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Brave Talk Bulletin

Death Is Always on My Mind


Nobody had seen the young man for weeks. Now, neighbors were reporting a foul smell emanating from his bedsit. I’d been a police officer long enough to know what that smell meant. But I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.

After breaking down the door and pushing a sofa away, I discovered that the man had hanged himself. I bumped into him.

It wasn’t my first encounter with death, but it was one of the most graphic. The smell stayed on my clothes and my skin for weeks. For a long time, I used to wake up in a cold sweat and see him hanging at the bottom of my bed.

Death was never far away as a police officer, and I cracked under the strain. Psychiatrists diagnosed me with PTSD, and I was medically retired. They told me I was 100% disabled for the rest of my life. Society had written me off as damaged goods.

Despite leaving the police service, death lingered in my mind. Over the years, I’ve grown to know it well.

It’s the happy memories that get me.

I remember I was called to an old people’s home where nurses had found an elderly woman dead in bed. There were no suspicious circumstances, and this was the most straightforward death I ever dealt with.

In many ways, she’d died like we all wish we could. Old, peacefully, and in her bed. But she played on my mind for some time. It wasn’t gory — it was her photos that got me.

In her room were images of her enjoying life. She had family and friends. I find it difficult to deal with the fact that someone can be born, live, have hopes, dreams, and aspirations, and then die. After that, everything comes to an end. Within two or three generations, no one will even know your name. Someone else will live in your house, and your possessions will be gone.

When your name is spoken for the last time, you die a second death.

The old lady showed me that the world keeps on turning. The nurses will go home, discuss it, and then watch their favorite TV show. They’ll change the bed sheets tomorrow, and there will be a new resident by the end of the week.

The deaths which are supposed to be easy.

I thought I’d never have to witness a dead body again. Then, in 2019, my dad died after a long illness. His death was sudden, which brought me some comfort. He was an avid fiction writer who died at his computer, trying to finish his final story.

My mum told me not to look, but I couldn’t help it. I saw him lying on the living room floor of my childhood home. Again, the juxtaposition of life and death hit me. We had 40 years of memories in that room. I used to visit every day, and we’d play chess. When I was younger, we used to play other board games, and he used to race me at Super Mario Kart on the Nintendo. I used to slow down in those races and wait for him so that I could drop a banana skin and watch him skid off the track.

In that living room, he made a miniature forest and painted dozens of characters based on the children’s books he used to write. It was one of my best Christmas presents ever.

That room, full of memories and life, was now a grave for the man who created them. I heard them zip him up in a body bag, and it brushed against the wall as they carried him out. The living room was so quiet, and all I had were memories. I started panicking about whether I could trust them. What if they faded?

We’re told from a young age to expect our parents to die before us. It’s the “natural order of things.” If your child dies first, it’s the worst tragedy imaginable. But parents are supposed to shuffle off this mortal coil naturally. I don’t know about other children, but that thought terrified me.

I reasoned that if my mum and dad lived to an average age, I’d be old myself and able to handle it easier. Well, I’m now 44, and after my dad’s death, I worry about my mum, who is now 72, more than ever. She’s my last anchor to my past and life in general. Life will feel barren and cruel without her. She’s healthy now, but each birthday brings another stab of fear.

My own death.

Mental illness brought me face to face with my mortality. I felt suicidal every day for years. I never acted on it for several reasons:

  • I was scared
  • I couldn’t do it to my loved ones
  • I didn’t have the energy

Depression robbed me of hope that things would ever get better, and when hope dies, it’s hard to keep going. It’s a spiritual evisceration.

I’d seen so much death that it felt easier to think of my own. As I look back, I realize I didn’t want to die. I wanted the pain to end, and as treatment after treatment failed, I became desperate.

What I wanted was to fall asleep for a long time. Unlike other people, sleep was my favorite time. I was waking into a nightmare.

To my eternal gratitude, I recovered. I haven’t felt suicidal in years, and I breathe a sigh of relief that I held on through the storm. But once you’ve felt suicidal, you never forget it. Suicide becomes like a get-out-of-jail-free card in case a disaster occurs in the future.

How I cope with my preoccupation with death.

Thanatophobia is the technical term for being afraid of death. But for me, it’s more complicated than that. I fear my loved ones dying, but I don’t fear my own death. I’m horrified by the terrible deaths I’ve seen, and I don’t ever want to experience that again.

Therapy may be effective in dealing with both the preoccupation with death and the underlying cause. Such conditions are depression, OCD, and anxiety disorders.

While nothing can prevent death, therapy can help you develop a healthier relationship with the inevitable.

I cope daily by reminding myself what a strong person I am. I look back at the things I’ve overcome and tell myself that no matter what happens, I’ll handle it. The thought of my loved ones dying scares me, but it’s ok to be scared. I’ll cope. When the storm of fear comes, I let it wash over me without trying to fight it.

I live a full life. Most of the time, I’m working on something or enjoying some activity. Today, I went out for dinner and then to the cinema. Now, I’m back working on my writing. My mind is too active to dwell on death. By pushing yourself to do things, you step outside your comfort zone, learn new things, and focus on living.

I’m also a practical person. There’s no evidence that death is anything to fear. I remind myself that no one knows what happens when we die — it’s the great unknown. What’s the point in fearing something that WILL happen and that we have no idea about? I can control my habits and do my best to live a long and productive life. The rest is out of my control.

I recommend reading up on Stoicism to focus on what you can control and ignore the rest.

Conclusion.

Death is part of life. For me, it verges on being too much, but I have strategies to cope. These strategies might seem easier said than done, so showing kindness to ourselves is essential. We are suffering existential anxiety, and that’s ok. It’s not a weakness.

What would you tell a child who is worried about the death of his sibling? I assume you wouldn’t berate him. You’d reassure him, acknowledge how scary his fears are, and hug him. You’d tell him nightmares are stories the brain makes up.

Be this compassionate to yourself. Not just when dealing with death but for the rest of your life.


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Brave Talk Bulletin

Former police officer 🚔 | Suicide hotline volunteer 📞 | PTSD survivor 💪 | Helping others navigate tough conversations with empathy and clarity 💬

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