Thanatophobia


According to Merriam Webster:
Definition of death
1a : a permanent cessation of all vital functions : the end of life  
  • The cause of death has not been determined.
  • managed to escape death
  • prisoners were put to death
  • death threats
b : an instance of dying  
  • a disease causing many deaths
  • lived there until her death


When I was a young girl, I was afraid of death. Really, truly, indescribably afraid. It consumed me.

I had my first panic attack when I was in third grade. I remember it so vividly. I was sitting with the rest of my third grade class in the area between all the classrooms, which was referred to as “the pod.” We’re having a weird, last-minute assembly, led by My Friend’s Mom, The Nurse. The school has called her in to discuss some strange game that the kids have apparently been playing at lunch called “The Choking Game.” In this game, kids take turns holding their breath as long as possible in an attempt to temporarily lose consciousness. In retrospect, this game sounds incredibly stupid, but to 8-year-old me, it was terrifying.

My Friend’s Mom, The Nurse, stands in front of us at a white board drawing a diagram of an esophagus and explaining all the horrible things that could happen to us if we chose to partake in this game. As she talks about holding one’s breath, I become incredibly conscious of my own breathing. The practice of pulling air in and out of my lungs becomes difficult. The Nurse keeps talking about everything that could go wrong with the game and how we could die if we play it, and suddenly I can’t breathe at all.

That was the first time I ever thought I was dying.


Christians believe in heaven.
Jews believe in the afterlife.
Muslims believe in the continued existence of the soul.
Buddhists believe in samsara, a continuous cycle of life and death until one reaches enlightenment.
Hindus believe in reincarnation.
Atheists do not believe in an afterlife.
I still do not know what I believe. 


Looking back, third grade was a pretty bad year for me. I had another terrible panic attack that year, again in that damn pod.

They packed all of us third graders in there one day for a movie, which in theory sounds like a pretty great elementary school day. And it was, for a while. 

The movie we watched that day was the animated classic Charlotte’s Web, which, being named Charlotte, I had probably seen a million times before. That movie/book was practically my elementary school claim to fame. In fact, when they turned the movie on, I’m pretty sure everyone in my class turned and looked at me. Maybe that’s why I thought Charlotte the Spider and I were one in the same. I don’t know. What I do know is that halfway through the movie, I had convinced myself that the moment Charlotte the Spider died onscreen I was also going to die. I had not yet been diagnosed with OCD and could not differentiate between my rational and irrational thoughts.

I was a good student, the kind that never got in trouble and that all the teachers loved. But in that moment, I knew I had to leave that pod. I remember frantically debating in my head what would happen if I ran out of the room to go to the bathroom–or anywhere else for that matter. Would a teacher yell at me? Would I be forced to stay? Would I get in trouble? These thoughts only made me panic more. I couldn’t breathe, and Charlotte the Spider’s onscreen death was quickly approaching. My time was running out. 

So I did it. I sprinted to the bathroom.

I was relieved when I made it to that dark, dingy bathroom. The walls were covered in grimy green tiles, and the entire bathroom reeked of disinfectant. Still, in that moment, that bathroom was the best safe haven I ever could have asked for. I stared at myself in the mirror until I felt my breathing return to normal.

It all ended up being pretty anticlimactic, as I returned and no one had even noticed I was gone, but I felt like I had only narrowly escaped death that day.


When I am in high school, I encounter an actual death for the first time. It’s senior year, a week before we are all set to graduate, when a boy from my class dies in a car accident.

I am working at an event, taking pictures for a children’s soccer team when my friend (and future college roommate) Roselyn breaks the news to me: “Garrett died.”

I am in shock.

I had an English class with Garrett only two years before. We weren’t close by any means, but he was kind and funny, and when I learn about his death I feel like I have been punched in the stomach. Garrett was unusual. He was the rare kind of popular kid that was nice to everyone and made every person around him feel included.

Garrett’s friends arrange an impromptu memorial service for him in our high school’s senior parking lot. A parking lot that he had parked his car in only a day before. His closest friends stand on the flatbed of someone’s truck, sharing their favorite memories of him. While one of them speaks, a shooting star passes overhead. I swear it is a sign from Garrett.

Everyone in the crowd holds a candle, and friends hold sobbing friends in their arms. Garrett’s good friend, The Boy From My English Class, steps up to speak next. The Boy From My English Class has sat next to me all year and I have never seen him without his signature goofy grin on his face. Seeing him cry is unsettling. Suddenly I am crying too, clutching the hand of one of my good friends.

Life doesn’t stop, and eventually our entire class graduates, including Garrett. His older sister accepts the diploma on his behalf.

Sometimes I still think about Garrett. He was supposed to go to the same college as me. Sometimes I wonder how he would have been doing or if we would have had any classes together.

As I write this, I have several tabs open on my browser. I take turns writing and scrolling through Twitter (a terrible habit). And then I see it.

There’s an application on Twitter that counts followers and automatically posts from a person’s account every once and a while. Whenever it posts from Garrett’s account, my heart skips a beat. It’s incredibly haunting to see a tweet from someone who has died, but I can’t bring myself to unfollow him because, well, who unfollows the dead?

Garrett has not posted anything else in about three years now. His icon is a picture from one of his senior portraits. The application occasionally posts for him, while he remains standing there, frozen in time, forever a high school senior. 


How is it that a girl who spent her entire youth fearing death would later become a girl that constantly battled suicidal thoughts? It makes me feel guilty sometimes. It’s not that I want to feel this way; I don’t. Still, after everything that little girl went through, it sometimes feels like I am betraying her when depression gets the best of me and I consider–just for a second–swallowing an entire bottle of pills.

Then again, maybe I can’t blame myself. Maybe it runs in our family.

My father has a long, jagged scar on his chest. When I was a precocious 7-year-old, I asked him what it was and pouted when he said, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” I always had to know everything. I hated not knowing secrets. I still do.

A few years later, my father sits me down and divulges his secrets. One of them is that he attempted suicide before I was born. In a delusional manic episode, he stabbed himself in the chest. Thankfully, he had pretty poor aim and only punctured a lung.

I cry for him that day.

I will later cry tears for both of us when I start having similar thoughts as a teenager.


Funeral rituals from around the world:
  • In South Korea, bodies are often cremated and pressed into beads.
  • In Madagascar, the Malagasy people practice “The Turning of the Bones,” in which they dig up, spruce up, then re-bury the bones of loved ones every few years.
  • In the Phillipines, coffins are hung on mountainsides so the dead are closer to the sky.
I find these burial traditions on a website called Everplans. In the midst of my reading, a window pops up that asks me if I am thinking about my plans. To the right, there is an ad that reads “Leave a legacy, not a mess. Get things organized for your family.” I find this website equally hilarious and terrifying.


A day after my 20th birthday, I learn that my childhood friend Charlotte has been murdered. A boy from her high school had broken into her home with a gun the night before. Her mother (My Friend’s Mom, The Nurse) was shot too, but survived.

Charlotte’s death hits me hard. She was one of the few genuinely good, pure people in this world. She volunteered with the elderly on the weekends and spent her free time with animals. She made sure no one ever felt alone and stood up for what was right.

At her funeral service, I hold my sister’s hand extra tight. She had sat next to Charlotte on the bus only a few days before, a bus they rode with the boy that would become Charlotte’s murderer.

I think back to my two most vivid death-related panic attacks from my childhood. One involved Charlotte’s mother. The other involved the name Charlotte. It almost feels like a sick, twisted premonition.


When I was younger, I constantly feared that I had caught very obscure fatal diseases. It was completely ridiculous and unrealistic, but the fear was constant and very intrusive.

A list of some diseases that I thought I had acquired at some time or another:
  • Black Death/Bubonic Plague
  • Scarlet Fever
  • Yellow Fever
  • Cholera
  • Tuberculosis
Looking back, I definitely read too much as a kid, and probably about things that I shouldn’t have. What kind of 9-year-old even knows what Yellow Fever is? Why couldn’t I have played Pokémon or jump-roped instead of worrying whether or not I had Tuberculosis?


“To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”     
-Socrates

As a kid, I had a strange obsession with the sinking of the Titanic. I found it fascinating that something could be so beautiful yet so fragile. Everyone thought the Titanic was invincible, but nothing is, really. 

I loved the pictures of the ship, the elaborate, old-fashioned décor, the women in their intricate dresses, and the men with their fancy mustaches and suits. I also liked how the Titanic was the most haunting story I had ever heard. It was so tragic, yet romantic. Or at least that’s the way all the books I read made it sound. Years later I would realize that there’s nothing romantic about drowning to death or one’s organs shutting down from freezing temperatures.

Before writing this, I have just finished listening to a podcast about conspiracy theories. The most recent episode is all about death. I guess I am still intrigued by the macabre. Even though these subjects scare me most of the time, I still like learning about them. I guess old habits die hard.


While googling the word “death,” I find this article on Wikipedia: 
Death anxiety is anxiety which is caused by thoughts of death. One source defines death anxiety as a "feeling of dread, apprehension or solicitude (anxiety) when one thinks of the process of dying, or ceasing to 'be'". It is also referred to as thanatophobia (fear of death)…”

In all my life, I had never heard this term before. Thanatophobia. I always knew that other people feared death too, but a wave of relief comes over me when I see that it has a name. Thanatophobia. I wish I could show this article to my younger self.


I recently spent an afternoon with my grandmother, sitting and watching old TV shows. I originally intended for this entire piece to be about her, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it. Not yet. 

My family is visiting my grandma in Ohio for her 90th birthday. My grandparents lived near me my whole life, but recently moved to Cincinnati to live with my Aunt and Uncle following my grandma’s stroke. 

My sister is making pasta when my grandma tries to get her attention. She can’t remember my sister’s name.

“It’s Audrey,” I say with a smile, trying my best to hold back tears.

It wasn’t always like this. 

Still, even in her deteriorated state, my grandma is a firecracker. She cracks jokes and always asks for a second slice of pie. I see myself in her.

Before we got to Ohio, my mom told us that it might be the last time we would see my grandma. I am still trying to accept this. I always pictured all of my grandparents at my college graduation, as guests at my wedding, meeting my children.

While watching M*A*S*H with my grandma, she turns to me and says that we should come visit in the summer. I instantly think of something that my mother said to me the night before. We’ll be lucky if she makes it to the spring. I think it’s strange, measuring time in seasons like this. I usually love spring, but this year I dread its arrival. Despite my hatred of the cold, I would gladly accept an unending winter if it meant that things could be different.


The first tattoo I ever got was of lyrics from a song by The Smiths. The lyrics are on my ribs in slanted cursive. I always knew this would be my first tattoo. I can even remember sitting in Spanish class in high school scrawling the lyrics into my journal.

And if a double-decker bus crashes into us
To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die
And if a ten-tonne truck kills the both of us
To die by your side
Well the pleasure, the privilege is mine

The song ends by repeating the line “There is a light that never goes out.” That’s what I have tattooed on my side. I always took it to mean that even when we die, our light shines on. I’m not sure if that’s what Morrissey and Johnny Marr intended when they wrote it, but that’s how I’ve always interpreted it, and it’s the reason that I had it tattooed.

I spent so many years fearing death and then so many more years wishing I would die. I’ve been fascinated by death, and I’ve loathed it. I don’t know what I believe, but I do believe this:

There is a light that never goes out. 





By Charlotte Smith

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