There's a narrative in our culture that we find clarity when we face death. We come closer to our values and consider what's truly important to us. This narrative is evident in an article I read recently about the top 5 regrets of the dying. It was written by a palliative nurse who published a book of the same title a couple years ago — you might remember it.
But why can't we make space for these epiphanies before becoming palliative? Why didn't these folks consider these important questions earlier? Why do we ignore the reality that our human life is impermanent, only to have regrets when it's ending?
Well, because death is a scary topic. In fact, if you're reading this article, bravo. That takes courage. We live in a death-denying culture, where we don't like to talk or think about death. It makes us feel uneasy. We don't even like the word "die." We say things like "pass" or "expire," and get uncomfortable around others who are grieving.
But what if, by ignoring our mortality, we're doing ourselves a giant disservice? What if mindfully thinking about our own inevitable death — our finite existence, our impermanence — were healthy for living a good life? Well, it is. Here's why:
1. Thinking about death motivates us.
Imagine if you knew you were immortal. You'd live for eternity. All the time in the world. Would you feel desired to experience, accomplish, and connect? Knowing that there really is always tomorrow, we might not feel the same desire to "do it while [we're] young" or work toward a health or career goal. Knowing our time here is finite motivates us to truly live our lives.
2. Thinking about death reminds us to not sweat the small stuff.
Thinking of the precarious nature of life lends us some perspective. When we're reminded of our mortality, we're not so concerned about that spat with our spouse, our love handles, or a cracked iPhone screen. The "little things" stay little.
3. Thinking about death helps us appreciate the present and be mindful.
If today were the last day of your life, you might react differently to rush-hour traffic or your "boring" job. You might find yourself savoring (or at least not hating) moments that were previously uncomfortable. Next time you find yourself reacting to an difficult feeling, think about how it might be different if you were just told you had two months/weeks/days left to live.
4. Thinking about death helps us negotiate our death anxiety and feel more prepared for our exit from this earth.
Anxiety arises when we think about dying. But the more we think about something, the less frightening it becomes. There are many different beliefs about what happens when we stop breathing. Consider yours. Whether you believe in an afterlife, eternal sleep, reincarnation, nothingness, no self and thus no death, or something else, just let those thoughts enter into your awareness.
Whatever you believe, notice your experience thinking about those beliefs — at times it might be hot and panicked, and at other times it might be calmer and less powerful. Be kind to yourself. These feelings and thoughts will come and go.
5. Thinking about death allows us to remember what's really important to us and live intentionally.
Remembering that this one life is finite helps us find meaning and be attentive and intentional with our actions. Rather than the perfect selfie or the perfect salary, you might think about spending time with the people who matter to you, doing things that make you happy, and leaving your mark on society. Thinking about death brings us closer to our values, and helps us think about what "the point" is; ask yourself what you value, what you stand for, what you want to be remembered for, and what you believe is your purpose. Then start moving in that direction.
So, if you're feeling courageous, make some space for thinking about death. Notice what comes up. It's natural that it will cause anxiety; trust that reaction is coming from your value for life and desire to continue living. Invite in that anxiety, that disquiet, feel the perceivably solid ground of your world tremble slightly. Notice how it lessens as you think about death more. Approach the topic with compassion, and remind yourself it's a natural part of life that we're all fortunate to experience. The payoff? A more meaningful, mindful life ... and less chance that your story will be included in the next edition of the Top 5 Regrets of the Dying.