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Trying not to think about death

Content warning: death, suicidal ideation

‘I’m worried you’re planning your own death’ my care coordinator says, looking up from the piece of paper she has balanced on her knees. She’s been scribbling on it for the last half an hour, stopping occasionally to ask me questions. We’re sat in a strange half-finished room in the Community Mental Health Team building that feels more like a large cupboard. My care coordinator calls this ‘the Christmas room’. In the corner are five or six cardboard boxes, half closed, with tinsel and Christmas decorations peeking out, a forlorn plastic Christmas tree balanced precariously on top of the pile.

‘No’ I say. ‘I can’t stop thinking about death, I don’t want to be dead, I’m terrified of dying’ I say, taking a deep breath, trying to contain the rising sense of panic in my chest.

‘I see’ she says slowly and as she carries on writing I can tell that she doesn’t see at all. She has a colourful hair scarf tied in her hair and is wearing a flowery summer skirt and she seems so far from death that I can’t think of anything else to say to try to explain. I sit for the rest of the appointment in near silence, nodding as she talks about crisis safety planning and distraction techniques and emotional coping skills until the appointment ends and it’s time for me to go back out into the world.


I sit for hours in the park staring blankly at families with small children in swimsuits playing in the splash pool. There’s a boating lake in the park, pedalos and rowing boats drift slowly across the water. A woman walks past pushing a buggy with a sun parasol attached. She’s wearing yellow flip flops and I’m preoccupied with these flip flops. Days later I still think about them. Why did she choose yellow? Did they go with a particular outfit? Where did she buy them from? Were they made in a factory? What were the working conditions like? Did a machine cut out the rubber soles? Who maintains the machine? thoughts go round and round. People walk past gripping ice lollies, dressed in shorts and bikini tops, tan marks on their skin from other days in the sun. The teenage boys running the pedalo boat rentals begin to laugh and sing through the megaphone they use to call the boats in, vague snatches of melody float across the water, a muffled distorted chorus indecipherable on the breeze. A group of people sat by the boating lake cheer and sing along. I think how at some point in the not too distant future all of these people will be dead and no one will remember this afternoon and maybe a future generation of humans taught by an A.I robot will study what a pedalo was in a history textbook, except it won’t be from a textbook because there won’t be any paper because there won’t be any trees and information will probably be uploaded directly into people’s consciousness, if we haven’t all been wiped out by climate crisis by then. I can feel tears coming and I reach into my bag to find my sunglasses to hide my face from the people walking past.


A woman serves me in a coffee shop, she has rainbow coloured hair, thick streaks of pink and blue. The loud whirring of the ice machine means I have to repeat my order twice. I haven’t spoken to anyone all day and my voice sounds strange. I watch her pressing the buttons on the till and look at the vivid shades of her hair and her sharp cheek bones. I imagine her skull under her skin and think how all skulls look the same in photographs, slightly cartoonish. It seems strange that faces are so different. I’m distracted staring at her so when she asks whether I want to drink in or takeaway I say takeaway even though I had planned on sitting in this coffee shop to pass an hour before I go home to sit in my rented room. I pick up my drink from the end of the counter, walk out and stop outside the coffee shop under the harsh lights of the shopping mall. Clutch my plastic cup as people make space to flow around me, holding tightly to their bags of shopping and their mobile phones and their sense of purpose in the world and I’m not sure how to move on from this spot but eventually I do.


Flicking through the news late at night, an elderly film star has died, there’s a youthful looking black and white photo of him next to a short Wikipedia style article listing the films he starred in. I wonder how many people have died this week. I wonder why the news is not filled with this story. It feels like the headlines should all be uniformly declaring, ‘This many people are missing, unconscious, unresponsive WHERE HAVE THEY ALL GONE’ that death should be the front-page headline of every paper every day and everyone should be putting all their efforts into finding out what happens, instead of talking about the ongoing political leadership debacle and the likelihood of a summer hosepipe ban and who will be the latest recipient of an international music prize.

In the evenings I sit with my headphones on and browse YouTube for videos about dying and the afterlife. Most of them have photographs of beautiful sunsets or calming cloudscapes in the background. A narrator with a soothing voice talks about souls as quiet piano music plays. I watch grainy videos of people sharing near death experiences, they describe white lights and being reunited with loving dead relatives, but instead of being comforted I feel a well of terror open in my chest, my breathing becomes shallow and soon I close the browser tab in panic. What happens if there is nothing? What happens if I die and never know that I’m dead? How do I know that I’m not dead already? I put my head in my hands and cry racking sobs that contort my face into a childish grimace. I cry until I feel emptied out and hollow and then I shut my laptop and pick up the packet of medication on my bedside table, press out two small rectangular tablets, gulp them down with a glass of water and turn out the light.

My friend calls me to check in and I tell them I’m much better and that the new meds are kicking in, the delusions are less, and the appointments are helping. All the while I want to ask them if they think about dying and what happens afterwards. I want to ask them whether they’re afraid like I am, and if not, why not. But I don’t, instead I tell them about my new housemates and what Netflix shows I have been watching. After the call ends, I feel unfinished and dissatisfied and think perhaps I will kill myself because the not knowing of death, when it will happen, how it will happen, the idea of watching everyone I love die, the crushing inevitability of it feels utterly intolerable.


I go out for the evening as a distraction, to try to engage with other people and find something normal to do that doesn’t involve thinking about death. We’re stood at the local cricket club under a small marquee listening to a band play. A group of children are kicking a football back and forth and the early evening sun casts long shadows across the grass. The cricket game comes to a close and the men dressed all in white file calmly off the green. My brother’s friend turns to me and says,

‘This is what it’s all about isn’t it?’ Holding a pint glass half full of beer, he gestures, turning to survey the scene. I follow his gaze, looking across at the cricket ground, the people in fold up picnic chairs chatting, the late afternoon sun glinting off the high-rise buildings in the distance, the bright blue sky. I think about what he’s just said, ‘This is what it’s all about’ and for a moment I’m eager, excited even. Has he just let me in on the secret, casually told me the meaning of life, the point of it all? Perhaps if I can replicate moments like this, find a formula or recipe for this exact setting, then I’ll stop feeling so alone and overwhelmed and agitated by thoughts about dying. He continues to stare across the green and I say slowly,

‘Is it?’ he turns back to me and says,

‘What?’ and I say,

‘Life – is this what life is all about?’ he looks confused and then says awkwardly,

‘I just meant; it’s a lovely evening isn’t it.’ I nod, disappointed and realise from his expression that I’ve exposed something strange and inappropriate in myself. We stand there in silence for a while and soon he turns to talk to someone else and I stare into space at the shadows on the grass and wonder how long before I can make an excuse and return home.


2 thoughts on “Trying not to think about death

  1. Whoever you are, you have a talent for writing. I wish I could write like you.

    I hope you don’t believe what you say in the last paragraph, that the response from that other person showed that you’d exposed something strange and inappropriate about yourself. Personally your thoughtful conversation is the only conversations I can truly interact with, rather than the dance that so many other people seem to want to do – I say this, you say that – scripted, meaningless noise-making.

    It’s a pity all of us who feel like you can’t just walk around with a sign saying “I’m miserable and want to talk about it deeply to feel some sort of connection” so we can find all the others who want to sit and actually converse instead of having to feel so alone attempting to make conversation with people who just want to hear the expected, safe replies to their statements.

    Anyway, I hope today is bearable at least 🙂


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