pre-gaming the funeral
November 25, 2017 8:01 PM   Subscribe

Lately I, a 23-year-old, have realized that many people I love are probably going to die before I do. This has caused me a lot of emotional distress. Is it normal to "pre-mourn" deaths?? Or are my symptoms a sign of a deeper problem? How do I deal with it?

So far, I've been lucky enough to not have anyone I'm very close to pass away, and to have good relationships with my family. But I know they'll pass away one day, and I deeply dread each looming death.

For example, I spent a bunch of time crying in the bathroom this Thanksgiving because we were having such a nice warm family lunch, and wouldn't it be a shame when in five years my grandparents aren't around anymore to experience it? and what if one of my siblings dies early? There will always be an empty seat at the table. I was literally having a breakdown because of the abstract idea of looming mortality, even though everything is better than fine.

Yes, I know the standard answer is "tell your loved ones that you appreciate them and spend a lot of time with them." I try to do that as much as I can, as a busy grad student. I send lots of text messages and spend lots of money on plane tickets home for holidays. But I feel like our time together is marred by my intrusive thoughts about this time not being able to last. Which is why I think my feelings could be a symptom of a deeper problem: maybe depression or intrusive thoughts instead of mortality?

Yes, I know a funeral doesn't have to be a mourning of permanent loss, but a celebration of life lived. I, for one, already plan to force my mourners to pregame the hell out of my burial. That doesn't change the fact that one day that person will be permanently gone.

I'm not particularly scared of my death. Yes, I know I've been dead for much longer than I've been alive. But I would feel pretty bad if I died before people I love did. Then they would have to deal with my death.

I feel like I have a particularly intense reaction to anything involving my family; I have a less intense reaction to e.g. realizing that friends and acquaintances will also pass away.

I tried to get some sense of the road to come by reading AskMe questions about mortality, but honestly they either were unrelatable (I'm not particularly scared of my impending death) or hit too hard (e.g. people describing The Year of Magical Thinking) and I couldn't read the screen through a haze of tears, which didn't really help.
posted by glass origami quicksilver robot to Human Relations (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This is definitely a thing you might consider some therapy about. If it gets to the point where you're having trouble functioning, it's a problem. I'm not in any position to say what might be going on, but I think professionals are, and they're very experienced with this sort of thing.
posted by Alensin at 8:13 PM on November 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

I think an increased awareness of this reality around that age is probably kind of normal. It was a little after that age that people I knew did die occasionally. However, spending time crying in the bathroom about is probably not normal and a sign of something more going on.
posted by jojobobo at 8:39 PM on November 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don't think this is a sign of a deeper problem in the sense of abnormal mental health issue. It IS a thing that keeps happening as you get older and it is helpful if you start working on a coping framework to use for the next five to eight decades you're probably going to live.

And being real: it gets a LOT worse in your 30s. That's likely when you'll lose your first serious parental figure, and probably when you or a friend will have a devastating late-term pregnancy or young child loss. In your 40s it'll be friends your age (especially horrifying if they are a parent), mentors, mentees, and children of friends (these will be horrible unnatural deaths and they will torment everyone nearby). That's also when your friends' parents will start to go, both the surprise ones and the long slow ones. You're going to have to saddle up, and it's not going to stop, so you might as well start girding your loins.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:40 PM on November 25, 2017 [29 favorites]

I think most everyone comes to terms with death - or tries to - in various ways throughout life, and at some point it seems more intense and pressing than others. It was something I thought about a lot in my mid-20s; in my 30s I lost my grandparents which was sad and scary but I didn't obsess about death then in the way that I had when it was theoretical.

Spending a lot of time crying the bathroom instead of enjoying what seems like a lovely time with family is outside my frame of reference. To me it seems unusual. If that keeps up, you might want to talk to someone.

Yes, I know a funeral doesn't have to be a mourning of permanent loss, but a celebration of life lived.

I used to like the whole celebration of life thing but now I kind of don't want my feelings about my loss to be labeled as something joyful. I want to be free to mourn and acknowledge the loss and be honest about my sadness, if that's how I feel. However I do love a funeral with a sense of humor and good stories about the deceased.

posted by bunderful at 9:09 PM on November 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

This isn’t meant to be insensitive but until you’ve actually had someone close to you pass away you won’t be able to get a real perspective on how it affects you.

It’s lovely that you make a point to tell the people you care about how much you appreciate them - that’s a great habit to continue. I told my grandmother everything I needed to tell her a few years ago and she’s still kicking at 99.

I agree with the others, therapy would be a good thing for you, not only to gain some insight on your feelings about your family’s mortality (and your own) but also to get some perspective on what having a loved one die actually feels like.
posted by bendy at 9:27 PM on November 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Have you suffered some other kind of deep loss or stunted grief process when you were younger - divorce, absent parent, a pet's death; didn't feel connected or understood? Sometimes that's what you're actually expressing, but using your imagination to find a safer grief object.

In my case, I find myself thinking about loved ones passing when I am stressed at work. It's like my body needs a good cry and finds a way to get it out. When I'm not stressed, those thought patterns and tears just don't happen.

So that's what I'd ask myself - do I have unexpressed grief or stress in my life.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:05 PM on November 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

For example, I spent a bunch of time crying in the bathroom this Thanksgiving because we were having such a nice warm family lunch, and wouldn't it be a shame when

I'm not your therapist. I've never really been to a therapist. But I saw a movie way back when (can't even remember the name) wherein the lead character, a troubled young man living with all kinds of chaos in his life, suddenly realized that his biggest problem wasn't any of the chaos in particular, but the cumulative fact that his fear of death had come to exceed his commitment to life. So he made changes, endeavored to focus more on life and the challenge of living it well ... and the death stuff sort of faded away.

I'm not particularly scared of my death.

I think this all still may apply.
posted by philip-random at 10:40 PM on November 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I recommend this thread
posted by janey47 at 11:30 PM on November 25, 2017

Death is a fact of life. We accept (most of) the other facts, why not death? Maybe therapy would help you. Or considering that the old, living with pain and not much to look forward to, might welcome a change of venue.
posted by Cranberry at 11:45 PM on November 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

But I feel like our time together is marred by my intrusive thoughts about this time not being able to last. Which is why I think my feelings could be a symptom of a deeper problem: maybe depression or intrusive thoughts instead of mortality?

Distressing thought-loops are a bloody nuisance. They achieve nothing useful; they just chase their tails and mess with our moods.

There are many techniques for combating them. The most important step, for me, is reminding myself that it's the thought-loop itself, not whatever distressing thing the thought-loop is about, that's the problem currently making me feel awful.

After Dad died, I suffered quite a bit from anticipating the loss of Mum as well (she was already ill with cancer by then). The main way I stopped this from turning into a downward spiral leaving me incapable of functioning was reminding myself that although the grief I was feeling from losing Dad would undoubtedly be compounded after Mum died, there was simply no way to avoid that or head it off or make it better with some kind of preemptive strike of extra grieving now.

Losing Mum was going to suck, and that was unavoidable, but there's a right time to mourn the loss of a parent and a wrong time, and the right time is after they've died. Beforehand, the thing to do is enjoy their company for as much time as life will let you.

Death - your own, and that of people you love - is pretty much the canonical example of a thing that will not change and therefore just has to be accepted instead. Every alive thing will die. That's not sad, in and of itself; it's just how life works.

Sadness after a death comes from missing the person who used to exist and doesn't any more. And this is going to mow you down like a truck for a while. It's bad. It's not a blow you can soften by practising being miserable beforehand. I can tell you from personal experience that that doesn't make it better, it just makes you miserable for longer.

It's just a fact is that every single person you know is going to die, there's not a single thing you can do to alter that, and that this is and always has been true for everybody. If it were legitimate cause for misery then every person in the entire history of ever would have had no option but to spend their entire life miserable.
posted by flabdablet at 11:53 PM on November 25, 2017 [10 favorites]

I think you’re actually mourning your childhood and it might not be a bad idea to look for some support whether formal or informal. It sounds like you don’t want your home nest, so to speak, to change. I say that because you’re having these attacks of grief at the events which sounds less to me like mourning a loss than slowly realizing that things change.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:28 AM on November 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

Went through the same thing at the same age. You kind of fold it into yourself - it’s not like you forget, but it doesn’t distress you so much and you become a better person when you really understand the preciousness of things that do not last. I think there is a certain amount of psychological preparation that is helpful to go through before you are suddenly blindsided by sickness and death of a generation. My dad told me he went through the same thing at that age.
posted by Cygnet at 3:36 AM on November 26, 2017

Sometimes emotions are like the weather. They come and go for cosmic reasons that can't be understood by mortals. And because humans really like to find concrete causes for things, we sometimes tell ourselves that it flooded because God was angry or we are sad because of some specific thing, but sometimes it's just raining today.

For me at least, random sad feelings can come about right after some sort of tension in other aspects of life has been building for a while and then been released. Or even more literally, after a massage! Mostly I just try and experience them like I experience the weather.

Therapists can definitely help to damp down the intrusive thoughts if they are bothering you, or if you are spending so much time with the sadfeels that it's impacting the rest of your life. Sometime, though, your sad brain just wants you to listen to it like you'd listen to a crying child, and say to it "I know you are feeling really awful right now. It's OK to feel like this sometimes, it's good that you are having a cry. I'm here with you".
posted by quacks like a duck at 4:11 AM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Relevant scene from The Good Place (S2; Possible spoilers)
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:45 AM on November 26, 2017

Which is why I think my feelings could be a symptom of a deeper problem: maybe depression or intrusive thoughts instead of mortality?

If this is common and extends to things beyond The Great Looming Knowledge of Mortality, into a mass of thoughts like 'what if my house burns down and my cats are inside?' and 'what if my car runs out of gas on the freeway?' 'am I having a stroke? Y/N' then you might want to look into something greater -- whether generalized anxiety or having a bunch of random thoughts that ultimately amount to 'one neat trick to avoid thinking about my credit card debt' -- in consult with a therapist.

That said, there's a lot of therapy on AskMe and it's not helpful to everyone, or forever. There are a lot of ways to address unmanageable brain noise--it is part of the human condition. Some people like breathing meditation and others like yoga (especially because you don't have to just sit there.) But learning to change the channel on your brain, or, in fact, that there *is* a channel your brain tunes into, is really helpful. (I'm into internal chanting recently; maybe it's cultural appropriation but it's cultural appropriation that kept me from flinging mashed potatoes at anyone during Thanksgiving dinner.)

Medical weed has also been helpful for that-- it has helped me get to a point where I can go 'Oh, shut up, brain. Who cares what you think; all you do is have thoughts all day long'.

To the greater point: it sounds like these feelings (which are not themselves abnormal) are difficult for you to manage and interfering with your ability to enjoy life and whether it's therapy, medication, meditation, marathon training, or spiritual reckoning, it would be good to put these feelings in an appropriate container that you can take out now and then as opposed to feelings that get sprung on you for no reason during an otherwise-happy occasion.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:13 AM on November 26, 2017

I am not your therapist, but I am a therapist with some general thoughts about this:

First of all, 23 is around an age where you are really becoming an adult, where you really have to function and live on your own. That's a big separation from the dependency roles we've assumed up until that stage of life. So, in a sense, thinking about your parents dying is a metaphor for their dying as your real caretakers. It's inevitable that you'd feel more alone and separate now.

You're also at an age where your parents start to look and feel older. They're going into another stage too. And grandparents, of course, are becoming even more frail (not always, but you said "5 years" left, which sounds as if they're ill or failing? Maybe not? well that would be something to look at, then).

The going into the bathroom and crying is painful but also seems to be adaptive for you, in that it's a kind of "facing" reality and not denying it. Statements often made (even in the answers here) like "oh, it's going to happen to all of us" aren't really helpful. They imply, " you shouldn't feel that badly about it. ...crying in the bathroom? WHAT? but it's "reality"! These are "cognitive" approaches -- teaching you you should have different thoughts and feelings from the ones you have. Well, maybe your thoughts and feelings are fine. If they're stopping you from functioning the way you want to, during a significant amount of time, well, you could do something about that (therapy, e.g.), but I wouldn't rush to get "diagnosed."

It does suck that everyone we love is going to die unless we predecease them. It's a "reality" that we're "supposed" to "accept" at a pretty young age, but people "accept" it by doing various sorts of gymnastics that, themselves, diminish our experiences. (or amplify them, if, for example, you think that a belief in heaven adds something to your life; or a belief in accepting "reality" like a "big girl" or boy).

What's implied in the discussion is that you're supposed to feel good, or at least okay. But some things really really suck, and imagining your parents sick and dead is one of them. You can say "cognitively," "realistically," "adult -ing-ly" (not a word, but still, a culture) that, "well it's not happening NOW so get it out of your head and stop ruining your Now," but, you know, few of us are Be Here Now Buddhists, and I bet even some of them get really bummed out at the Thanksgiving family table (for a variety of reasons - sometimes that people they love are dead, and sometimes that they're NOT) (black humor)

But you're not necessarily always "supposed" to feel good. Certainly not around the holidays. (kidding (?))

(however, "if symptoms persist, see your doctor" or your resident meditation instructor.)
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:20 AM on November 26, 2017 [15 favorites]

This isn't a scientific or therapy-based question. It's shmoopy, and I think you MAY be a shmoopy person like me, so here goes.

Hello from the future. I was like you in my early 20s - right down to the sobbing at holidays. I'm 45 now and for a good stretch there have been more funerals than holidays/birthdays going on in my life. The grand parents and great aunts/uncles are gone, I have one aunt left, my friends' parents are starting to pass, and I have peers succumbing to cancer. And oh my gosh the dogs and cats.

"Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow..."

And yes, there are moments when it's like, "Is this going to be the rest of my run? Watching everyone die?" But here's the thing: despite this, the happy moments still persist. The Thanksgiving chairs where Mom Mom and Aunt Dee used to sit? We tried to keep them empty but new significant others, drooly toddlers, and friends/neighbors without a family of their own needed a place to sit, too. If you are fortunate enough to be in a good, warm family (and it looks like you are) , you will continue to knit your happy memories, even though you ran out of that amazing vintage yarn.

It's not always going to be okay, but you are going to be okay.
posted by kimberussell at 6:55 AM on November 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

I went through a similar phase, around age 22-23 (I'm 27 now). I would cry in the shower at the thought of my parents dying one day, etc.

I eventually outgrew it, but looking back it was definitely a manifestation of my then-untreated anxiety disorder, and I wish I had talked to a therapist back then.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:21 AM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm most likely to have those kinds of feelings when I'm not feeling a lot of support in my life from friends/ partners. I panic at the thought of my parents dying because without them, no one else is going to care for me/ stuff my Christmas stockings/ consider it their "job" to do nice things for me.

If that's also the case for you, attempting to build a better community around yourself might help, as may building more independence and an "I got this" self-confidence.
posted by metasarah at 7:28 AM on November 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

This has caused me a lot of emotional distress. Is it normal to "pre-mourn" deaths?? Or are my symptoms a sign of a deeper problem? How do I deal with it?

Within tolerances it's normal. Once it's affecting your life to crying-in-bathroom levels, it's a little outside of the normal range. Which would be fine if it wasn't bothering you but it seems like maybe it is. To me, an anxious person, this sounds like anxiety. You mind is literally placing you in a bad future where people are dead instead of living on your better present where they are still alive. That's not a very kind thing for it to do. This isn't about mortality as much as it's about the intrusive thoughts and this is where your monkey mind has decided to root you.

So, this is a thing that can be addressed and/or managed. The usual suggestions are things like

- make sure your stress levels are as low as is practical, get enough sleep, eat well, try for exercise, etc
- consider mindfulness practice which could be meditation or yoga or other things that help quiet your money mind
- therapy might be useful if you're someone who could do something like that, sometimes talking to a disinterested person who can help you prioritize and compartmentalize is good
- medication has also helped people sort of break the cycle of intrusive thoughts creating more intrusive thoughts. Not a necessary part of this, but helpful for a lot of people

Best of luck working through this, it could be that the stress of the holidays just sort of pushed you to an unpleasant place, but if you're stuck there these may all be ways to help work yourself out of there.
posted by jessamyn at 7:54 AM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

What has helped me deal with these flashes of mortality is Do You Realize? by the Flaming Lips. The lyrics may seem a bit grim at first, but I've found it helps move me to a gentler place of acceptance about the inevitability of death.

Do you realize
That everyone
You know
Will die?

And instead of saying all of your goodbyes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It's hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun don't go down
It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning 'round

posted by obliterati at 10:55 AM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Well, this is the tragedy of the human condition; that we are aware of our mortality and despite it we have to keep on keepin on. I have certainly spent some time crying during happy occasions because of this.

This will make me sound batshit insane, but as a non-religious and non-spiritual person I have convinced myself that in the future we will go through a black hole, maybe an infinite number of times, and I will get to lead my happy life and see my loved ones over and over.
posted by pintapicasso at 3:41 PM on November 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

This isn't a scientific or therapy-based question.

Answer! I meant my answer, not your question. Sorry!

I read and read and reread and STILL miss things.
posted by kimberussell at 3:51 PM on November 26, 2017

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