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How Nearly Dying Killed My Fear of Death

It's funny how facing the end cured the anxiety vexing me since childhood

By Peter Gerstenzang

As a child, I was the helpless prey to a host of fears. I was afraid of going to school, afraid of coming home from school, afraid of night, morning, Brussels sprouts, long underwear, regular underwear, showering, people and, strangely enough, singer Pat Boone. Of all the things that frightened me, Number One on my hit parade was: death.

The fact that I could be here one second and vanished forever the next was horrifying to me — although I’m pretty sure none of my teachers would have minded much.

I’d see a flower wilting, a sunset or winter coming on and be filled with despair. Death had no logic, no decency, no mercy. It struck randomly. The very thought of it made my heart beat irregularly, my throat close up and my stomach churn. Okay, Pat Boone had the same effect on me — but a lot of people feel that way.

Why Bother?

I was watching a Mets game one day when my dad asked the score. I said, “What does it matter? Everyone playing is going to be dead someday, anyway.” I was 9.

This prompted an emergency trip to a psychiatrist. Dr. Weinberg was very nice. He spoke in a soft, solicitous tone. I liked his sweater. But when he asked me why I was “so worried about death,” I didn’t have an answer. So for the next half-hour, we sat there silently like we were in a two-man Quaker meeting.

Adolescence was worse. Everything I read, heard or saw was proof that all of us were locked in separate cars on a one-way trip to oblivion. And worse? I was driving a Gremlin!

Many of the songs we sang in my prep school chorus were about mortality. I found no comfort in English class either. A teacher quoted Hemingway: “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death.” Someone once said about poet William Wordsworth that he could never see a cradle without thinking of a grave.

My obsession with death made almost everything I did, from soccer to kissing girls, seem pointless. Because nothing lasts anyway.

My Turning Point on Death and Dying

This hopeless feeling continued to dog me into adulthood. Until last year, when I was lucky enough to get deathly sick. And when I almost died, my fear of death died, too.

Last fall, I found myself unable to urinate. I had the chills. I couldn’t sleep. I tried to stay calm, but after about eight hours, I was about as calm as a guy being chased by a gang of Rottweilers. There was a silver lining, though. Suddenly, I was no longer afraid that I might die. I was in so much pain I was afraid I wouldn’t die.

I drove to the hospital, where I was given urination assistance and something for the pain. As I lay there in my bed, my kidneys failing, I looked outside the window at a maple tree, surrendering its leaves to the ground. I thought, “That’s death, right there. In the form of a leaf.” As if by magic, the whole process of life seemed as natural as could be.


“Hey, we all have to die someday,” I thought to myself. “Otherwise the subways would be awfully crowded.” I smiled and fell asleep.

Lucky Me

When I awoke, a doctor told me that I’d had just 10 percent kidney function when I’d checked in, due to an infection. I was lucky — they had just buried a guy who’d had 20 percent!

Thankfully, medication for my swollen prostate and infection solved the problem.

This may not be the absolute end of my fears of mortality. One day, maybe I’ll see a squirrel flattened on the street or notice the wrinkles on my forehead and be reminded that life moves on mercilessly and then … ends! In the meantime, I plan to go out more, get on my skateboard, meet women and wear strange clothes — anything to stay on the bright side.

I’m also hoping for one more piece of good luck: That I never hear another song by Pat Boone. That’s the sort of setback I don’t think I could overcome.

Everyone has a breaking point. That’s mine.

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Peter Gerstenzang is a humorist, video director and journalist. Read More
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