Clare Saumell VanderWeele

essays on living

Why I’m Terrified of Dying

I didn’t expect to be afraid of dying. The terror crept up slowly like the dawn until all of a sudden it was blinding and hung over my day.

When I had planned out my life years ago, it was with youthful ignorance; predictable and familiar.

I did not expect to become a mother who, exhausted and emotional, reaches for cheerios for her kid’s dinner.

I did not expect to be searching for signs of my husband in the soft sleeping face of my son.

I did not expect to be offended by the rows of summer corn, growing tall as if nothing ever happened, as if time had not stopped.

I did not expect the dust to gather on his nightstand.

As the expectations collapsed, I was left with the bitter fear of my own death.

corn field

Fear of Death and Dying

If I died tomorrow…

Who would tell my son the stories that only I knew?

Who would kiss him goodnight?

Who would assure him that he’s never alone?

Who would embrace his curiosity and teach him to question everything?

Who will read him the books I loved in my own childhood?

Who would challenge him lovingly? Prepare him for life? Point him in the right direction?


Besides the guttural fear of dying that fuels our survival instincts, I think there are two main theories behind our fear of death.

I found the first while reading J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, when Dumbledore says: “It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more.”

The second, from Mark Twain, is this: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

Yes: To be scared of dying is to shudder in the fear of the unknown and of not having lived life fully.

Fear of the Messy and Mundane

I’ve written before that I think the quote “live as if you’ll die tomorrow” is misleading. I don’t believe it gives credit to the messy days.

These are the days when it’s all I can do to shower and make sure my kid is fed (even if it’s with cheerios). The days when there are graham cracker crumbs littering my kitchen floor for 3 days straight and laundry sitting forgotten in the dryer since last weekend and milk sitting in the fridge that smells a bit pungent.


When I’m reminded by “motivational” quotes that I should live as if I’m dying, the mundane details, stacking up like cards, make me feel inadequate, guilty, and anxious. And when I have a week’s worth of messy days – or even a whole winter’s worth of them – I feel downright depressed.

Actually, if I’m being honest, it makes me freaking terrified.

What does all this mediocrity of days say about my life if I die tomorrow?

I feel I have so much to give and yet have done nothing. All the mess will disintegrate to dust.

And so yes, my fear of dying is tightly bound to my fear of not having lived fully. I am scared of the dust.

Fear of the Unanswered Questions

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may know how obsessed I am with finding answers. And that most of the questions I have don’t offer definite answers. Only answers found in silence, in faith.

Honestly, though, I don’t think I actually fear the unknown of what happens to us in death. The unknowns I fear the most are the ones I mentioned above – the fear of orphaning my son, not knowing who he will grow up to be without either of his parents. That thought chills me. It makes me sick to my stomach.

And yet somehow, I have to live life and go on always knowing that could be a possibility.

How can we bear it?

I don’t know the answer to that question either. As the Midwest winter slowly turns into spring, I hope I can find a little peace in the green of the earth renewing itself.

Until then, one step at a time.

 Photo Credits

Corn Field photo courtesy of Brian Koprowski

Milk and Cookie photo courtesy of Benjamin Horn

1 Comment

  1. I was also afraid, until I read the Chronicles of Narnia about 20 times. I love my faith, which often waivers, but Something holds me up when I am not holding myself up. I hope you live to a ripe old age because you clearly have much to share. No one worth knowing cares about dust and crumbs. But looking for Chris in Nicholas’ eyes and face… Now that is another matter. I do the same each time you post a picture. And I look for your joy.

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