It’s a scary thing, thinking about death. Most of us would rather sweep it under the carpet and avoid the subject altogether. However, contemplating one’s mortality can be of genuine benefit, bringing about a greater sense of meaning and motivation to life, and helping us to recognise our values and what ‘the point’ is in all of this, so to speak.
When you recognise and pay heed to life’s finite nature it can easily go one of two ways - despair, or determination. Being overwhelmed by a fear of death is something that affects us all in one way or another, but we can use this fear and channel it in ways that bring about a sense of meaning and purpose.
So, how can you develop a better relationship with the fact that your time on this Earth is, in the grand scheme, only ephemeral?
Carpe diem - consider your mindset
Some fear of death is important - if we didn’t have it as a species we’d probably drive ourselves to extinction! A degree of trepidation, therefore, is vital to protect ourselves from harm and the unbridled chaos that could ensue if we all acted as if we were immortal. However, there is a point at which fear of death shifts from a rational source of existential anxiety to a crippling form of neurosis that stifles, ad infinitum. Thanatophobia, or fear of death, is one of the most common fears. In fact, 20% of people are afraid or very afraid of dying. Whilst understandable, this is a mindset, that once pathological, doesn’t serve us well.
Día de Muertos
Perhaps we should take a leaf from someone else’s book. Unlike any other culture, Mexicans have a unique attitude towards death that is rooted in celebration and acceptance. The Mexican poet and diplomat, Octavia Paz, described how “the Mexican chases after death, mocks it, courts it, hugs it, and sleeps with it. He thinks of it as his favourite plaything and his most lasting love.” Inspired by this sentiment, Mexico holds its annual Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival, a holiday where families and friends welcome the souls of their deceased relatives.
On Día de Muertos, families create altars in the deceased’s memory known as ofrendas, comprising marigold flowers, photographs, and their loved ones’ favourite foods and drinks. Representations of skulls, or calaveras, are ubiquitous throughout the event, taking the form of smirking clay skulls, candy treats, and face paintings that seem to laugh in the face of death. Rather than running away from death, Mexicans run at it, head on.
According to Carlos Alberto Sánchez, a philosophy lecturer at San Jose State University, Mexicans have a “historical attitude” towards death which holds that death is a permanent presence and not something we should choose to ignore until the time comes. Of course, death is inescapable, so why not accept this inevitability rather than run from our fate?
Terror Management Theory
Despite what you might expect, fear of death actually lessens as we draw closer to it. This phenomenon is dubbed Terror Management Theory. A study conducted in 2017 by the peer reviewed journal, Psychological Science, looked at the amount of positive and negative words in blog posts written by terminally ill people and compared them to essays of those asked to imagine being close to death. The result was that the individuals who were actually dying had more positive things to say than those merely comprehending their own demise.
One way to help with the vulnerability that comes with thoughts surrounding death is to practice mindfulness. Finding strategies to stay in the moment can make fear of the future less intense, thereby reducing the power that death holds. By practising mindfulness, it has been shown that people can become less defensive when reminded of their own mortality, and more resilient emotionally. There are apps such as Headspace and The Mindfulness app which you can use, or you could even find a meditation class in your local area.
Consider your vision of a good death
How would you want to spend your final days? Where would you like to have your funeral? Would you rather be buried, cremated, or placed in a mushroom suit to become one with the earth? These questions might not spark joy, but they’re certainly important. Spending some time to consider what your idea of a good death is can alleviate some of your fears, as well as help you to consolidate end of life plans if you are yet to record your wishes in a legally binding document.
Use the fear of death to make you realise what’s important
Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s easy to get caught up worrying about things that, from a wider lens, are ultimately not that important. Life admin, the past, other people’s opinion of you, ageing, trying to achieve perfection, amongst other concerns, are all things that on our deathbed we’re probably not going to be thinking about. Yet, such worries often plague our psyche on a daily basis.
By thinking about the fact that we are mere mortals like any other creature on the planet, we can, temporarily, or with some degree of longevity, shift our mindset into focusing on what is important.
Do the paperwork
31 million people in the UK have no will. The plans you make surrounding what happens after you die, as well as end of life planning, are, however, very important for a multitude of reasons. Failing to write a will can complicate matters a fair amount. Most of the reasons for putting together a will lie in conflict mitigation. By finalising your will you make it easier for family and loved ones to navigate financial logistics after you’ve passed away. Furthermore, a will ensures that your values are respected with plans that are in keeping with your own unique wishes. Many charities provide free will-writing services if finances are an issue, otherwise you can contact a solicitor or reach out to organisations such as Co-op legal services, or even a trade union, like Unison.
Wills, Advance statements, and the power of attorney
There are a few other avenues to explore in regard to end of life planning. For instance, putting together an advanced statement that details your personal preferences. Organisations, such as Age UK, Cinnamon, and the NHS website, have lots of information to help with end of life planning if you aren’t sure what path to take.
Though it might not be the most fun way to spend an afternoon, putting some time aside to organise your end of life plans will take a weight off your shoulders, for yourself, and your loved ones.
Be inspired by others
Death presents us with the absolute pinnacle of the unknown. However, uncertainty can cripple us or empower us depending on our mindset. After all, the greatest thing to fear, is fear itself.
Many people nearing the end of their life experience regret. These are the most common regrets that people voice on their deathbeds:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
It is clear from the above that if you wish to live a life with minimal regrets it is wise to cherish and nourish your friendships, take control of your mindset, and live an authentic life that is true to who you are.
We hope that the advice contained in this article has provided some comfort and that these tips can be put to good use. Whilst dealing with your own mortality is certainly a difficult subject, in the wise words of Victor Hugo, “It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”