Dirk Knemeyer

On Fearing Death

The last update I made about my children included the anecdote about how I inadvertently led Elena into a conversation about the idea of death, and my hope she would not become obsessed with and fearful of it at a young age, as I did.

So much for that.

Elena has articulated a fear of death a handful of times in the few weeks since our original conversation. Last night, she was up in the middle of the night crying about it. I talked her down from it – emphasizing that her death wouldn’t happen for a very, very, very long time – but within 10 minutes of my returning to bed, she was crying again.

It was all triggered by a balloon.

A week or two ago Elena got a balloon and was thrilled with it. However, as balloons are wont to do, it lost helium overnight and was no longer staying up the next day. Last night, Elena again has a balloon, saw it floating up to the ceiling, and didn’t want it to “die”. While she was somewhat upset by the balloon, she was more upset by seeing the ballon as an analogy for her own death. (As you might imagine, she did not use the word analogy!)

I’m cursed by a variety of things. That’s not a complaint; I’m also blessed by a variety of things. One of my curses is, unless my mind is otherwise engaged, it obsesses on my death. I remember first laying up in the dark and crying at a very young age. I would have said older than Elena’s 3.5ish years but am not really sure. In any event, it is no way to live: I only cured my staying up hours every night in a pit of despair by watching something when going to sleep. Not just watching “something”, but watching something that I both like on one hand and have seen so many times that it bores me. In this way I can settle my mind into it but have little compulsion to “stay awake or else miss anything”. This way, and only this way, I can find sleep. This coping mechanism is much to the chagrin of past lovers and my poor wife who spends as much time sleeping in her own bed as in our shared bed as a consequence.

Where does this morbid fascination come from? My parents did not report similar thoughts; to the best of my knowledge no other relatives suffer in this way. I’ve met people with similar stories but none that need their minds dulled to sleep or else be faced with obsession on their inevitable death. At this point, I must just hope it is a passing moment for my daughter and not a cross-generational pattern that complicates her life as it does mine.

Don’t take this meme to suggest that I am always thinking about death; I’m not. It’s just when the lights are off, when I’m alone with my thoughts, when my always-churning mind retreats away from the daily tracks and rhythm of ordinary thought and into the big unknowns that the hook again takes hold.

As a parent, it is routine that I hope my children fade the negatives and weaknesses that I bring while benefitting from my strengths. In this, too – in a contemplation of death – I must hold out that my daughter won’t someday need to be watching the same Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, or Columbo movie for the 500th time before fading off into a pleasant slumber.

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