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The vast grey void

I’ve always been a little too acutely aware of my own mortality. As a child, I pondered death quite often. Not dying so much, but death itself. The state of being dead. Forever.

It was the permanence of death that weighed so heavily on me.

I tried to bargain with a God I didn’t believe in.

“I could be dead for a million years,” I’d offer, “but not forever.”

God said nothing back.

I knew what death looked like. I saw it once from the back seat of my mother’s car when I was about four or five. My mother was driving. Her friend Peter was in the passenger seat. Debbie and I were in the back seat.

I was looking out the window, thinking about death, when suddenly it appeared. Death was a vast grey void, a bleak landscape empty except for the skeleton of a single dead tree in the background, a whole lot of nothing, a whole lot of forever.

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t tell the others. Shortly after that, Peter committed suicide. I knew he’d been swallowed by this vast grey void and had become part of the nothingness forever. What I couldn’t understand was why he would willingly walk into that gaping maw of eternity. I was mystified that anyone would choose to do the thing that most terrified me.

While eternity was a disturbing concept to me as a very young child, by the time I was nine or ten, I took some comfort from the realization that we each have two eternities: the one before we are born, and the one after we die. I had already been not alive forever, throughout the beginning-less period of time before I was born. And I would be not alive forever once again, throughout the endless period of time after my death. Two eternities.

It made me feel better knowing I’d already lived through one of them, and it wasn’t so bad. (But a little voice in the back of my head kept reminding me that I’d only been through the easy eternity – the one without end would be much, much worse.)

As a teenager, I was convinced that the human species was going to die all together in a nuclear holocaust. The only question was when. Once again I tried to strike a bargain with a God I didn’t believe in.

“Let me make it to 40,” I said, “And I’ll go willingly after that.”

God, in His infinite and ageless wisdom, didn’t dignify my proposal with a response.

It’s funny, though, because I distinctly remember thinking that life after 40 wouldn’t be worth living anyway. Nobody over 40 looked like they were having any fun. They were just stuck in their stupid ruts, doing their stupid stuff, going to their stupid jobs, buying their stupid lottery tickets and going through the motions of life just for the pleasure of complaining about it.

I was a judgemental little shit, now that I think about it.

Anyway. The years tumbled by and in some ways my concept of mortality didn’t change all that much since I was five years old, although, fortunately, my concept of life after 40 did.

Finding out I had cancer changed everything. I locked eyes, briefly, with my own mortality. I’m going to write about it someday soon.

In the meantime, I’m curious to know how the rest of you thought or felt about death when you were children.

11 comments to The vast grey void

  • As a child, until my family finally gave me up to the Children’s Aid Society (at age 13), I yearned for death. Never fully recovered from that abuse, which is why to this day my life has been about waiting for death. Am beyond suicide, which requires willingness to consider and act on behalf of the self.

  • Joanna

    I do not remember exactly how old I was, six, maybe eight, when I was lying in bed late at night paralyzed by the sudden realization that I will die. I do not remember what triggered this thought – book, movie, death of someone that I knew, but I do remember that moment as clearly as it was today, and the sheer cold sweat horror of it.

    My mom, who is almost 87 now, says that thinking about (her) death would not even occur to her when she was middle age. It simply did not apply to her. I must have gotten my dad’s brooding gene.

    I also remember vividly another moment – nursing one of my twin boys and crying my eyes out. I was thinking: What have I done! I am responsible of condemning them to death, too. I love them so much, yet I have decided for them that the deal is good enough. Now they will have to live with the burden of their mortality, too.

    What really breaks my heart is not that I will be gone forever, but that I will never see them again.

  • I remember the moment I realized what death was. I was a teenager and in a movie theater at a matinee, and I suddenly Got It. In that false darkness, I realized that I wasn’t going to be the only one who got away with not dying.

    I was completely terrified and remained that way for about a year.

    Years and years later, I was on a plane with my mother, flying to Italy. I got nervous, as I always do when flying, and asked her, “aren’t you even a little bit scared?” She said calmly, “Why should I be? No matter what I’ll be okay.”

    I reminded her of that moment last year when she was dying. She changed the way I think about death. I figure it’ll be all right, somehow. I have faith in nothing but the fact that it will all be okay, even if it’s in a way that I can’t understand.

    Pretty wishy-washy philosophy, I realize as I look at it now. But it’s done me right so far. (Good god, the song The Long Journey just came on. Sheesh.)

    love to you. xo

  • I don’t remember thinking about death when I was a child. My mother passed away when I was 20, and now that I am older than she ever was, I think about death a lot. And I find myself involuntarily believing in reincarnation.

  • Oma

    As a child I was terrified of death … especially of the death of my father, my only parent. Now that I am nearly seventy the idea of death no longer frightens me. I don’t want anything to happen to anyone I love … or to me … but I have had a pretty decent go-round and wouldn’t mind a good long sleep if the alternative was pain and disability.

    This post, by the way, was a powerful one.

  • Lo

    WOW ! You write about so many issues that over the years have consumed me, been my fear, been my fascination……Death. Eternity. Infinity. After World.
    I am afraid of the finality of death.
    So I believe that there is something after. There just has to be!
    My parents died when I was 7 years old. They died 3 months apart. My mother was 24 and my dad about to turn 28 (he was buried on his birthday).
    I can’t imagine knowing my days are numbered and trying to ‘fit it all in’ and organizing everything and my words I want to leave behind.
    Growing up VERY Roman Catholic I would often ask our Priest about eternity, infinity and death and their relationship. Was it part of the union like The Father, Son and Holy Spirit I would ask? He would smile and say no. I would plead with him to explain how we have another life after death and how can it be forever. He and many others to follow, would tell me that this concept seemed overwhelming and impossible because I was thinking about it in ‘human’ terms and therefore could not really understand and instead must continue with my faith. Really, back then all I wanted to know is if I would ever see my parents again.
    Now, as a parent I am infinitely aware of life and how precious it is and I am living for 3 so there’s a lot of living to do:) I also feel that life is too short and that everyone should have a ‘bucket list’ and not necessarily as a countdown to death but as a count up to life. Write it down and then there is a chance to actually do it and cross it off and continue down the list.
    I know death is out there and am continually seeking out the positive of this eventual journey. I also feel the urge to live most days like they could be my last. I use china everyday, I drink champagne without a special occasion etc…

  • Dear Zoom: I only lost my fear of death watching my loved one die. As a child, I feared it, as I feared all unknowns. Now I see it as either a transition (and I have been made open-minded about that by various signs and portents that have swung me around, philosophically speaking), or a kind of peace. It holds no terrors for me.

    Death is not to be feared, only the manner of one’s dying. And yet I do want to live; and I want you to live, too. That’s our human condition. Keep fighting. Many win.

    Stay strong. Many are pulling for you. But you’re evidently doing a fine job of pulling for yourself!

  • I was 8 and I said something to my mom, (I don’t remember what) but it caused her to laugh and respond, “No, we all die one day.”

    I had believed that everyone died except for me and my family – I thought we were immortal (not that I knew that word). I thought we were special that way.

  • Nat

    One of the first memories I have is of my mother crying on my father’s shoulder after my grandfather died. He’d died unexpectedly, suddenly and at a relatively young age.(Although at 57, he was a young man when I think about it now.)Death seemed worse for those left behind.

    We were raised Catholic, and drew a lot of comfort (at the time) from being good and going to heaven. It’s a bit more complicated now, I will admit. Oddly, it’s not my death that scares me. It’s the death of those around me. With my grandmother’s recent passing, I think maybe it’s not always a bad thing. I’m not sure I can keep this up for another 100 years. (Another 40 or so is fine…)

  • Julia

    You have a spirit that is something to behold, Susan. At the risk of stating the obvious, I cannot for a moment imagine what you are living. Pain is a debilitating, selfish thief.

    My father died when I was 6 and a half. At the time I imagined him in heaven, off in the happy hunting ground, whatever that was. I was angry and lost. Mostly I felt ripped off. Since then two of my three sisters have taken their leave of this earth. In my darker moments I long to join them.

    I send you healing thoughts.

  • As a child there was great fear of death, a striving to avoid it, and sometimes a wish for it. This is what pain teaches a child and it comes in many forms, most straightforwardly in physical pain, most grievously in loss. A child is closer to what comes before life, and can retreat into the light that is there, and yet in this life a child feels intensely without mediation of thought and most of all without the sense of time that adults possess. This is what I knew from before I could put words to it. Words came at ten or eleven, and the word was nothingness. It was not comforting. It was the grey void. As an adult, there is still fear of death. It is instinctual. Otherwise the pain of life could not be endured and there would be no being. But there is also a wordless communion with light when words can be set aside to sit with peace.