The help desk: 'I have developed a fixation with death - how can I relax and enjoy life?'
'Bereavement counselling could help you to put your fears in proportion'
Q. I'm 34, and I find myself thinking more and more about death. Two years ago, my father died after suffering from dementia. My mother died three years before from cancer. Their last years were miserable. I miss them both every day.
Sometimes it seems that everything I'm doing is pointless because my life is heading for a horrible end. I often lie awake worrying that I've got a brain tumour (a young colleague of mine died of one last year), but even the thought that illness and death are waiting for me in old age sometimes makes me want to give up.
I keep worrying that every symptom or illness I have will turn out to be something fatal. I've got a beautiful young baby and a partner I love and mostly, I'm quite happy, but I'm terrified that my daughter will have to grow up without me. I find that I'm thinking about this more, not less, as time goes by. I want to relax and enjoy life. What can I do?
A. No one could suffer the loss of two people they loved, in just a few years, without being changed. It's not just the two bereavements, but all those years of heart-breaking decline. And, delightful as it is to have your daughter, the profound experience of having a baby makes up for you a sort of existential hat-trick.
My parents died close together, too – a year apart, both from cancer. The first loss quite undoes your world. But the second introduces you to the terrifying truth that bad things are not rationed, and can leave you cowering under the next imagined blow. There's also the sense that, with your parents gone, you've moved up a generational tier in death's pecking order, and that next time it calls, you'll be right in line.
All these feelings are a part of grieving. What should happen is that we eventually manage to accommodate them and return, perhaps a little more philosophical, to some kind of optimism. But for you, the grieving process has become snagged on this fixation, perhaps because you've had to soldier on, caring for your father after losing your mother, and caring for a baby after losing him. This might not seem to be the obvious time to seek bereavement counselling, but it could allow you to go back and properly address your loss, and help to put your fears in proportion. There's no time limit on it, and some people seek help many years after losing someone.
I also wonder whether your feelings are complicated by a bit of postnatal depression/anxiety, since you say they are getting worse rather than better. Have you discussed your fears and your health anxieties with your GP?
You may never achieve obliviousness to the ticking clock, the skull beneath the skin, because no one does. But it shouldn't be stopping you from living your life, just giving it a gentle sort of piquancy. I remember, some time after my second parent died, a sudden, glorious feeling of lightness that spring was coming and this time, no one in my life was dying. It was an illusion, of course: every one of us is dying. But an illusion that's necessary to get us out of bed in the mornings.
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