I found out today that someone I volunteered with at my old church passed away in his sleep last night. He was a really nice guy, even though I didn’t know him well. The especially sad part: he was young, in his early thirties.
I’ve had a phobia of dying early for years, before I was even diagnosed with MS. (This article says phobia of premature death is a common part of MS, even before diagnosis. However, some studies say premature death actually is about two to three times more likely in people with MS, depending on age group. I’m now in the three times as likely age group–how can you know that fact and not feel like a walking time bomb?)
Way to make someone else’s death all about me. I’m uncomfortable with that degree of my own narcissism. But every time I hear of someone else’s premature sudden death, it seems to remind me of my fear.
And in keeping with the theme of using song lyrics as my blog post titles, I have my husband’s gallows humor to thank for that. I was telling him about my friend’s early death and asked how I could cope with the anxiety that brings up for me. His response: “what’s Bono’s line in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” That’s one of our long-running inside jokes because I adore that song, but am horrified by the incredibly culturally insensitive lyrics in a way that I wasn’t as a kid.
But I digress. There’s actually nothing funny at all about someone else’s death, premature or otherwise. It’s such an unsettling thought for me that I have to find a way to lighten the situation so I can cope, and I’m grateful my husband is so good at that.
Still, it also brings up something more difficult: the unpredictability of life. If you believe, as my friend did and fellow former church members do, that you’re going to Heaven to be with Jesus when you die, that softens the blow a little bit. You can say “Heaven needed another angel” or “God’s ways are not our ways to understand.” Comfort yourself and each other with platitudes.
But that doesn’t change the fact that a young guy was here two days ago and now he’s not. He never had a chance to find someone to love and marry. He never got to have a child of his own, which he clearly would have been amazing at raising, given his level of devotion to his young niece.
The fact is that life is often just random and cruel. You can try to comfort yourself with the odds based on the life expectancies of your relatives and your known risk factors, but that ultimately doesn’t offer any guarantees.
I’ve known other people who died young of natural causes when they had no bad family histories and no known risk factors. Just like there are people who are killed in random tragic accidents. When your time is up, that’s it.
While I don’t ultimately believe that Jesus or Heaven are real–I have tried really hard to do so, but just can’t convince myself of it–I do believe that we’re all at peace after we die. No one can really concretely prove what happens after we die, but I don’t honestly believe it’s bad. It’s either something magical or it’s just a peaceful nothingness; neither is anything I fear. I would probably rather not have a heads-up when I’m going to die, anyway.
What makes random untimely deaths so tragic is how they affect those left behind and what it says about the nature of life itself. We all want to think we’ll have the standard 75-85 years on Earth. At age 44, I am at a little more than half the average life expectancy. Based on my grandmothers’ life spans, I have at least 40 more years left. Plenty of time left to do what I want, to feel like I made the most of my time here.
But for whatever reason, I have spent most of the past 8-10 years afraid that I’d die early. Then I got diagnosed with MS. Then I found out that I have a common heart condition that also increases my risk of early death by about double. Of course, those are all just statistical averages. I have no reason to assume that I’ll be in the percentage of people who have the bad outcome of the earlier death.
But I also have no reason to assume I won’t be, either. Life is random and ultimately out of our control.
I could try harder to control my known risk factors, but then I think about people like Bob Harper, who was very high-risk for heart disease due to family history, became a famous fitness trainer and did all the “right” things — and still had a nearly-fatal heart attack at 51.
If I could believe in religion, maybe it would make the randomness easier to accept. But that would require completely changing the way my brain works.
So maybe meditation to calm my brain is the only thing to do in the face of these scary reminders of the brevity and randomness of life.
And maybe I should also consider taking daily SSRI medication for my anxiety, even though it’s never really helped me much before.
And I just need to keep moving ahead, trying to accept each day as it comes, working on the things I want to achieve. While I hope I’ll never reach the point where I feel I’ve achieved everything, I do have to focus more on the good things I’ve already accomplished and experienced. Because that part of it is the only aspect I can control.