On Death and Aging

This post is a little depressing, so be forewarned.

I’m twenty-three, just under two months from turning twenty-four. (I haven’t even hit the quarter century mark.) So why am I writing a post on death and aging? I feel like this is usually the arena of someone older or at least, that’s what’s expected. But I’ve always been terrified of death. I know, for many people, its about how they’ll go. But for me, its about what happens after.

Death is universal; it doesn’t care if you’re rich, poor, black, white. It’s also, ironically, the only certainty in life. Nothing about what comes after is certain. Different religions offer different answers: reincarnation or heaven/hell/purgatory. Even the people who have had near-death experiences, or who come back from being clinically dead have differing stories. I wonder about how much of it is tainted by what we’ve been told and how much is the person taking in the world around them. For example, seeing a light. Was it just a paramedic peering into your eyes?

As a kid, I feared that I would not wake up once I went to sleep. And I realized that this is a fear that still lives with me (pun definitely intended). Since around high school, I’ve had trouble either falling or staying asleep. Part of it was my bed and part because I could never shut my brain off. And these troubles did not dissipate in college, it probably got even worse.

A few months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and began Googling, trying to determine why I couldn’t sleep. I had so many questions and theories and, even whhen I began to grow tired again, I didn’t want to put the iPad down. I wanted to answer each and every question. That’s when I realized: I hated leaving tasks unfinished. I worried that, I might never find those answers. Whether it was research or a good book, I realized that, depending on how late it got, my thoughts would turn to the morbid and it became deeper than, for a novel, reading through the next plot twist.

Periodically, my fears of mortality would enter my conscious mind and I would obsess over it. But eventually, I would have to let it go. Obsessing was doing no good. I didn’t have any answers. So I had to let it go. But the thoughts always return.

In the age of pandemics and natural disasters, I’m sure its no surprise to anyone that these thoughts would resurface. Interestingly though, that wasn’t the start of my fears but, I think, a series of unrelated events about a month or so ago.

I had been feeling down before I saw the news of Naya Rivera’s disappearance. When I saw the hashtag trending on Twitter, it was after midnight. And every subsequent time I checked on the search, it was somewhere between the hours of midnight and dawn (the time when my morbid thoughts are most active). It also didn’t help that people kept referencing her Glee cover of The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young”. During the day, random lyrics from the song would pop into my head, and then I would get chills, followed by the familiar ache of anxiety in my chest.During the day, random lyrics from the song would pop into my head, and then I would get chills, followed by the familiar ache of anxiety in my chest.

I then had a conversation with two friends, one was settled into the fact that she would be a lifelong student. But the other had finally settled into her path. Without getting into all of the details, I’ll just say that it requires her being in school for the next ten years (give or take a year).

That led me to thinking about the fact that I’m (finally) almost finished with Hunter. I should be graduating in December. I have tentative plans for graduate school—once I decide between my three potential degree options—but not before I took a nice, long break. After five and a half years of accessibility issues I’m ready bebe finished with Hunter… but not learning. Or rather, not the school setting.

Graduating in four months. It’s exciting. But also scary. Shifting from school, which I’ve been attending for as long as I can remember, to work while many of my friends continue on in education. And then as a sub-concern, many of the ones continuing on with school are all doing noble things: becoming doctors and lawyers and teachers… oh my. I’m graduating with a degree in English and a minor in religion—remember this, it’s relevant later—and while I think stories are important: to use as an escape, to inform, to offer comfort/relatability, it just doesn’t feel as… so many words are going through my head, but none are quite right. Important? Again, I think stories are important. Noble. Feels a little superficial like, do I just want to do the profession because its noble? Maybe its about the tangible knowledge that you’re helping people? You can watch your impact as a lawyer, teacher or doctor.

As an author, I don’t know how my books will sell, its also fantasy. (But then, see above: I think books as an escape are important.) As an editor, I’ll be helping people achieve their dreams but bringing out the best in their novel. So maybe what it comes down to is the hierarchy of helpfulness. (Quick note, if any of my friends told me they were comparing their career choices to another’s, I would tell them not to do that. But it’s a lot easier said than done)

Anyway, so we’ve got me overthinking my career, thinking about school being almost over, hearing about each new natural disaster as the Corona infections and deaths rise, so many celebrities passing in quick succession (even if it was from old age), a young mother drowning in an accident, not being happy with the weight I’ve gained, and an already-existing fear of death… and a recipe for a good state of mind did none of those thoughts make. Oh, I forgot to add my nervousness every time I headed outside, worrying about contracting covid (post on that coming later this week.)

I also started noticing how many times people casually mentioned death in phrases like “I’m dead” (when something’s funny), or “I’m going to kill you” (in playful agitation). Add to that a series of creepy Youtube videos I managed click on, seeming one after the other one night. Are you overwhelmed yet? Because I was.

With so much confusion and uncertainty, I think I began thinking about death because its the only surety. (I didn’t come to that realization on my own, a friend pointed that out.) I also began thinking of how my death might affect the people around me, how my friends would find out. When someone made plans for the future, I couldn’t help thinking, morbidly, if we’re alive to see it. At night, my mom would say things like “see you tomorrow, if life lasts.” And, more recently, my aunt in responding to a message made note of the fact that life is uncertain, and, as it was midnight in the UK, she’d talk to me if God willed it.

In this time, I started thinking about my religious beliefs. Since junior high, I researched religion. I would “pick and choose” the things I liked, loving Wicca for its attention to nature and Christianity and Buddhism for its principles on how to live life. I liked dream catchers because, believing in the supernatural—from my own experiences and that of my friends and family, they brought me comfort while I slept. And all the while I wore my crucifix given to me by a family friend.

The only thing for which I felt certain was that there was a God or some kind of higher being. I agreed with my sister, who was the first person I heard theorize that the universe was too big for coincidence. But beyond that… I didn’t know. And that uncertainty wasn’t helping me right now.

The religion classes and personal research had not led me any closer to an answer. My current course on the Afro-Caribbean religions was actually contributing to my anxiety. That the height of my panic, I had to walk away from a discussion that we were having about sacrifice in Ifa and Santeria. And later, less panicked, but still poignant, the discussion of ancestor worship in Voodoo. Ensuring that you observed your ancestors, and that your children did the same so that they and later you, would continue to be alive through ritual.

I decided that I wanted to talk to the religious people around me. I think my hope was, and still is, that if I could understand where their depth of faith cames from, it could help me find my own. Except, my network consists mostly of Christians (of varying sects), one or two—not too devout—Jewish people and a counselor from my high school who converted to Islam. I also have an atheist or two and a Wiccan. I’ve spoken with the latter folks about their beliefs, and I’m hoping to find more people from more faiths. I reached out to my aunt first. Christianity” the most familiar.

I loved that she wasn’t like: obviously, Jesus is the answer. She actually listened, related. Agreed with my idea to read the Bible and offered to talk through verses with me. (I’m a little wary of Christians, which I was so pleasantly surprised by her response).

I have a tentative plan to read through the other holy books, starting with the Bible—I get to kill two birds with one stone with the Old Testament—and then moving on to the Koran. And hopefully, because of the interconnectedness of the books, it won’t be too daunting. I also think that I might not make it as far as each of the books are pretty freaking long. But this is the tentative plan.

As I began reading (starting with Luke rather than Genesis which is why I never made it through before), I found the stories of Jesus to be kind of interesting. Also, because of a discussion in class (apparently, in Matthew, he starts flipping tables because of the moneychangers), I discovered that he was actually quite radical and not so docile as a lamb comparison might have you believe.

I also found myself sleeping more soundly (if not more continuously, I usually still wake up half way through the night). I think resigning myself to the fact that there’s nothing I can do just before bed has helped. I also realized that, though I found the Bible interesting I’ve begun using it as a security blanket. I have to read a few chapters, even if its right before I go to sleep. I’ve also begun sleeping in my mom’s room. It’s kind of crazy that, even though she drives me bananas, she’s been comforting. Whenever I had sleeping problems as a kid, because of a strange feeling or sleep paralysis (which people sometimes attribute to supernatural causes) she wouldn’t judge me for either coming to sleep with her or swapping places (I used to sleep in the living room of our one bedroom while she and my sister slept in the room).

In the past week, I don’t feel as anxious, but I’m sure its never actually going to go away. People still use words about death too casually for my comfort. And the people in my life all seem to be doing well (for a while, I wondered if my intense feelings were foreshadowing something negative). I also slept in my room one night, and and was fine, but still prefer my mom’s for now.

Well, thanks for reading my thoughts.

Till next time with my post on venturing onto the MTA for the first time in almost five months. (Hint: it was nerve wracking.)

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