“I – I’m having a panic attack,” I yelp, suddenly lurching forward.
The time is close to midnight, and Jan and I are watching a crime episode featuring the gruesome murder of a young woman dating back to the 80s. There’s a local tie in somewhere through the show that Jan wants me to see. He snaps off the series, “What is going on?” he asks aloud, encouraging me to breathe through my nose, and exhale through my mouth.
Anxiety, the silent, but steady threat to my daily has been enjoying rearing its ugly mouth several nights in a row. While accustomed to the work it takes to control and manage a panic attack so that it doesn’t last longer than a few minutes, the intensity in which they can overhaul several precious moments of my life is something I’ll never get used to.
We’re getting to the heart of the matter of the sudden influx of panic attacks at night. And we’re manipulating what I’m watching before I fall asleep to prohibit any negative vibes from infiltrating my dreams. But at the core, the theme is the same – I am scared to death of death.
And not of dying. I’m not afraid to drive my car, or ride a rollercoaster, or try incredible, exciting feats. But the infinity of vastness that shrouds the afterlife. When you die, that’s it. That’s all. You won’t have this body, or these thoughts, or those clothes. Or those messages, or these wants. It’s over. And as my brain tries to rationalize these seemingly daunting realizations, my heart rate speeds up, my chest tightens, my breathing becomes laboured, and suddenly I’m lost in the unknown. (“Google, play ‘Into the Unknown’ from the Frozen II soundtrack”)
I remember very clearly a quote from Siddalee in ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’, remarking that “worrying about the afterlife is no way to get through this one”. That phrase rattles around my brain while I’m trying to subdue my panic and fear of making it to the other side. I also bargain with my conscious self by recalling Beth in ‘Little Women’ telling Jo: “I can be brave like you”, referring to summoning Jo’s infinite courage by being the first of the sisters to die. I can be brave.
Jan, as a partner and a best friend, is the anxiety-whisperer. “You’re only 38,” he says gently. “You don’t have to worry about death today, or tonight. You’re so young, you’re so young.”
Why is my heart bleeding with trepidation over shaking this mortal coil? What has bubbled to the surface that was once, at least I assumed, had been under control? I wander off to being a four or five-year-old again, tucked away in her bed. I recall, very vividly, it still being light outside, so it must have been summer, if we had already been sent to sleep. And I remember laying on my back, thinking “how can I be me? How can I be thinking these thoughts? How can I be me in this body?” The infinity of death and the afterlife washed over me, and I found myself calling out to my Dad. He, a very young father, rushing to my room to see what it could be that caused the outburst. He, taking me by the hand to the living room to explain his theory of death, and dying, and how I’ll go to Heaven when it’s over and that’s okay, because Heaven is wonderful, so we get to be here for now, because that’s where we go forever. My adolescent brain accepted this. My adult brain still goes back to that night, and can feel the heat of anxiety that coursed through my veins. It’s the same feeling I’m trying to calm these last few nights.
But why now? My panic about the afterlife is certainly something I’ve always battled. My PTSD is a different beast that causes me fear of reliving a traumatic attack several years ago. But this isn’t about fearing someone is coming after me. This is about fearing what happens after I die.
Thanatophobia is commonly referred to as the fear of death. More specifically, it can be a fear of death or a fear of the dying process. It’s natural for someone to worry about their own health as they age. It’s also common for someone to worry about their friends and family after they’re gone.Healthline
I am very aware I’m not alone.
But I’m also very aware that we’re living in a world where each of us are cloaked in fear. The soundtrack of 2020 is a playlist laced with uncertainty. We’re all facing the stark reality that young people – seemingly healthy young people – are dying from a disease we can’t manage. And we’re afraid of it. We’re afraid of catching COVID-19, and that makes us afraid of the people around us who might have it. And we’re afraid our loved ones will catch it, and we’ll be burying them. And we’re scared of the news, and murder hornets, and feral pigs eating cocaine, and a plague they’ve discovered in Asia, and now we’re just afraid. All of the time. We’re inundated with messages of dying, of celebrity deaths, of government conspiracies. This outbreak- this virus – is far worse than a respiratory disease claiming hundreds of thousands of lives – it is forcing us to face our worst fear – that death comes for each of us.
After intermittent nights of panic attacks, and feeling like I’m losing the battle of stress and family drama that has me up clutching my chest till well past the witching hour, Jan called me yesterday morning and he said: “I bought you a tree.”
When we first stepped out this season in the sunshine, we scaled our property and started planning. What would go where? What could we plant? We called it “investment landscaping” – I wanted to line our driveway with lilac bushes. And in lieu of a fence, I wanted to plant fruit trees to our forest line to decorate our back half, yield delicious food, and give room for pollinators. Big, lofty goals. But I wanted to try a tree at a time.
“I bought you a tree,” he said simply.
I pulled into our driveway after work last night. And Jan met me at the door. “I warmed up some dinner for you,” he smiled. And just as the two of us finished at the dining room table, he told me to change into my gardening clothes, because we were losing daylight.
Jan picked up a blue Spruce, two small lilac bushes, and a Macintosh fruit tree. He pulled out my unused gardening gloves, hoisted his shovel, and took me to our front yard. He asked where I wanted to see the start of our new tree line, and got to work digging holes to plant the trees on our property.
He said: “I wanted to buy you trees, because I wanted you to know you can plant roots with me. This is a symbol that we we’re going to grow, too. And that you don’t have to be afraid, because you’re not alone. We’re going to do this together. Just like these trees.”
Death will come for us all. I’m learning that. But dwelling on what will happen then prevents you from finding the beauty in what’s happening now.
Plant roots. In your heart. In your plans. In your chance to succeed in the life we’re given. Because when death does knock on your door, he shouldn’t get the power to feel like you’d been waiting for him. You were too busy living.
— c ☆