What I Think About When I Think About Death

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The typical pregnant woman spends lots of energy imagining what kind of parent she’ll be. How she’ll handle the sleep issues, get her kid to eat foods that are a color other than white, and manage the crazy roller coaster ride of each developmental stage.

When I got pregnant with my son, I was consumed by what I’d leave behind for him when I was no longer alive.

I hadn’t yet shared the happy news with my family and friends and I was already thinking about how my own death would affect my child-to-be. Along with wrapping my head around the idea of a human growing inside me, I became obsessed with making sure we’d confirmed the perfect legal guardian for him in case my husband and I both died unexpectedly; possibly, according to my imagination, at the exact same moment, in some fiery accident while crossing Broadway after getting a slice of pizza.

Of course I was excited to become a mother — to revel in my baby’s newness, collect first haircut clippings and create tiny, 80’s film-inspired Halloween costumes like Duckie from Pretty in Pink and Elliot from E.T. (and wow, did I follow through on this). Like other expectant parents, my husband and I looked forward to building a happy life for him. But even when he still had my round-the-clock company in utero, I was petrified for the moment I’d have to leave my little boy alone.

The thing is, I’m an orphan. I’ve been one since I was 34, when my dad died a few years after my mom (him: heart attack, her: car crash). And like many orphans, it wasn’t really my plan to find myself without both parents at a relatively young age.

I’d thought about death beforehand — I’d lost people I loved. My grandpop, when I was 12. An Israeli friend from a high school summer there, in a fatal air force accident a couple years later. My grandmom, just six months before my mom died.

Those losses, however, I sensed somewhat in the abstract. A stroke had stolen my grandpop’s sense of fun before I was 10; I barely knew his true personality. While I was close with my friend, her death half a world away didn’t cause noticeable changes in my daily life. I deeply adored my grandmom. But she was 89. Grandparents were supposed to die and leave their grandkids without feeling like a black hole was tearing their lives apart.

My parents’ deaths forced me to consider what my son might experience; not because I’m the type of person who walks around beneath a cartoon thundercloud but because it’s simply been directly proven to me that there are no guarantees in life.

I wrestle with the fact that my son might one day feel the loneliness I did, and still do. The yearning. The feeling of being untethered from everything familiar, and scrambling to figure out where “home” is. The angst that stems from having the primary witnesses to your life vanish from the Earth — at least, the above ground part. And also the surprising reserves of strength, resilience, and found happiness, but that’s another story.

Look, I don’t want to die, and to be honest, I’m pretty scared to. But outside of certain things, there’s probably little I can do to prevent or delay my own death. So I spend my energy making sure my child feels as cared for and questionless as possible once that happens, whenever it is.

My parents’ deaths forced me to consider what my son might experience.

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That byproduct of death — loss — has turned me into a Gmail hoarder who never deletes a message in case he wants to read about every last piece of me, the good and the ugly. An overzealous photographer who meticulously labels the who, what, and when of each image and drives her husband batshit by asking him to “oh, please, just take one more?” A constant will-tweaker who considers what should be done with certain belongings, so that he doesn’t have to guess. Someone who asks herself if it might be less selfish to just be recreated into a small diamond pendant he can wear, instead of forcing him to schlep out to some inconvenient burial location (actually, the thought of being turned into jewelry kind of creeps me out).

Since his birth, I’ve sent frequent emails to the address we created for him, with both miscellaneous light memories (“We took you to the beach this weekend and loved how you insist on calling seagulls ‘ecogs’”) and serious observations I want to impart. What if, one day, there’s nobody to help fill in the missing pieces? I want him to know how deeply loved he is, especially when the time comes for him to live without anyone who gives that love to him unconditionally. All of this stuff can’t come close to replacing me actually being, you know, alive. But it’s the best I can do.

I would have done anything to have my parents in my son’s life. But their absence has forced me to contend with what I want my legacy to be, decades before I might have ordinarily considered it. If not for the world at large, then at least for one little boy who’s the center of mine.

At the moment, he’s not even three. He’s had a legal guardianship set up for him since he was minus five months. More life advice emails waiting for him to open in the far away future than I’ll ever get in my entire lifetime. And at the rate I’m going with stockpiling these memories for him, all I can say is, thank god for the cloud. Because while I want him to have everything he needs in lieu of my presence, I don’t want him going bankrupt from renting storage space for it all.

Rebecca Soffer is cofounder and CEO of ModernLoss.com, as well as coauthor of the forthcoming Modern Loss book from HarperCollins. She is a former producer for The Colbert Report.
Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.
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