It was well past midnight, but I couldn’t see the time because a steady stream of tears blurred my vision. I sat in a slumped zombie posture at the computer, too exhausted from months of lockdown to be productive, but too anxious to sleep.
I spent nights like these ferociously typing poorly-crafted love notes to my toddler, who I woefully reflected was too young to remember me if I wound up another victim to this once-in-a-century plague.
Before the pandemic, it crossed my mind that I might not be around to see my child grow up or get to publish my best-seller, but it was a muted pang in the back of my consciousness that I could easily bat away.
Most people live past their 30s in the United States, I reasoned. I had no reason to believe I wouldn’t be old and gray and begging for quality time for my adult child who had better things to do than hang with me.
But since Covid-19, I’ve watched people around me – friends, family and perfect strangers my own age whose stories are told in obituaries – drop dead from this contagion. A sharp sense of existential dread has taken up residence in my psyche. That vague inevitability that I assumed would happen in the distant future smashed me over the head like an anvil in an old cartoon.
I could easily die sooner than later. My mortality was, for the first time, in center focus.
Covid brought death into sharper focus
For many, Covid-19 was the rude awakening that death was not a long-distance relationship so much as a close neighbor.
“We are in a moment that, as tragic and horrific as it is, is one of a few moments in American history where we are confronted with mass amounts of death and forced to reflect on our own mortality,” said Gary Laderman, a professor of American religious history and cultures at Emory University, who teaches a popular class on death and dying.
Laderman, who recently published “Don’t Think About Death: A Memoir on Mortality,” has seen a tangible uptick in interest in his class since the pandemic hit, with more than 300 students enrolled.
Covid-19 has also created a “younger generation with awareness of mortality,” Laderman said. “It is profound and deep and really stirring at some existential core that isn’t usual at that age.”
Many younger and generally healthy people I know did not give serious thought to our own sense of mortality – until Covid-19 hit. The pandemic has brought into starker focus the fact that that a full and long life is not necessarily a guaranteed thing.
Not everyone grasps their own mortality
Not everyone has advantaged the pandemic to grapple with the realities of death and dying, though.
“As a death doula, I was hopeful that Covid would make death a more approachable topic. I wouldn’t say that things have changed as much as I had hoped. In some ways we just run further and further, faster and faster from it,” said Jane Whitlock, a Minneapolis-based end-of-life doula who works with people who are dying and their families.
Whitlock has observed more people filling out advance directive medical forms, which spell out a person’s wishes on whether doctors should try to resuscitate or keep a person alive if they’re near death.
Still, she has been dismayed by the lack of evolution in the discussion about mortality or end-of-life planning in all age groups and the attitude she’s observed from people who think they can “hold my breath and make it to the end of this and then my life will be normal again,” she said.
“Anyone who has ever had an experience with grief knows there is no going back,” Whitlock said. “That normal is gone.”
Accepting death as a part of life
Laderman says that death has always been around us, in cultural references, movies and songs, but that Covid-19 has made the inevitable rite of passage “confrontational.”
How will the pandemic impact our long-term understanding of mortality? Will new generations have a closer relationship with death?
“Even with those historic precedents, it’s hard to get a full grasp of how this is going to impact us,” said Laderman. “We’re so in it, that it’s hard to see ahead and imagine,” he said.
Still, there are ways to practice inviting death into your consciousness as a mundane part of life. You can start by incorporating a “death ritual” into your daily routine, says Whitlock.
Start your day with a mantra that acknowledges your own mortality, she said, or download an app like We Croak, which sounds an alarm several times a day to remind you that you will one day die. You could collect obituaries of friends and family, or interesting people you admire.
One potentially less despair-invoking activity could be to “take a trip through the neighborhood and think of all the people who used to live there a hundred years ago and realize how you too are not a permanent fixture of this place,” Whitlock said.
Other cultures honor death differently
It also helps to understand that other cultures accept and honor death in very different ways. Buddhism, for instance, talks about the impermanence of life and the cycles of death and rebirth as one of its main tenets.
“There is no doubt that the global pandemic has impacted every single person on this planet in some way, shape or form. It is a tragedy that will remain in our minds and hearts for generations to come, and our ways of relating to one another will in some ways be forever altered,” said the Brooklyn, New York-based iele paloumpis, who works as an end-of-life doula.
In order to shift our understanding of death and dying, we might start by talking to our loved ones about their wishes for end-of-life plans, said paloumpis. “It can be a really meaningful gift to clearly understand those innermost needs and desires in our final days and hours, so talk to your loved ones, fill out your advance directives, and uplift the things that are most important to you,” they said.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
Jenna Lasky, a 20-year-old college student from Georgia, says Covid-19 has impacted her own sense of mortality, but she also maintains agency over how she processes those feelings.
“Pandemic or not, I will still lie awake each night with the persistent and unpleasant thoughts of my certain death, but I will choose not to smother this existential dread or anxiety. Instead, I want to explore it, befriend it. I have learned that the only way to conquer the darkness is to venture through it,” she said.
Regardless of what the future brings or how long we have the privilege of breathing air on this Earth, if this newfound existential dread has taught me anything, it’s that having a strong sense of mortality and accepting that I one day will die, maybe even sooner than later, will help me live better, today. Don’t let the grip of the grim reaper ruin a perfectly good day to enjoy the full life that you have now.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Emory University professor Gary Laderman. It has been fixed.
Allison Hope is a writer and native New Yorker who favors humor over sadness, travel over television, and coffee over sleep.