fear of the unknown

After my dad almost died, I became gripped with fear—here’s how I’m letting it go

The night was already hectic—and that was even before disaster struck. I had spent the day at my parents’ house—who live an hour away from me—in order to spend some time with them while also checking some things off my to-do list (Haircut? Check). The day we spent together was nice, but it was a work night, and by the time the sun was starting to set, I was anxious to get home.

My dad, who was supposed to drive me, was on the Peloton, squeezing in a quick workout. I was annoyed. Why wasn’t he ready to go? When my dad (finally…) got off the bike, he said he had a headache. And then he threw up. My mom and I took one look at the Chick-fil-A wrappers abandoned on the kitchen table and chocked it up to the mistake of downing a chicken sandwich minutes before clipping into the bike—a fool’s error. “I’ll just drive you,” my mom said, both of us simmering.

But once we were in the car, our anger gave way to concern. Both my mom and I had a capital-letters Bad Feeling, wondering if we’d been too hard on my dad and worried about whether he was okay. We called him repeatedly until he answered, and when he did, his speech was heavily slurred. He was at the hospital, he told us. We turned around.

My dad had experienced what’s called a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a life-threatening stroke caused by bleeding in the brain. When my mom and I got to the ER, the pain he was in was unbearable to witness, and he was quickly airlifted by helicopter to a better-equipped hospital. If it had been raining that night, it’s almost certain he would have died.

We got “too lucky,” I think to myself every night when I try to sleep, but am kept up by nagging thoughts of What If.

My dad stayed in the intensive care unit for two weeks, the doctors never giving us the reassurance he would be okay. But ultimately, he was. In fact, his recovery has been miraculous. It’s almost as if the whole thing never even happened. Which is why it’s so unsettling that I can’t shake the thought that, surely, something Bad must be bound to happen soon. We got “too lucky,” I think to myself every night when I try to sleep, but am kept up by nagging thoughts of What If.

The summer after his subarachnoid hemorrhage, my dad and I went to a hot air balloon show together. I got to spend the whole day with just him, a rarity. But instead of being present in the moment and fully enjoying it, the back of my mind was occupied with dark thoughts: You better enjoy this. It could be the last day you spend together.

The specter didn’t just haunt thoughts of my dad’s health, either. Simply meeting up with my mom for lattes was enough to make my eyes water. Will this be the last time? I couldn’t help but wonder. Even playing with my cat turned gloomy, and I couldn’t help but think about how sad I’ll be when she someday dies—and she’s still a kitten.

Sometimes, this sense of foreboding would creep up on me, unexpected. In October, I texted my family’s group chat about a local 10K Turkey Trot happening on Thanksgiving, saying we all run it together. “I’m in!” my dad texted back seconds later. Immediately, my heart started pounding. What was I thinking? Even though his doctor had given him the thumbs up to start working out again, this was six miles and I couldn’t help but think about that fateful Peloton ride seven months ago.

This fear of death, of the unknown, has been crippling. Sunny moments fill with shadow, making it impossible for me to enjoy even the purest present. And you know what? It’s exhausting. I’m so tired of being afraid. Which is why, as we enter a new decade, I’m making it my goal to leave this feeling behind.

Coming to terms with the inevitability of death

To get some guidance, I called psychiatrist Anna Yusim, MD, author of Fulfilled, who first reassured me that what I was experiencing was quite common. “Fear of the unknown, especially related to death, is such a deep, specific fear and it’s something humans have been grappling with since the beginning of time,” she tells me, before suggesting I read a book on this very topic called Staring at the Sun.

“Is there anything I can do when these fearful thoughts start creeping in, preventing me from enjoying the moment?” I ask Dr. Yusim, desperate for some tangible advice. “Absolutely,” she tells me. “When these thoughts occur, you should acknowledge, observe, and accept them—not try to push them away. If you resist the thoughts, they’ll often come back even stronger.”

Dr. Yusim tells me that learning to accept fear is a major part of working past it. “When it comes up, think to yourself, ‘I’m having this thought and that’s okay. It’s okay to have this fear; it’s a normal part of life.’ But then, turn your attention back to the moment instead of feeding those thoughts more energy,” she says.

This sounded a lot like Mindfulness 101; one of the core tenets of meditation, for instance, is to observe your stray thoughts without judgment. A common metaphor used when teaching meditation that I’d heard before is to view each of your thoughts as a car driving by you. You can watch the cars, maybe even wave to them, but you don’t need to get into each and every car. Frankly, the idea was a little eye-rolly to me. But now that I saw how it could serve a specific goal, it felt like a mental lifesaver, here to buoy me up in moments of sinking panic.

Dr. Yusim confirmed that the practice of accepting unpleasant thoughts and refocusing on the present was a central part of mindfulness, and she promised it was something that gets easier the more you do it. She also encouraged me to try another ritual that is often preached in the wellness world: practicing gratitude. “Those thoughts you’re having where you say you feel too lucky and it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens is a version of survivor’s guilt,” Dr. Yusim says. “Whenever we’re drowning in our own fears, the other side of that is gratitude. The fact is, you are fortunate your dad was okay, and you can be grateful for that. But it doesn’t mean your gratitude has to be taken away.”

fear of the unknown
Dad and me after running the Turkey Trot together. Everyone lived. Graphic: Well+Good Creative

Accepting fear and learning to live in the moment

Thanksgiving seemed like a pretty timely day to try practicing gratitude—and besides, my dad had refused to back out of the Turkey Trot. The day before the race, everyone in the family told my dad not to do it, but he called me and said he was still all in. “I want to run this race because I don’t want to live in fear,” he told me. Well, that made two of us.

“As long as you’re not doing it just to make a point—and promise not to push yourself,” I told him, wondering when worrying about my parents’ health started to become something that occupied my waking thoughts.

The morning of the race, we were ready. “Dad, don’t die during this or the whole family is really going to be mad at me,” I said, my gallows humor making him laugh. He didn’t seem worried at all. Not like I was, on the verge of a panic attack as the race started. I took a deep breath, accepting the fear I felt of how the race would go. Then, I moved into gratitude, saying a silent prayer as I started the first mile; a prayer of gratitude that I got to run this race with my dad when just that spring, he was lying in a hospital bed in the ICU.

Soon, the prayer started tapering to a simple thank you, matching the rhythm of my gait. Thank you, all the way through mile two, and three, and four. It was like a quiet hum in the background as I took in the color of the golden leaves and the cheer squads on the sidelines. I finished the race before my dad, so I got to see him cross the finish line, raising both hands in the air as he did, the universal runner sign language for “I did it!” I breathed a sigh of relief, exhaling another thank you.

And as I did, I had a vision of a new year, a new outlook—one where fear didn’t disappear completely, but had lost its power over me. Those fearful thoughts might not ever fully subside, I know this now. But I also know I can choose to wave to them as they pass, because the ride those particular thought-vehicles will take me on is to somewhere I do not need to go.

Here’s how to know if a gratitude practice is right for you. Plus, why death positivity is an important pillar for living well.

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