I wrote last year about my five fears of dying. They included four familiar ones—fear of pain and fears of letting go of my life and my ego—along with a mysterious one that I could describe only as the fear that when I die “the rest of the universe will end also.” This fear is not severe or continuous—it comes in flashes—but it is recurring and I’ve been trying to understand it better. I don’t know if others have this experience and I haven’t read that they do, but I think I’m probably not alone in feeling irrationally that my death will in some way threaten things or people beyond myself.
These flashes of annihilation come at me seemingly out of nowhere. My gut tightens and there is an instant of blur and panic until I catch something else to think about. The suddenness is like the flash of a frightening memory from childhood or like the imagining of a car crash. The odd thing is that the sudden blankness sometimes includes my surroundings along with me. Maybe it is like being in a completely dark room and losing your sense of where the furniture is, then of which wall is where, and finally losing for a moment even your sense of being in a room.
Sometimes the surroundings that dissolve are everything, the entire universe, in all directions. Sometimes, though, what seems to disappear is just me—that is, my past and the fact that I ever existed. As if there never was a Brock Haussamen. In either case, whether it’s my self or the universe that disappears, the feeling is of a hole, an absence, that is larger than my self. Grim, but brief.
As far as I can figure out this sensation, the basis for it is that my knowledge of both myself and the universe is all packed inside my head, so when the inevitability of death comes at me, my disappearance seems to include the disappearance of all the things I know about.
I’m reminded of children who believe that when they close their eyes, they become invisible. Their loss of vision prompts them to believe that others can’t see them and so their own body has in effect disappeared. In my case, imagining myself dead means imagining I can no longer perceive anything which in turn prompts the eerie sense that everything has disappeared. As adults we trust that the world persists without our keeping an eye on it 24 hours a day. But when we imagine ourselves gone, the trust goes with it and anything else can be sucked into the black hole.
I have strategies now for easing such panicky moments. Sometimes I remind myself of people who have passed away and how steadily, inspite of sadness, those who knew them have carried on. During the last few days, two elderly friends have died. Despite the grief of those who knew them, it is a rock-solid sure thing that our own lives are continuing, for now.
This simple continuity reassures me more than it used to. I breathe easier. A death, no matter how great the loss, does no damage to existence itself. Nor to the chain of life. Every year we are surrounded by the deaths of plants and animals of every description and beyond counting, death on such a scale there might well be reason to fear an apocalypse. Yet none occurs. The world is as full of animation as it is of disintegration, life and death turning together constantly.