ESSAY

health

ESSAY: Contemplating death in a year when it feels closer

MILWAUKEE — One day, on a walk in the middle of a workday, I came across a gorgeous red finch on a sunny sidewalk that didn’t fly off when I approached it. It barely put up a fight when I picked it up with a tissue.

I had hoped to take it to the nearby wildlife rehab people. Maybe they could save it. So I walked back to my house and put it in an open plastic tub on my shady porch with seed and water.

I called the rehab people. I knew from past injured wildlife encounters that I should call ahead. The line was busy. Every time I checked on him, I felt a greater urgency. His breathing had increased and he was shaking a little. Their line remained busy.

Less than two hours later, his breathing had stopped.

I cried. I just couldn’t hold back.

___

I’m struggling. And I have been for awhile.

A lot of us are. There’s a pandemic going on, and we are all isolated from each other. There’s a recession looming, maybe even a depression. And a divisive election, no matter which side you support.

But it feels like so much more. None of my emotions seem to want to hide anymore.

There’s anger, irritation, sadness. Muting life with Netflix has an upside-down reaction for me: I’m crying at happy scenes and sobbing over suspenseful or stressful scenes. I wake at night with bouts of anxiety.

As a reporter, I’ve told the stories of countless tragedies over the last 20 years: mass murders, murder trials, tornadoes where people lost everything, any number of horrific crimes and dramatic hardships. Why does this feel so different?

It finally dawned on me: Death seems so close to everyone, more than I can ever remember. In the United States, for many, it hasn’t been quite this way for a really long time.

So far, more than 225,000 people have died in the United States from the coronavirus or complications, according to Johns Hopkins University. On the entire planet, more than 45 million have been infected and more than 1.1 million are dead.

All that pain and suffering. All those individual stories. And right now, with the numbers of infected soaring in Wisconsin, where I live, my anxiety skyrockets.

Even physicians are dealing with anxiety, some for the first time, says Joan Anzia, psychiatrist and professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She often counsels those in the health care field and says this sense of mortality is even hitting them.

“It’s been decades since physicians have had to endanger their own lives and put their own life at risk just by going to work,” she tells me when I call her.

The last time a life-threatening health crisis of this scale engulfed American society was early in the last century: the 1918 flu pandemic. Less widespread was polio, before a vaccine emerged in the 1950s.

Medical advancements though, have pushed death away, made it feel

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