Harry: Sure you do, a fleeting thought that jumps in and out of the transom of your mind. I spend hours, I spend days…
Sally: And you think that makes you a better person.
Harry: Look, when the shit comes down I’m gonna be prepared and you’re not, that’s all I’m saying.
Sally: And in the meantime, you’re gonna ruin your whole life waiting for it.
From ‘When Harry met Sally’, directed by Rob Reiner, 1989
Death is one of those funny things – it is perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes, because with life comes death, and both are intertwined and inescapable. Writer and Pastor Rob Bell says that “Death is the engine of life. All around us, all the time. This death and life rhythm is built into the fabric of creation.” Yet we pretend like there will be no end. We procrastinate, waiting for the ‘right’ moment to do things, letting time pass us by, almost unconsciously. We avoid the big conversations about life and death, even though arguably, we spend our entire life trying to figure out our own existence.
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. Not so much on purpose, but because it has been extremely present in my life. My Nana was dying and died during the process of me writing this story. My Uncle´s brother died suddenly, a colleague’s Grandfather died, and there is a pattern of youth suicide happening in the small town where I live every few weeks. Maybe you have experienced death around you too. Maybe you haven´t. But have you thought about it and what it means to you?
I’m not saying that, like Harry above, we should walk around thinking and worrying about death every moment of the day. But I think we should have conversations about it. We should talk about life, death, and our relationship to them both.
Tony Robbins said: “Most people overestimate what they can do in a year. And they underestimate what they can do in two or three decades.” Most of us have no idea how many years we’ve got left. My hope is that this story will encourage you to think and talk about what matters to you, so that you can make the most of whatever time you do have.
Let´s start with the big picture. There´s something about facing your own end that makes you look at the time you might have left. Most of us spend our entire life trying to make sense of the world and our place in it. Some lucky souls are clear from the get-go on what they want to do with their lives. Others have to experiment more to figure that out.
What ideas have come to you so far about what you are here for? What is your calling or purpose? What do you want to do with your life? What kind of an impact do you want to have? Does knowing that you will die spur you into action? Does it send your compass spinning so you can hone in on your North?
If you are not so sure about the answers to those questions, there is plenty of food for thought around. In his book Die Empty, Todd Henry writes: ¨Instead of asking ‘What would bring me enjoyment?,’ which is how many people think about following their passion, we should instead ask: ‘What work am I willing to suffer for today?’Great work requires suffering for something beyond yourself. It’s created when you bend your life around a mission and spend yourself on something you deem worthy of your best effort. What is your worthwhile cause?”
Our obsessions are often what we work on and we dwell on. What obsessions do you have? What drives you crazy, makes you angry or sad? What can’t you turn a blind eye to? What questions keep coming back? What topics do you always talk about?
Women and leadership expert Tara Mohr has her own perspective on callings. She says that we can have many callings during our lifetime, even at the same time, and they don´t have to have anything to do with work (phew!). She says that our callings feel like being pulled to do something. She also says (which will surely make many of us feel better), that a common symptom of a calling to feel unprepared to take it on.
Are you living deliberately? Mindfully, even? What could you change to live in a way that is more self-directed, rather than doing things because of ´whatever´?
Let’s move on to t the real stuff. We aren´t talking about waffly big dreams or visions now. This is the conversation that is hard for us to talk about and we avoid (at all costs). Maybe you want to pour yourself a cup of tea, or at least take a deep breath before we continue.
When my Nana was in her last days at the medical ward of a nursing home, an on-call doctor came to check on her. While the doctor was speaking to us about my Nana´s illness, its effects and her nearing end, she could not once let the words “death” or “dying” slip from her mouth. Why are we so scared to talk about the realities of death?
The fact is, death is a big deal. Inescapable. I like to think of it as a journey that you go on alone. You don´t know where you´re going and you can´t take anyone or anything with you. That´s pretty scary, and really, it requires some preparation.
Say you die suddenly, in a car accident. Do your loved ones know what you want them to do with your body? Do you want your organs to be donated? Do you want to be buried or cremated? Do you want a funeral? What songs or hymns would you like? What about all of your belongings – what should happen with them?
Death is a vacuum. While someone is sick, life often revolves around them, caring for them and keeping the order as best we can .. The rest of life seems to go on pause. When people pass away, there is a lot to sort out. By having conversations with our loved ones about our perspectives on death and our wishes for when we pass away, we make death easier for them. Less stress, less confusion.
My Nana was very organised. She had an up-to-date will. She had written out what funeral she wanted and what hymns should sung. It meant that my parents could feel confident in what they needed to do. They didn´t need to anguish over what might be the right decision, because all the decisions were already made. It didn´t matter that my Nana wouldn´t be around to see or judge what happened – it was about knowing that what was being done was right, according to her and our values. Uncertainty in times of death increases stress, when, let´s face it, it is already an incredibly stressful and draining situation.
Every family has its own micro-culture, within the greater cultural influences. In my husband´s Nicaraguan family, when someone dies, friends, family and neighbours go to their house that same day. The family provides food for everyone and they all stay up through the night, sharing stories and providing support. Every tradition is beautiful. It is about farewelling the dead, seeing them off into the next life, and providing support to the family who has to carry on.
Legacy is not leaving something for people. It’s leaving something in people.” — Peter Strople.
Life is about connection and love, and nothing makes that more clear and obvious than death. When my Nana was dying, what consumed me was making sure she felt love. I wanted to be there, hold her hand and tell her that I love her. We should spread that love around, live our lives more purposefully and try to leave this world better, not worse, than when we arrived. But we have limited time. Don´t let the increasing life span fool you – you can never be too sure of when you´re time will be up! Our legacy, both in life and death, is something that we can control – we make decisions every day that affect what we leave behind.
I’m not saying that you have to aspire to start a charity or even donate your organs. But at least think about it. Talk about your perspectives on life and death. Share your wishes for when you die. Write down what kind of farewell you want. Maybe you don´t want one at all – that´s ok. Just tell someone. Talk about it. Don´t be afraid to put it all out there, because you never know when it will be too late.