Dwelling on Death Isn't Neurotic; It's Profoundly Healthy

Contemplating the end of our existence brings sadness--and comfort, too.

Reprinted with permission from the February 2000 issue of Liguorian.

On a warm Sunday afternoon when I was five years old, I went fishing with my grandfather on a small Michigan lake. No one knows just what happened, but my memories are vivid though fragmentary. I can still see my grandfather standing in the boat and feel the icy water climbing slowly up my ankles and legs. Sometimes even now when I'm swimming, I imagine cushions and cans floating in the water and smell the peculiar odor of outboard engine fuel that hovered over the water on that day so long ago.

I woke up in a large, unfamiliar bed, the sheets wrapped so tightly around me that I couldn't move. I heard someone say the word


, and for a moment I thought that I must have died. But I was alive. My grandfather had held me up out of the water and had lifted me onto the top of the capsized boat--my memory of these crucial moments is more of sensations than emotions. My grandfather had died saving my life.

I have often wondered what effect this early experience of death had on me. I sometimes wonder whether the emotional heaviness I often feel, that seems part of my nature, can be traced to that first intimate meeting with death. I also sometimes wonder whether my professional life as a long-time student, a professor, a therapist, and a writer about the soul has roots in this early encounter with death.


Modern life is widely engaged in flight from and denial of death. Some people are preoccupied with thoughts of how they are going to die and with ways in which they might prevent that specific form of death. Some imagine that their death will wear the mask of cancer, others a failed heart. Some business and political leaders seem so far from thoughts of death that they feel no pangs about pouring poisons into our rivers, threatening the life and health of their own children.

Paradoxically, denying death as it appears in daily life is life-threatening in itself. The modern tendency to justify life by working hard makes us busier and less aware of the need for quiet and doing nothing. We look for the fountain of youth in chemicals, genes, and medical procedures rather than in a style of living that is sensitive to death and therefore not self-destructive.

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