Death to Phobia!

Wait–sorry about that. I meant “Phobia of Death.” I get those mixed up sometimes.

Thanatophobia--know about this? It’s a fear named after the Greek god of death: Thanatos.

Thanatos himself wasn’t so bad. He just had a lousy job. I mean, someone had to do it. But while I might be sympathetic to having a job one doesn’t like, I have no desire to meet the guy.
A stone statue of the winged god kneeling in park

Greek God of Death.

When my Grandma Snow died, I stopped being able to breathe properly. I had just had my first miscarriage and wasn’t dealing well with a double whammy of real and true loss. I was only 30 and had not yet experienced Death up close and personal. So, when ole Thanatos swung by, I ceased correctly inhaling oxygen for about three months. “How is that possible?” you cry. “Breathing is involuntary.” True. But doing it correctly isn’t. Trust me.

Over the next ten years, my husband and I lost all of our grandparents, all with whom we were very close. I haven’t had a decent intake of breath for more than a decade. But worse than that was the reality. Mortality had come home to roost, like Poe’s Raven, like a hulking, heavy dragon, like the proverbial shadow it embodies: you don’t see it until it’s there. It’s one thing being 20 and knowing “we all die.” It’s another thing when you realize as an individual type person that “all” includes you. Specifically.

That’s when I learned I also have anxiety.

It’s been more years since all of those epiphanies. I’ve handled several crises since—that happens in the life of a crisis communicator—and I’ve found my ability to play my role and do my job has helped. I don’t feel any better about my prospects, or anyone else’s, for leaving this planet, but I’ve come to learn to manage the expectations.

Yesterday, I came upon a grueling motorcycle accident. It had just happened on the freeway. No emergency responders were on scene. I would have witnessed it first-hand were it not for a semi in front of me. I had to stop, was compelled. If there was something, anything, I could do to assist the injured person crumpled on the side of the road I was prepared to do it—me, and seven other people. Many, many, many more drove on by. Two who stopped, miraculously, thankfully, were volunteer firemen, each on his way someplace else. The rest of us did what we could: called 911, moved our car to block traffic, tried to comfort the eyewitness and her partner. Then the EMTs got there, then the cop, then the flight for life helicopter. And we all lost.

I was desperate to help. I mourn the loss of a person I didn’t even know. I wish more than anything I could comfort the family, let them know their person was not alone those last minutes, that complete strangers wanted to help, would have done anything to make it better. I also wish that I could say I’m better now and I can finally breathe when I come face-to-face with Thanatos. But when what little function I had to offer was over, my usual reaction returned.

I posted my experience on Facebook (a coping mechanism for we extroverts), received a lot of love and many comments about life-changing experiences. Oh, thank God for friends! I am grateful, but have to disagree to some extent. I love my optimism but the realism of my inner Walt Whitman is burning through. The epiphanies are over. The work remains and when it is complete, we either stagger on a little longer or we don’t.

Alas for the ills we cannot cure, the hurts we cannot heal. We can’t stave off death; we can’t change it when it comes. But we don’t have to deal with it alone. Beauty is in community. I’m glad I have one.
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