Death and the Story of Me
When I was little, I thought about death very often. I didn’t immediately understand why, but in retrospect I realize it was born of the general anxiety I wouldn’t discover I had until I was a teenager. I wasn’t afraid of death herself, in imagery or in conversation. Rather, I was obsessed with the absence of someone, of never being able to touch them, smell them or hear their voices again. When I was in eighth grade I was so desperate to get out of class that I decided to tell my teacher that my sister went missing after school, and that I had to step out to call my mom (and hopefully never return). The performance I put on became so real to me, and my emotional reaction to my own tall tale was one of hysteric proportion. Then I thought, what if this were true? What if I somehow manifested the loss of my sister? I had managed to convince myself that she really was missing, and what I thought would be a fun get out of class free pass turned into a mourning session in the bathroom of my middle school for a sister that was not gone, but most likely in the backseat of my mom’s car whining about something. I admit I was probably too old for this sort of behavior, but the strange and specific type of thanatophobia I suffered from was so visible. I didn’t have a fear of death, but a fear of loss, whether it was death or disappearance, and a made up loss at that. Maybe it was more of an abandonment issue that traced back to childhood ::insert “it all started when I was five” here:: but regardless, the pain I invented and burdened myself with was so real, and I had to do something about it.
It wasn’t until high school that I realized my relationship with death went beyond any fear I associated with it. After a suicide attempt gone wrong, I understood that I was totally ok with dying. The idea of my own death somehow brought me comfort. This was mostly born of teenage angst and a recent diagnosis of bipolar II. But my eureka moment came not from staring death in the face and being awarded a second chance, but rather it made me realize that death comes for everyone, whether at your own hand or at the hands of the universe. You are going to go when you are going to go, and that was it; it just wasn’t my time to go. Thus began my slow-growing intimate relationship with death. I became obsessed with it, reading about it in novels both fiction and non, pouring through textbooks and watching choice television shows that explored it in every way. I watched X-files, Forensic Files, Creep Show and Snapped. My fear turned into an unhealthy obsession which hit its peak in college when I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to exploring death in art. I spent endless hours making dioramas and photographing them, desperately trying to find a way to relate them to death, even when it came across as convoluted, pretentious or plain old dumb.
Then my grandmother died, and everything went dark, quiet… everything I thought I knew about death and how to deal with it was snuffed out at the very same second her life was. I had to start from the beginning, and that feat seemed nothing less than impossible. I must admit, I did a terrible job going through the motions of dealing with personal loss, because not unlike being ill-prepared for childbirth despite convincing yourself that you are ready, no one is ever truly prepared to watch the life of their loved one leave their body. I can only assume that it is this moment that has inspired so many amazing people who study death and the afterlife, who have been ushered into this place where death becomes their world. After much deliberation and a haphazard “recovery” (I like to imagine that my fumbles through the theoretical five stages of grief were not unlike an extremely depressing Benny Hill intro) I too was ushered into the need to somehow dedicate my life to understanding and exploring death at an academic level. Eight years later, I have arrived.
In my field of study, I stare death in the eyes everyday. Whether in a book, through the words I write or as skeletal remains in my hands, she is always there. And I am not afraid of her anymore. I feel, with confidence, that we are friends. I am concerned for the day the loss of my loved ones will come; if I was not I would be worried about my mental state. I know this concern exists because I almost lost my mother to cancer. Whenever I held her hand, kissed her forehead, snuggled up beside her waning body, I absorbed her. I thought, if I can bring you into myself, if you leave us, I will still have some of you in me forever. She and I both danced with death in different capacities, but both experiences, despite the lead up, were very much the same. “I am going to die,” we both thought at some point. And yet, here we are with warm, beating hearts. Because of this, I have the tools to meet death if she visits us again. Of course, the fear of my mother coming out of remission still lingers. But the thought doesn’t engulf me anymore. It no longer catapults me into anxiety attacks I can’t control or episodes of depression during which going to the bathroom is impossible (forget brushing your teeth). Because of this shift, I can only conclude that thinking on and working with death everyday has helped me deal with the chemical imbalances that have afflicted me for so long. It has given me a point of meditation and allowed me to truly appreciate everything I have, every experience and the love of those around me who I will hate to lose when their time comes. And that is just the point; your time will come. But when it does, remember that it is not the end. We keep our loved ones alive in story, in song and in memories shared with the ones we still have. It is better to spend your life becoming comfortable with the inevitable than it is to live in fear of the unavoidable.
I hope that the content of this site, whether it is serious, scientific or whimsical, will help you reach a place of comfort with mortality. This is the manifesto. Welcome to Trowel and Bone.