How I Developed Thanatophobia
“Put differently, short term death anxiety forces a pushing of death thoughts out of one’s mind, but it actually increases death anxiety over time.” – Nathan Heflick, Ph.D.
The day my grandma died was one of the saddest days of my existence. We were inseparable. We even shared the same room until I was 12! I remember I used to pray that half of my life be added to hers, so she’d live longer. I was still a baby when my mom and dad got divorced. My mom had to work elsewhere, so she had to leave me with my grandma.
I remember she used to tell me about heaven, and how we’re all going to go up there one day if we live righteously. She was so calm as if she wasn’t scared, but I was. I was scared to lose her! I would imagine every night how we were going to die together, but I prayed that we wouldn’t get sick, because I don’t want to see her suffer, and I don’t want to suffer either. So I would imagine us holding hands climbing up white glowing stairs all the way to heaven.
Time passed, and my world got bigger. I started to have friends. I had a boyfriend. I was 17 then, and I finally had a life of my own. I was always out, and I seldom had time to spend with her. She got old and one day got sick. I don’t know what had gotten into me, but I wasn’t scared at all. I thought she’d get better. I was too occupied with everything that was going on in my life. That time, I found out I was pregnant, and I was terrified! I didn’t know what to do. My boyfriend and I were not ready, and we both wanted to give “it” up.
One night, we were fighting outside the house when we heard a scream from the inside. It was my aunt! She screamed so loudly, “Mom! My mom’s gone!” We were stunned. I rushed into the house to see her lifeless body on her bed. “This isn’t happening. She can’t be gone. This can’t be possible!” Those were the thoughts I had in my head as I was looking at her shocked. I was waiting for her chest to rise again. I wasn’t even crying. I was just waiting for her to open her eyes, but she never did. She was really gone!
Deborah Khoshaba Psy.D. says, “Anxiety is physiological. But, it can be lessened or worsened by the ways that you cope with it. Thus, psychotherapy for anxiety disorders is needed.”
My mom who was away had to come home. She had to look after me when my grandma died. Little did she know that she’s going to be a grandma herself. Having had a baby that time made me cope up with my loss easier. I had someone new in my life, someone else I love more than anyone in this world. I love my son so much that at night I pray silently, “I pray that you didn’t have to get the half of my life to let my grandma live 92 because I want to live long. I want to see my son have a child of his own someday.”
Time went by, and I still miss my grandma. I wish she had met my little boy, but life had to move on. We lived with my mom because she was alone. But if you ask me, I think she would prefer to be alone than have us around. She wasn’t the mother like my grandma. She loved makeup, and she loved attention. Though I have to admit, she was absolutely beautiful! She would always go out with her friends and seemed to be enjoying her life like she never had me. There was a part of me who missed her, but there was also a part of me who hated her. We would always argue, and she couldn’t handle me. One time I overheard her say, “Mom, I wish you’re here. How can she be this hard?” At that time, I remember I wanted to hug her and say, “I’m sorry,” but I didn’t.
Me, my son and his dad moved to a farther place to live separately from my mom. At last, I’m going to be in charge. I can be the mother I should be without someone telling me to do this and that. But I never knew it was going to be that exhausting! I only knew a thing or two, and I would need to call my mom what to do or cook this and that. My relationship with my mom, I have to say, got better. We became closer as I was discovering about myself too.
My son was two weeks shy of turning one. I was busy preparing for his party when I got very ill. I went to the doctor, and I was shocked. She said I was six weeks pregnant! I couldn’t believe it. I came home speechless. I didn’t know what to think. I was in no position to act scared because it wasn’t my first time. I was sitting at the dining seat when my phone rang. It was my aunt from back home. “Hello?” Then her voice was trembling while she was saying, “Your mom. She had a stroke, and she’s in a coma.”
We took the first flight the next morning. When I arrived at the hospital, everyone in the waiting area was looking at me. It’s as if they were waiting for my reaction. Then I entered my mom’s room and saw her. Tubes were all over her. It was horrifying! The memory of my grandma’s lifeless body flashed back so vividly. “This isn’t happening! No, this can’t be happening, again!” Those were the words I was screaming inside of me, but I was just standing right beside her bed, my eyes wide open, and it felt like I was floating. I could hear people from behind talking, but they were speaking alien. I couldn’t understand a word. It’s as if everything around me was moving slowly.
Then I heard a voice behind me, “We were just waiting for you.” It was my aunt. She said she had a ruptured aneurysm, and they couldn’t save her anymore. That machine is the only thing that’s keeping her alive.” She said we needed to decide if we’re going to keep the respirator which kept her breathing, or we let her go and put her out of her misery because there’s no chance she’s going to come back. I said I needed time to think. I didn’t have money to sustain her life support, and I wasn’t sure anyone would be generous enough to help me. I went home to our house to change.
When I got back to the hospital, she was not in her room anymore. My aunt said their eldest sister signed the waiver about putting her out of the respirator. Again, I was speechless. I didn’t even get the chance to bid goodbye or tell her I’m going to have another baby, just like what happened to my grandma.
I was in a dark place. I never realized life could be this painful. They were just here, and now, they’re gone. Death indeed isn’t just a word. It is real, and it is certain. Ever since I lost both of the most important women in life, I’ve never been the same. I always fear the inevitable. I fear my own death. “Will it be painful? Will I be able to say goodbye? What If I die tomorrow? What will happen to my kids?” These thoughts were restless, hovering above my head. I can’t stop thinking about them. There were times I would wake up in the middle of the night crying, and I would hug my kids. “I can’t die. They wouldn’t be able to handle it.”
I became so paranoid that even the littlest pain I felt get me so anxious. I would go to a doctor with a minor aching in my ear. I was worried I had throat cancer! That’s the closest I had with all the symptoms I was feeling. I was like a crazy person always searching the internet for any possible sickness I could get and could have. I couldn’t sleep whenever I hear tragic news on TV, especially when it’s about a mom dying on her young kids. I was fearful it could happen to me. It went on for a year, and I was starting to realize that the day my mom died which was a reminder of my grandma’s death was the day a part of me died too.
I isolated myself and lived in darkness. I was living in fear of the future, which I certainly knew what. My husband got so worried because I wasn’t the happy soul who gave light to their lives. I was sad and empty. He decided he had to do something. He forced me to see a psychologist, and I was diagnosed with thanatophobia: the fear of one’s own death. I was referred to a psychiatrist and was prescribed with meds for my anxiety, depression, and sleeping disorders.
Now, I’m starting to get better. Though there will still be times when I would break down, I’m definitely better than I was yesterday. I am attending which helps me cope up with my fear. I am starting to understand that there are things we don’t have a choice but to accept. I can’t live my life thinking I would die because it wouldn’t be living anyway. It is the death of my soul, and it sucks the life out of the people around me. From now on, I have to make a choice, and I choose to live my life without fear but one: the fear of not living the life I’m supposed to be living.
To end, here something from Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW: “The issue of death is very real. Everyone you know will die and every baby that is born tomorrow will eventually die. Anyone who’s ever lived has either died or will die. It is a very deep issue that we all must grapple with.”