There’s no pang like a missed opportunity. You live in a town for years, always intending to see the sites tourists come to see, but then you’re packing up to move and you haven’t done it. You’re in the room with someone you have a crush on or who is a hero to you—and you watch them walk out the door before you can summon the courage to talk to them. Usually, you think, “I’ll get another chance….”
But it’s different with death.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently because my brother lost his wife—20 years early by most calculations—and I spent several weeks with them while she was in hospice. My sister-in-law’s life story is colorful: working for presidents, riding in helicopters and on horseback, throwing parties, forging connections, shaking things up, along with enjoying a long marriage and raising two boys. Night after night, friends came to drink wine and eat cookies around her, though she could no longer participate. It wasn’t that she had missed any opportunities. It was that, sitting there day after day watching her body break down, I imagined myself in her place and realized all the opportunities I was missing.
Once you get to the end of your life, it's too late for resolutions or revisions. If you didn't do what you wanted to do, too bad.
Once you get to the end of your life, it’s too late for resolutions or revisions. If you didn't do what you wanted to do, too bad. And you never actually know when this moment will come in your life. Sitting in death’s presence, I was suddenly acutely aware of the hours, melting into years, that I spend piddling away my time through distractions and avoidance so I don’t have to feel the fear of taking chances or muster the energy to act. I have excuses, of course, but they rang lame and hollow in the quiet hospice room.
Snubbing death by ignoring it
People from places like India look death in the face all the time. They stand beside funeral pyres while loved ones’ bodies are consumed in flame. Some Buddhist monks meditate at the charnel ground, where bodies are left to decompose. In Bhutan, it is common to meditate on death five times a day. Many Eastern philosophies agree that remembering you’re going to die carries you more peacefully through life’s frustrations and suffering.
Many Eastern philosophies agree that remembering you're going to die carries you more peacefully through life's frustrations and suffering.
I could see their point as I sat with people who had only days left to live. Suddenly, it seemed ludicrous to spend energy on angry indignation about being overcharged by a taxi driver. All around me, people’s bodies were shutting down. Which of them would not have happily traded places with me, getting ripped off by a cab driver, just a moment of annoyance in an otherwise full life?
Westerners rarely think like this. Though death is the one thing we all have in common, we’ve created distancing narratives around it that are either romantic and dark or romantic and celestial. When someone we know dies, we hide the bodies or dress them up to look less dead, and shower the family with platitudes:
She’s in a better place.
She lived a good life.
You have your memories.
We are awkward around death; that’s all these platitudes truly convey.
[Also read: When customer support becomes grief counseling]
Westerners treat death the way seven-year-olds treat the next school year on the first day of summer. It’s so far away. In America, if you said, “Every moment brings you one step closer to the end….” it would be labeled as negativity, a downer. But it’s just true. And if you remembered that summer is short, you might spend your time swimming, climbing trees, eating peaches, playing baseball, catching fireflies, and cooking s’mores over an open fire, really filling up your heart and soul with summer. Come September, you’d have a tan, and freckles, and scars from a hundred adventures. You’d be ready to sharpen your pencils and pick out new school shoes. But if instead you spent the whole time watching TV, you might feel a special dread to see that the water toys are gone and that store aisle is now full of school supplies. You missed it.
I was determined not to miss 'it' anymore.
Embracing the ‘positive death movement’
It turns out that I’m not the only one. Remembering that the Bhutanese recommend meditating on death five times a day for happiness, I did some research and discovered that this philosophy, like so many other things, has been translated into smartphone apps that will remind you to meditate on death. I downloaded one called WeCroak. Five times a day, at various intervals, my phone buzzes and the notification reads: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die...” It doesn’t seem like a threat, but a friendly reminder. If I open the app, I’ll find a quote about living and dying, like this one by philosopher Martin Heidegger: “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life—and only then will I be free to become myself.”
The app is especially great for those days when everything seems to go wrong—when people are being jerks, the weather is bad, a weekend trip is canceled, and the car needs an insanely expensive repair. Then the phone goes off: “Don’t forget...” and perspective returns: You’re breathing. These things you’re going through will all pass. On a rainy day, literally or metaphorically, you realize that even the rain is kind of nice because only the living get to experience rain.
[Also read: One-minute meditations to help you reset]
I discovered that there are other Westerners promoting the same ethos. They call it a Positive Death Movement. In death cafes, people talk about the end—not to assert any one perspective of how death should go or what happens after. They just discuss this experience we all face, the one thing we all have in common.
I myself found a local death doula, a person who helps people transition out of their bodies, the same way birth doulas help babies transition from the womb. She performed a "living funeral" for me and a handful of others.
I myself found a local death doula, a person who helps people transition out of their bodies, the same way birth doulas help babies transition from the womb. She performed a “living funeral” for me and a handful of others. We wrote down our goodbyes or last wishes or whatever we liked, and then had others read them out loud. Afterward, we laid down and she covered us with a shroud and tried to help us feel dead—whatever that meant to each of us—for several long minutes. When we came ‘back to life,’ we talked about it. The whole point is to integrate the reality of death into our lives instead of hiding from it, which hopefully makes us live more fully.
In my opinion, maybe because of Westerners’ difficulty with death, we also struggle with living life fully. When talking about a full life we say things like: “Smell the roses” or “Hug your loved ones,” but both of these actions take, like, two minutes. We say, “Live every day as if it was your last,” but that’s impractical. And we make bucket lists that may include seeing the pyramids, but that’s just sightseeing before leaving the planet. Lots of people have seen the pyramids and there’s no evidence that it gave them the sense they’d really lived life right; it’s less about the trip and more about the attitude. Death experts have compiled lists of what people regret when they’re on their deathbeds. Not seeing the pyramids is never one of the items.
[Also read: What's on your vision board?]
Usually, the dying wish for two main things: That they’d lived the life they really wanted instead of the one they thought they should, and that they had been better at loving.
I came up with a rule for myself about how to not "miss it." The rule is: pay attention. Every moment involves making a choice.
So, I came up with a rule for myself about how to not “miss it.” The rule is: pay attention. Every moment involves making a choice. You can get sucked into social media or you can have a glass of wine with a friend you haven’t seen for a while. The latter takes more effort, but if you were going to die tomorrow, you’d be glad you did it. You can let a rude customer or coworker wreck your whole day or you can revel in the fact that only the living get to wrestle with the messiness of life, with people and all their issues. And, if you were going to die tomorrow, this problem today wouldn’t seem so bad, or even worth channeling energy into. I think this is what Eastern philosophers call being conscious, or present in the moment. It’s not about making grand gestures but is instead about being aware that you’re alive and breathing. Considering the alternative, that’s saying quite a lot.
The phone goes off, “Don’t forget….” One of my favorite quotes on WeCroak is from the poet Maria Howe: “I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve.”
This is what the living do. Isn’t it awesome?