The expression “in the midst of life we are in death” (from a Gregorian chant that was translated into English as part of the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer) is commonly read at funerals. While we all encounter death throughout our lives, death has figured prominently in my psyche. I’ve been both obsessed with – and terrified of – death. I love Gothic fiction. I’m fascinated by spiritualism. I love old cemeteries. Halloween is my favorite holiday, which I still celebrate. My favorite television series is Six Feet Under.
I’d never really thought about why I hold such a morbid fascination with death. But through journaling and sharing stories, I discovered that I had many encounters with death when I was younger. Although this blog is devoted to my family history, I’d like to share some of my own personal history, as it connects to my family’s history and the broader history of the city and the world in which I grew up and grew into adulthood.
I was born in 1968, a year of great upheaval and violence in the United States. While my childhood felt mostly safe and secure, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in a quiet suburb where I had freedom to play and explore, I suffered from anxiety starting around age 3. I had two significant childhood dreams about death. As I got older, I became afraid of losing my parents (especially my mother), of nuclear annihilation, and of my grandmother’s increasingly dangerous urban neighborhood. When I was a teen and a social outcast in high school, I also suffered from depression, a darkness that felt comfortable.
When I was in junior high school, my best friend’s father became ill with cancer, and he died in 1982, just before my 14th birthday, which was my first exposure to the death of someone I knew. My friend took care of him in their home, as her mother had been institutionalized when she was a child, and her older sister never seemed to be around. Her father was always there in the background, ghostly pale and sick from the treatments. After her father died, I lost my best friend as well, as she went to live with her grandmother in the country. Our friendship continued of course, but it wasn’t the same.
From 1986 to 1988, death came closer to home, while major world events dominated the news. When I was a senior in high school, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt even more distant from my classmates and friends, who talked about parties and boyfriends, so I withdrew further. In the same year, two tragedies were seared into our collective memory – the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986, shortly after my 18th birthday, and the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, shortly before my sister’s 15th birthday.
After my high school graduation in June 1986, I worked as a secretary for an architect who had a small practice in a nearby suburb. I knew nothing about architecture or being a secretary, so I found my job difficult, especially as my boss was quite demanding. My mother was in treatment while I was working there, and I helped take care of her during my lunch breaks or by accompanying her to various medical appointments. When back in the office, I stared at the walls. I later learned that I was experiencing “anticipatory grief” but I didn’t share my feelings with anyone at the time.
In July 1987, a brutal murder occurred two blocks from my grandmother’s house, which became infamous in our small city.
In November 1987, my mother died in the hospital where she spent the last month of her life. In December, a few weeks after her funeral, I became ill with an infection and was hospitalized on the same floor where my mother died.
A year later, in December 1988, our family doctor, who cared for my mother during her illness, and his wife, were murdered by their youngest son. It was another horrific crime that hit the local news. When I heard of the doctor’s death, I assumed he’d been mugged in the neighborhood near his office, which had its share of crime. The reality was much worse.
In the winter of 1990, my uncle died, only a few years after my mother. That summer, my Dad and I took a road trip to Maine to visit his cousins. On the way back, while driving in heavy rain on the New Jersey turnpike, we narrowly escaped a head-on collision. In 1994, soon after my college graduation, I had my first breast cancer scare, when I was only 26 years old. I was terrified and later much relieved when I was informed (after my first “real” surgery, by the same surgeon who operated on my mother) that it was benign. And in 1995, the architect I had worked for when I was just out of high school died of brain cancer. He had encouraged me to go to college, for which I was grateful, but I never got to tell him.
Death invaded my adolescence and early adulthood and left its mark. I just didn’t realize it at the time. Each death or tragedy occurred and I didn’t make any connections or even cope, really. I repressed my feelings. In 1996 or 1997, I started therapy for “stress management,” having no idea that I was depressed until I was diagnosed. As I shared some of my early life experiences, loss was a recurring theme. Many years later, I considered studying thanatology – I figured that if I understood death, it would be easier to let go of my past and my terror about an unknowable future. I never pursued that. My psyche remains preoccupied by dark thoughts of death and dying, and yet, in midlife, I am also drawn towards the light of love, family, and home. I seek balance, so maybe I need both light and dark in my life.