“When I die I am never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever coming back.”
As a child, teenager, and adult I have laid anxiety-ridden in bed reciting those words over and over until crying myself to sleep. A feeling of despair would start deep in my belly and rumble its way to my throat and I would sob, uncontrollably. Terrified of dying, I was.
My husband is quite intrigued by the vastness of our universe. He watches documentaries about galaxies, space exploration, black holes, supernovae. On several occasions while watching with him, the same feeling erupted in me and the tears flowed. Right there on the couch, I’ve wept, feeling completely overwhelmed by the content. The idea that the expanse of our universe is seeming immeasurable would elicit the exact same emotion as lying in bed and telling myself that when I die I am never coming back.
I have explored these emotions on several occasions over the years with my homeopathic doctor and my psychologist. We discovered some relation between the fear of death and the concept of living. I began to understand that, for me, the fear of dying was linked to not feeling satisfied in life. I didn’t want to die because I had so many things I needed to do. In short, to conquer the fear of dying I had to focus on how I was living.
A couple of years ago, around the time I was facing this fear, I caught the tail end of an interview on CBC Radio. The journalist was questioning a participant of a Death Café in Toronto who said, “Attending the Death Café made me feel more alive.” Those words rang like church bells in my head. Feeling more alive. Now that was something I could handle a whole lot more of!
When I got home I researched Death Café and was awakened by what I was reading. Founded in England by the late Jon Underwood, it is a social gathering to discuss the taboo topic of death and dying. It is not a grief support group – rather a lively, dynamic, and enjoyable event discussing the concept that we are all living beings and will one day die. As quoted from the website deathcafe.com, its objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’. In addition, the only requirement is to serve cake and tea! Well, that was something I was eager and ready to attend.
A quick search led to the disappointing reality that there were no public events being held where I lived, nor had there ever been. Not being one to stop at the first hurdle, I decided I would just have to organize it myself. I reached out to Jon Underwood who put me in contact with another local woman who had always inquired. Together, we organized Newfoundland and Labrador’s first public Death Café in April 2017.
The experience was incredibly profound. I learned there is a whole death culture; some people are fascinated by the concept of death and don’t fear it at all. I found myself laughing and listening intently to others’ ideas, thoughts, and experiences surrounding death and dying. From ancient burial grounds to being buried in a mushroom suit, from death paraphernalia to the afterlife, nothing was off-limits. Conversation was light at times, heavy at others, philosophical, humorous, thought-provoking – but never scary. We had a deck of cards that each posed a discussion question and the one I chose asked, “Do you consider death to be a friend or an enemy?” For me, death had always been an enemy. It was like I had always been driving a car and seeing death behind me in the rearview mirror. No matter how fast I drove, I could always see it, lurking. However, this event encouraged me to pull over and invite death into the passenger’s seat – to come along for the ride. It wouldn’t be the driver. That’s me. Nonetheless, it would become a witness to my life’s journey and hopefully, one day, a friend.
Fast forward to today, almost two years later and two more Death Cafés under my belt. Death is still in the front seat. We’re becoming pals. I sometimes initiate a conversation about death at dinner parties and with friends. It is always well received and people, indeed, want to talk about it. I still hear those words sometimes….’never, ever, ever, ever, ever, coming back.’ They are less frequent, and rarely result in tears. The anguish weakened by a quietude, there’s an acceptance of my mortality. Very timely and not surprisingly, because life works that way sometimes, a very recent series of conversations with a special person in my life helped me to really dig deeper into the root of my fear of death.
I am currently enrolled in a Life Coaching program. As part of our training, we practice coaching and being coached with our classmates. I addressed my fear of dying with my coach – curious to explore where I was with it and what might surface. Like an onion, my experience with fear has been that peeling off one layer at a time elicits tears, but eventually gets to its core. The work I have done with my coach revealed some long-held core beliefs and exposed their debilitating consequences. At the very root of my fear of death was one word: belonging.
I have always struggled to belong. Trauma and emotional abandonment in my childhood set the stage for a lifetime of not really fitting in. Despite being very social and outgoing and having a large circle of wonderful loving friends, I have always felt like an outsider. I was a part of something, but within it, I was alone. Every friend was always closer to someone else. In a group, there was always someone prettier, smarter, more athletic, taller, nicer, funnier. I was no one’s first. Every single person in my life had someone else they loved more than me. As a result, I have always felt the need to work hard and tirelessly at getting people to love me. If not, the consequences were dire – for love was conditional. If I didn’t work hard enough, if I wasn’t careful, I could lose it.
When I met my husband and his two children, becoming a part of their family unit was incredibly difficult. I felt replaceable. I told myself from the onset that I would leave if I ever became between the kids and their dad. They were a unit; I was expendable. Again, I was a part of something, but on my own. I seemed to feel safer if I had an out, like it wouldn’t hurt as much when it came time to leave if I accepted that I didn’t belong there in the first place.
This sense of going it alone was some sort of defence mechanism to protect me my entire life. It also fuelled my fear of death. Conversations about this fear with my coach led to the realization that I wasn’t necessarily terrified of dying. I was terrified of dying before I mattered. Before I belonged.
The whole universe thing I mentioned earlier? I would get so overwhelmed by that because subconsciously I wondered how the universe could be that expansive without a single place for me in it. Bad enough I couldn’t belong in my family, in my workplace, in my life, on Earth. Now there was the enormity of our entire universe – with galaxies and undiscovered regions – and I didn’t belong. In ALLLLL of that, there was no place for me.
That last sentence weighs heavily on my heart. Life coaching has proved a very valuable gateway for me to emotional freedom. I have worked with my coach to rewrite these false core beliefs that supported these deep-rooted harmful thoughts and resulting detrimental behaviours. Change is a powerful phenomenon. If we tell ourselves something enough times, it becomes our truth. Our new truth.
It is a process. I am listening closely to my thoughts. When I catch myself in the old stuff, I state my new belief with conviction and love:
“I have to work hard for people to love me”
“I love and am loved freely.”
The crux of guilt I carry from my childhood for which I believed I could never be forgiven
“I did the best I could in a terrible situation.”
“I don’t belong”
“I belong right here.”
I am plugging in. I am opening my heart. I am learning to lean on people. I am indulging in vulnerability. I am nurturing the lonely little girl inside me. Instead of needing other people to let me in, I am letting others in. I am allowing how it feels to belong. And my buddy, Death, is supporting me through it all.
“When I die I am never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever coming back”
“When I die I am never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever coming back.
But I will have been here.”