Dealing with death

From How do you personally come to terms with “having to close the book before it reaches the climax”?

For anyone who’s confused, that’s a line I use in a post earlier today for describing death.

And to be honest, I don’t have a very satisfying answer. I just kind of… don’t think about it.

That doesn’t seem like a good method, but it’s the best one I have. Obsessing over death can be paralyzing, and I used to fret about it way too much when I was younger. But one of my mantra’s in life is “Don’t worry about anything that may happen that you have absolutely no control over,” and I’ve learned to apply that to the issue of death as well.

Since I’ve done that, I’ve been significantly happier. It just does not help to stress about the inevitable. I will die. You will die. We can take actions to increase the probability of that happening when we’re much older, but we can’t achieve immortality (at least not yet). Wasting the precious time we do have on our planet worrying about the inevitable seems like a shame to me.

People often give atheists a hard time, saying that our outlook on life is bleak because we think this way. They say even if we enjoy life and aren’t all committing mass suicide, the lack of an afterlife is just too dreary for them to ever be an atheist. There may be many good arguments against religion, but that comfort alone is enough for them to believe.

To an extent, I think they’re right. Certain ideas about the afterlife are very heartwarming. Like I said before, I’d much prefer reincarnation over ceasing to exist. Even heaven would be nice. That’s an area I think atheists really need to work on if we’re to deal with our growing numbers, and keep them growing. We need psychologists, philosophers, poets, artists – whoever – to come up with equally comforting but true messages about atheism.

But to be honest, I was much more depressed, worried, and stressed about death when I was an agnostic and deist. Basing my philosophy on unknowns just led to constant pondering – no, obsessing about death. I’m not saying all agnostics and deists are this way, but it just did not work for me. “Nothing happens when you die” was a much more comforting message to me than “You have no idea what happens when you die, so constantly freak out about which outcome is actually right.”

Thinking about death still makes me a bit melancholy. I’ve been lucky to not lose anyone extremely close to me yet, and I do worry about how I’ll handle it when it happens. The Flaming Lips have a line that goes, “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” It still gets to me whenever I hear that song because, well, it’s not exactly a cheery thought. But then I think of some of the religious people (granted, a minority) who are actually happy when people die. Who rejoice when their love ones pass away because they think they’re actually in a better place. Who can’t wait for death themselves. I rather know the truth and appreciate the true loss and sadness of a friend dying. To deny that, to me, is more terrifying than death.

This is post 21 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.


  1. says

    I don’t think about death much myself. It’s inevitable and is a requirement for getting to be alive, so I honestly don’t see any point worrying about it. I sometimes fret about the process of death – like I hope my death is painless, I hope I’m not sick for a long time, that kind of thing, but death itself? Eh. Might as well worry about breathing.

  2. MarcusBailius says

    Death. Hmm. Well, assuming we don’t meet a tall chap, bit thin, carrying a scythe, then I have to say I am not worried about being dead ultimately at all. The process of actually dying, however, is the thing that I think gives more of us pause.In the long run though, I’m reasonably happy not to have to look forward to eternal, well, anything. I am sure most people who anticipate either eternal heaven or indeed hell, have simply not understood what eternity actually means.It’s a really long time… I mean, really long…!All the best with the continued blogathon. Which won’t be eternal, even if at certain points it might feel that way!

  3. says

    I had that paralyzing, all-consuming existential crisis about a year ago. I’ve labeled myself as a nihilist ever since :)But I’ve found that, even as I stare into the face of death, it only urges me on. Death compels me. I have questions I must have answered, and the idea that I could die before then bothers me.What is light? What is time? Why does time bend and change like a malleable substance? What causes gravity? What is the nature of the universe?When that fear of death comes knocking, I end up studying. Or reading. Or trying to answer those questions myself. Death isn’t nearly as scary to me as the thought that I may die without knowing the answers to those questions.Life is an unimaginably precious gift, and I want to really understand it before I lose it :)

  4. Dae says

    I’ve had a lot of similar thoughts about death to what Jen expressed – it upsets me that I know I won’t get to see what incredibly neat things people come up with after I die. My ways of dealing with it are twofold: first, I ignore it most of the time, as Jen talked about. It doesn’t do me a bit of good to waste my precious time (particularly now, in one of the most dynamic, exciting parts of my life to date!) fretting about how much it sucks to die. Second, I (only half-jokingly) use it as motivation for graduate school and beyond – I want to be able to upload my brain into a computer!

  5. Roki_B says

    I used to be depressed and suicidal when my brain’s chemistry decided to self-fuck itself (thanks genes!) and so I’ve spent more than my fair share ruminating and obsessing about death. Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t mind now, significantly because I won’t mind later! I’m going to be dead, and as Mark Twain put it – I expect it to be much like not yet being born. Not to bother me at all, or be able to know its not bothering me, or to even exist. I do not fear death in an existential sense, I avoid a high risk of death wherever possible to be sure, because it is so set in stone and so assured as the final outcome of my existence that its a bit silly to worry about it. I just work at making the world a better place than when I got here, and it makes knowing I have an end much like the end of a chapter in the book of humankind.The best chapter in the book, mind you.

  6. Big E says

    This discussion occurred over at the Secular Cafe last week. Many of the older posters said they were far more concerned about the aging process than death and pointed out that there were worst things than death. One lady quoted her son which reflected the most common answer, “it’s like saying, how can you enjoy your holiday, knowing it’s going to end?”

  7. Jeff says

    I kind of have to agree with Jen. I don’t think about it. Here’s the thing. I’m fairly secure in my belief in the lack of an afterlife. That being said, I won’t know I’m dead once I die. It’s not like you’re trying to make some big life choice that could either lead to success or failure. It’s like going to sleep. You just don’t wake up. As has been said, I hope that I don’t have a long, painful span of deterioration, but death itself doesn’t really worry me.Things will end and that’s the end of it. I won’t miss life. I think people look it it from the wrong perspective. It’s like asking someone how they would feel in they’d never been born. The simple answer is, they wouldn’t.Don’t get me wrong. If I can avoid death, I most definitely will. As Dae said (half-jokingly), I want to get my brain uploaded into a computer… or better yet, have my consciousness and all of my brainstuffs put into a robot. This is not because of a fear of death though. I don’t want to die because I feel that one lifetime will not be enough time for me to succeed in my quest for knowledge.I don’t think that atheists have a bleak outlook on life. As far as I’m concerned, we atheists should be even more appreciative for the life we have. We aren’t expecting a second chance. I’m not saying run out into the streets and start rioting. But enjoy life. its fun. There is a lot of beauty out in the world and I don’t think you need a sense of the divine to think so. Make the best of what you have, don’t lose all of your time trying to get a cushy set-up in the next life that may not even exist.

  8. says

    I agree about not wasting precious time worrying that it will all be over someday. I was raised to believe in eternal life after we die, and realizing that there’s no evidence for this (about 25 years ago) was a major crisis for me. On the whole, though, I think it’s a good thing. The religion I was raised in tended to downplay normal everyday enjoyment and pleasure in the here and now in favor of a reward in heaven someday, which seems totally backwards to me, seeing as how we have proof that this life exists and none whatsoever that anything else exists. Realizing that my time is finite can be a huge motivator, as others have mentioned; the down side is that it can also be scary and sad to think of the things I’ll never get to do, so I try not to focus on that aspect of it. And actually, after my mother died, the more I tried to imagine what eternal life would actually mean and how it would work (if it existed, which I don’t think it does), the more weird and unsatisfactory it seemed to me.

  9. says

    Gotta disagree with Jen on this one. Everyone has their own path, of course. But I think that ‘don’t think about it’ is a bad path – or at the very least an inferior one, given the alternatives.We can’t ignore death forever. Sooner or later someone we care about is going to die. If we don’t learn how to deal with death, it’ll eventually blindside us and catch us totally unawares.Also: I don’t want to deal with my problems by sticking my head in the sand. Just a general principle.Bringing the awareness of death into your life, leaning into it, accepting it as part of the price of living, and then letting it go… That’s very liberating. It’s also easier said than done. But remember; what one fool can do, another can.None of this makes the general fear go away. Nor should it. A reasonable fear is important in keeping us alive. But it does take away the blind, unreasoning panic, which is a good thing.To quote A C Grayling for what feels like the millionth time today:

    A human lifespan is less than a thousand months long. You need to make some time to think how to live it.

    Much mental stability and insight into the human condition can be gained from the acceptance of death. Its a positive contribution to anyone’s life.

  10. Jeff says

    I don’t think that Jen is saying she ignores death. Maybe she is. I know that I was not implying that we should ignore it. But spending countless hours dwelling on something as inevitable as death is horribly unproductive. And I’m sure it could turn out to be rather detrimental to the mental stability.Perhaps I worded my response poorly. But I think I was essentially talking about having accepted death (in more words).Agreed. Ignoring a problem doesn’t usually help. However, accepting that it is beyond your control and that it will happen is another thing entirely.

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