If you were in the emergency room and I was your doctor, and I told you that you were dying—soon—what would you feel? I encourage you to stop reading this now and close your eyes, just for a few moments, and allow yourself to feel what comes up for you if you just learned that you were going to die tomorrow.
Do you feel sadness about the people you will be leaving behind?
Do you feel anger?
Do you feel fear about how you’ll handle any physical pain or discomfort of your death?
Do you feel relief that you can stop struggling and be at peace?
Do you feel cheated because there’s so much more you want to do and experience in life?
Do you feel like there are still conversations you need to have to let people know how you really feel about them, or to clear up old misunderstandings and unresolved conflicts?
Do you feel anxious because you don’t have your “affairs in order” and you’re worried that someone you love will suffer because of that?
Do you feel afraid about what’s going to happen to your body or your soul after you die?
All of these feelings are common, and natural. However, these feelings (and many others) also keep us from being ready to die at any moment, and are at the root of much of the stress and anxiety people experience in their lives. Not being ready to die keeps us from being present and engaged in the moment, and limits our ability to live the truly spectacular life we are capable of.
As an ER doctor for over twenty years I’ve had more than my share of encounters with death, and many conversations about death. It’s obvious to me that people’s beliefs and fears about death are complex and varied. Although there are some common themes, there are also many variations on those themes. I could fill up volumes describing all of the reasons people are afraid to confront death—both theirs and others.
The only common theme I’ve discovered around death is this: only when a person accepts that they are going to die and feels no fear or anxiety around that awareness can they be truly and fully alive. Only when death is embraced as a natural part of life can we celebrate everything about life without any asterisks.
The topic of death evokes more emotion in people than perhaps any other topic. It is also one of the only experiences (along with birth) that every human being is certain to experience.
Every one of us is going to die. This is a truth we all share, and it’s a truth that should bond us together instead of being a wedge that separates us.
In our society, conversations about death are typically strained and uncomfortable, if they happen at all. We avoid talking about death at all costs; shutting it out like the thief we protect our homes from by putting bars on our windows and locks on our doors.
Death conjures up images of a grim reaper lurking in the shadows and jumping out to get us when we least expect it.
We perceive death as the enemy. How could we not live in fear of death when we all know that this enemy always wins? This is one war that can never be won. All we can do is try to delay the inevitable defeat.So if we know we can’t win the war, why even bother putting up a fight? Why not just give up now and save ourselves all that effort?
On the other hand, if we change our paradigm and view death as a natural transition—the conclusion of a chapter—and something to embrace with dignity and a sense of wonder and awe, we can be free to embrace each moment of our lives with that same degree of wonder and awe. If we’re not so caught up with waging a battle we can’t win, we can relax and just “be,” appreciating each moment of our life as it occurs. We can enjoy the gift of being present, aware, and free instead of living in a self-imposed prison, always trying to protect ourselves from the enemy.
So I ask, “if you found out that you were going to die tomorrow, what regrets would you have?”
Isn’t that what you should be working on today?