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August 24, 2010

Just recently I’ve increasingly found myself momentarily paralysed by thoughts of death.

To be clear, I’m not talking about hastening my own nor others. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m talking about the scary daytime nightmares which force me to think about what life will be like when those around me are gone or when I’m facing my moment.

Yes, I know. This is quite depressing stuff.

The last time I had these thoughts was during my early childhood. I remember going to bed only to wake up after a nightmare a few hours later. I descended the stairs to my parents in the living room and said, “I really don’t want you to die.”

Just like all good parents, they mixed understanding, reassurance and good humour in equal measure. “Don’t worry,” they replied, “we’ll be here in the morning,” before my mother scooped me up, smiled at my Dad and took me back up to bed.

Thirty-five years later. Those similar thoughts overcome me but this time with a greater voracity. This time it’s difficult to ignore the passage of time. And when those thoughts come – impossible imaginings of what life might be like in the next twenty or thirty years time – intense sadness follows soon after.

The thoughts of my own passing quickly follow. The fear of loneliness is difficult to shake. What will my twilight years be like for example? Given that I won’t have any offspring, will anyone care for me when I’m on my last legs? What if I die alone? How long will it be before my empty shell is discovered? And … What will that moment be like? And what will it be like afterwards?

Clearly, these are not the thoughts one necessarily wants to be having one’s pre-shower toilet visit as I was this morning. Such childlike fear is not the way to start one’s day. There are cats to be fed. RSS readers to plough through. Web page designs to tweak. And future careers in radio presentation to try and make happen. But still I’m amazed at how when the thoughts do happen they can stop me dead in my tracks.

As I showered, I remembered the programme I’d caught on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday No Triumph, No Tragedy – a re-run of a compelling interview given by writer and academic Dr Tony Judt with You and Yours presenter Peter White.

Diagnosed with motor neurone disease, Judt’s interview was recorded only a few weeks before his death and contained much which unexpectedly reassured. The details of how the incurable disease takes hold of the body leaving the mind intact was a cruel reality. And yet Judt also explained how its relentless assault on the body forced him to prepare for the inevitable. All this without being able to move very much in his body without the aid of a carer. It was a reality we could all do with hearing. And whilst the description of the effects of the degenerative disease may have seemed depressing listening over a Sunday lunchtime, it was also inspiring.

Recalling this great piece of radio helped snap me out of my self-imposed doom mongering. Judt was amusing in spite of his suffering. Preparation – facing inevitability – is what we all need to do to a greater or lesser extent.

And then, quite unexpectedly I end up reading the Metro newspaper on my way in to work. In it, Controller of Radio 3 Roger Wright’s features in a 60 second interview. His last question “What would you have played at your funeral?” was unexpectedly amusing too:

“Spanish guitar music because I wouldn’t be there to hear it.”

All good therapy.

The picture above was published via Flickr by user It’s Paul Kelly is used under the terms of the Creative Commons License

  1. In the last 10 years, I’ve watched both my parents die of cancer. Those experiences left me, several times, “paralysed by thoughts of death”. Occasionally, I felt trapped on a roller-coaster that led straight to oblivion.

    But, in the end, I hit what might be described as the “oh, sod it” point. It’s ther,e. We can’t avoid it. We should be aware and let it motivate us to do stuff, rather than paralyse us. But, damn, if that’s not hard when your in that doom-mongering funk.

    Still, I agree with him about Spanish guitar music. Yech.

  2. cyberguycalif permalink

    We may have thought the sames things as you at one time or another. I too will not have children to look after me as I age, I have to brothers and sisters, which means no nieces and nephews to watch over me. There are cousins and their children but they are not obligated to care for me.

    I’ve always known inside that I will die alone, and with health care costs the way they are, who knows if I will be able to go to a nice nursing home for the last years of my life.

    Like you I think what if I die at home alone, who will find me and after how long. All I know is I don’t want to die naked. You don’t look good when your dead and a naked old dead person really doesn’t look good.

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