THANATOPHOBIA AND THE FEAR OF LOSING SOMEONE YOU LOVE
Thanatophobia is an anxiety triggered by constant thoughts of either one’s own death, or a loved one’s demise. When I was a child, I was left alone a great deal of the time, and I can remember having overwhelming feelings about my death that flowed through me in undulating waves. The emotions were often overpowering, but I was able to take some deep breaths, assure myself that my death would not come for a long time, and thusly calm my soul. I believe now that my “death wave feelings” stemmed from abandonment issues that were pervasive in my childhood years.
When I found my soulmate in Peter and met and married him in four months, I knew I had found someone who would cherish, worship, and take care of me for the rest of my life. From the day that we fell in love, my anxiety moved from my own demise, to a dreaded fear of his death. There was no way I could fathom a world without Peter. I would literally have night sweats just imagining my life alone without my protector, partner, and cheerleader at my side.
Well the s*%t hit the fan and Peter died suddenly. Inexplicably, my worst fears were realized. Peter died in my arms and I was suddenly thrust into loneliness. Immediately, the abandonment of my childhood sickeningly rose up out of the previously locked memory chest of worries and hit me right between the eyeballs. Peter had a fear of being rendered incapacitated mentally and physically, and never wanted to be dependent on others. Thank goodness he was spared from that indignity. But I was not spared. I was the one left holding the bag full of emptiness and loneliness. I was the one who had to find a boat, hoist the sail, plot a new course, and begin to navigate unfamiliar waters alone. I normally wouldn’t use a nautical theme but what the heck, it seems plausible in this instance since clearly, I am navigating uncharted waters, and finding new ways and paths towards an altered form of existence. I might add that just looking at a boat makes me seasick, but this is my imagination, so I will take a virtual Dramamine and continue.
I started this essay talking about thanatophobia, an anxiety about death. After Peter died, my anxiety about death inexplicably dissipated. I must admit that right after his death, going on alone seemed such a daunting task that death looked like an easy out. This sentiment is a very common feeling among widows and widowers, but one that is quickly squelched once you realize you have the love of family and friends who want you to stay around a lot longer. But as time went on, and I got used to my life alone, my fear of death hit an all-time low. I mused on this the other day. Was the pain of my loss so great that death might be a relief? Nah, I still have a full life and I have a new purpose in writing about grief. Was it that I believe we would somehow be reunited again? No way. I am not a religious or spiritual person and I don’t believe in an afterlife. When asked if I would see a psychic medium after Peter died, I promptly replied “I’ll see and extra-small!”
I pondered these feelings and explored them further. I realized that I wasn’t leaving Peter in pain so my guilt level plummeted to zero in that department. This seemed more than plausible. It brought me back to Viktor Frankl’s teachings in which he observed that those who were able to survive the horrific experience of a concentration camp during World War II, were more likely to find meaning in their suffering. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, centered on the premise that life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. Frankl felt humans were driven to find a sense of meaning and purpose in life. What I like most about Frankl’s teachings in the face of the worst possible adversity imaginable, is his concept that we have the freedom to find meaning in what we do, what we experience, or at least in the outlook we choose when faced with a situation of unalterable suffering. So, I envisioned a scenario in which I died before Peter and my body shook uncontrollably at the thought of his suffering. My “meaning” is that I spared Peter this agony. Yes, I am paying a price by surviving and grieving but I have found a strange comfort in knowing he didn’t suffer this anguish. This explanation is the clearest I can fully comprehend to clarify my diminished fear of death. That and my advancing years and the daily afflictions that come with age. I call them AOTD, my acronym for” ailments of the day!”
I am trying to find peace in grief which is a constant struggle but one that I will pursue in my quest towards my acceptably different life. Maybe I will end this essay with “shavasana,” the yoga posture that means “corpse pose.” It is typically performed at the end of a yoga session. It is designed to be a calming and relaxing way to rid oneself of all phobias and worries. Sounds like a plan!
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My book about grief THE JOKE’S OVER, YOU CAN COME BACK NOW: How This Widow Plowed Through Grief and Survived is finally up on Amazon. It has been a labor or love and a tribute to my sweet husband Peter who died almost three years ago. It is a book that is not only for widows, but one for those wanting to know what to say to someone in grief.