story. I realized that maybe I am not truly fearful of death after all and that death may simply make me uncomfortable due to the societal frame in which it’s been cast.
Death has become just another messy and difficult topic to eschew. Maybe Maynard’s story eased my angst because Maynard used her story to invite a more open dialogue about death. Maybe this is exactly what I needed.
If death is so natural and imminent, why do we, as a society, skirt around the topic so delicately? Death is natural; thus, thinking about death must also be natural. Yes, I hope to live a long and prosperous life, but yes, I also think about death.
I wonder how my end will come; I wonder how it will feel. I wonder if it will be in two days or 80 years. I question what my final thoughts will be. I imagine how my family will bid me goodbye. I picture how my body will look with an inactive mind, a still heart and a vacant soul.
I picture my soul floating around in some extra dimension, effortlessly and boundlessly drifting along, gently oscillating airwaves, and then, it seems so natural. Then, I am suddenly no longer afraid.
Yet, we treat the topic of death as if discussing it is the same as daring it to loom closer. We consider the act of verbalizing our thoughts of death to be too morbid or too discomforting or too daunting. We use a thousand words and phrases in place of the word “died” in favor of safer terminology like “passed,” “moved on” or “departed.”
We talk about sex, another integral component of nature, nonstop, yet we skate around death as though we’re trying to convince ourselves it’s not among the most basic parts of the circle of life.
Maynard’s story has helped me realize that the more I am able to openly and honestly discuss death, the more comfortable I will feel with the idea of such a demise.
As Maynard proved, perhaps there really isn’t anything to fear about death; perhaps the anxiety is instead rooted in the social customs that seem to discourage the outward, explicit conversations that surround death. Perhaps my friend C is right and there is no logical reason to be scared of death.
Perhaps the only reason C is not afraid of death and I am is because she learned to grapple with the topic and I have not.
I again heard these fearless sentiments toward death while I studied abroad this past spring. One night, as some of my new friends and I relaxed at a local bar for karaoke night, “Bohemian Rhapsody” came on. My friend Joe randomly commented on the lyrics, again making me toy with the topic of death.
After the line, “I don’t want to die; sometimes I wish I’d never been born at all,” Joe nonchalantly remarked,
That’s pretty powerful how he doesn’t want to die, but he’s bold enough to admit he’s thought of death. Why fear death?
As Joe so casually pointed out, it’s powerful to open up the dialogue surrounding death, despite society’s perpetuation of the “inappropriate” stigma surrounding the subject.
While we may take many lessons from Maynard’s story and the choices she made in her final months of life, let us not forget one of her most important and courageous decisions of all: her choice to open the conversation surrounding death and break the stigma typically associated with discussing it so openly and honestly.
Last month, I received word that Joe tragically died in a car accident. In the days following, I had some of my first completely open and uncensored conversations about death. I knew Joe did not fear death, so while I cried for him, I did not fear for him.
I am not afraid for Joe, nor for C, nor for Brittany Maynard. And suddenly, I am no longer afraid for me.