Living with (Our) Death and Dying

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The point of contemplating our future death is to bring us back to a vivid consciousness of the here and now. The purpose is to clarify the choices we have, to have a sense of our priorities so that we can take steps to shape our lives around them.

At the moment I am working in a nursing home. Doing a job like this confronts you with old age. This is partly a false impression — the people in nursing homes are the more impaired of the old. They are at the stage where they can no longer care for themselves.

It is not the dying that I have found difficult — usually the level of care is very good, little pain is involved, and the people are wanting to die when they do.

I almost just wrote, “If we are to die then this is one of the best ways”. How’s that for a piece of denial?! As if there were any “if” about it. We are dying. We will be dead sooner or later (my preference, barring awful accidents, is later).

Contemplating Death

In some religions there is the contemplation of death. My own tradition is Christian; it was in medieval times that the contemplation of death was promoted most heavily.

In Christianity the contemplation of death is now well and truly out of fashion. This is not surprising — some of the excesses of the practices (picturing the decaying of a corpse and so on) aren’t very attractive. The attitude that was encouraged by these practices sometimes, it seems to me, can verge on hating and resenting life.

And yet…if we are to deal with the world as it is and our own limitations, then there needs to be some place for acknowledging our dying and eventual death.

I don’t think that acknowledging our death need encourage us to be morbid. It can encourage us to savour our life. Dan Millman tells the story of a person who nearly walked into an armed robbery — having a shotgun pointed at him led to him feeling gratitude for just being alive for days afterward.

It was perhaps Samuel Johnson who put this most acutely: When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

Knowing our death has a way of stripping away the trivial. This is the point of those exercises about writing our own epitaph or deciding what kind of legacy we want to leave. These are ways of finding what is important to us: what lies at our core, bringing into sharp focus what is essential and what is trivial.

In her book Gods in Everyman [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], Jean Shinoda Bolen points out that Hades (the Greek god of the underworld and so associated with death) had the title of ‘Good Counsellor’. Writing our epitaph, contemplating what legacy we want to leave — these and similar practices help to guide us through life.

It seems to me that the contemplation of death may lead to hatred of life, but knowing that we will die can bring us clarity and focus.

From Then to Now

The point of contemplating our future death is to bring us back to a vivid consciousness of the here and now. The purpose is to clarify the choices we have, to have a sense of our priorities so that we can take steps to shape our lives around them.

The purpose of acknowledging our death is to be in touch with our dying — that we are now older than we were, that we are so much closer to our end. Knowing that we are dying can bring us a vivid sense of living. It can lead us to have contentment in the moment. I don’t mean a blissed-out living-on-cloud-nine out-of-touchness, but a sense of connection with the ‘stuff’ of life. This may mean a touching sense of the uniqueness of our beloved or that doing the drying up has its place too.

Anxiety and Obsession

Awareness of our death doesn’t always lead to exhilaration or appreciation of life. Sometimes we shrink from it, we become anxious or obsessive.

Not wanting to die seems natural to me. The anxiety for me is about dying, and my not wanting to. I can find out why I don’t want to die — which means finding out what I want to do while alive.

I become obsessive when there is something that I haven’t finished and there are pressures to finish it. I want to finish a novel before I do the vacuuming. I want to finish this project before I change jobs. I want to finish this conversation before I leave the party. So it seems that obsession is about clinging on to something — and the cure is to let go. I need to get over my perfectionism if a post is to ever be published. I may prefer to spend my life reading, but this won’t help my aerobic fitness or my relationships. Knowing that we will die can help us have a sense of proportion — which is a great cure for obsession.

Here I am just acknowledging anxiety and obsession. I am conscious that talking about them so briefly can sound infuriatingly glib. But I do want to acknowledge them, and indicate that there are ways to respond to them.

Dying and Living

It seems to me that knowing our dying brings us a sense of proportion and what our priorities are. Knowing that we are dying can guide us in shaping our lives. Knowing our dying can help us live more fully.

Have you had a close call (being narrowly missed by a car, for instance) that has given you a more vivid sense of life, or, perhaps a moment of anxiety? Do you feel that acknowledgement of our dying is important or that it is going to happen anyway, so we may just as well get on with living? I would like to hear your experience in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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