Some Thoughts on Death

What do we give up when we break up with partners of many years, partners who had witnessed so much of our formations and shared experience? Why does it matter? Why does its absence make life feel empty? Is everyone fundamentally alone? Are these questions driven by mere narcissism? This must be why we take pleasure in childhood friends, reunions, family -- in others we seek identity, substance, meaning, self. But all that is illusion; in this journey of life we may, blessed, create a ripple but the waves do close over us, every one.

I'll never forget a pamphlet I once saw, published by some religious sect, entitled, "Is this all there is?". Their answer was of course no -- they promised salvation -- but that, too, is illusion. Is this true also of art? Is meaning to be found in the beauty of each priceless, ephemeral moment?

Also forever in my memory is my father's last day. When it became clear to him that he was on his way out of life, he was sad. He said, "But I have so many projects, so much left to do.". He didn't say he was lonely, and I believe he was glad his children were there with him, but surely he was. He said he saw (felt?) the ocean's waves, asked for paper and pencil so he could draw it, how he communicated best. I had seen that his kidneys had quit; from his catheter emerged only a few drops of watery, pale blood. The morphine kicked in. His drawing was just a couple of horizontal, weakly wavering lines.

-- 02/11/12


Think: each of us is a ticking time bomb. With utter certainty we know that eventually we are each dead. Most will die of disease, some quickly, others following a protracted misery. In many of us the disease process has already silently begun. We are helpless before this juggernaut. Everyone is in full possession of this simple fact: certainty of doom.

How do we live with it? Some fret about how they'll be remembered. Creators of great works often are motivated by a striving for immortality. They focus on achievement, making their mark through their work during the brief timespan of fleeting opportunity. Art and science may serve as vehicles toward immortality; though the body perishes, the thoughts and works, it is hoped, live on. Others battle the death process itself, devoting great energy to diet, exercise, and early diagnosis. They cling and seek to prolong life, and to sustain its quality into their advanced years. Vitamins serve as prayer. Yet others wallow in futility; the purposelessness is brutally evident and insurmountable. Why suffer? Drugs, alcohol, adventure and pleasure-seeking can be used in attempts to dull the pain of harsh reality.

These psychological strategies could be said to foreshadow Kubler-Ross's famous five phases of death: anger, denial, bargaining, mourning/depression, and finally acceptance. Perhaps the path of wisdom is to skip the first four and go directly to acceptance. This does seem wise, and serene, too; but in practice, how might it be done?

At mid-life we witness in horror those of our peers who in youth "lived hard" and hastened the consumption of the finite capital of health allotted by biology. Some people fear the pain and humiliation of morbidity -- the final hours (which may last months or years) -- more than the death-rattle itself. "Old age," it has been said, "is a series of take-aways. Beauty, vigor, clarity of mind, memory, independence and ultimately, of course, life itself erode and disappear." As our mortality becomes more evident and inescapable, the value of that biological capital becomes overwhelming. Our western culture is unforgiving of the sin of age. "Genius," it is said, "is wisdom in youth." Wisdom in old age is not valued. Aging, we disappear. Women especially must adjust to the take-away of the easy beauty of youth. Often, what power they wielded came from this. Adjusting to its diminution can itself be a cause for grief and loss.

Yet another source of loss as we age is in the passing of family, friends, the people who know us. As they perish so, too, does our social context and, indeed, our very identity. We become isolated and insignificant. Fortunate are those who sustain relationships into old age.

Amplifying the misery of the final phase of our lifecycle is the utter loneliness of the process itself. Death is surely the most solitary of experiences. Unlike a movie which can be similarly perceived by a friend in the next seat, the experience of death cannot be shared. Even those blessed with family, friends, wealth, and support systems erected in a lifetime of love, virtue, or success nonetheless die alone.

Italians -- Catholics all -- are particularly obsessed with mortality. With passion and angst they ruminate on death and afterlife. A psychological framework for life's transitions, especially death, is a primary feature of Catholicism and, indeed, every religion.

Strategies for dealing with this most basic of truths are myriad. But in the end we're all dead and there's nothing we can do about it.


  • Be sparing with your precious biological capital: health.
  • Defend, sustain, and cherish your relationships. Ultimately, they are you and without them you're lost.
  • Achieve, and relish your achievements. They don't bestow immortality but they're as close as you can get.
  • Find solace if it's there for you but don't be fooled by religion.
  • Skip the anger, denial, bargaining, mourning, and depression and go straight for acceptance. After all, what have you got to lose?
-- Dan Keller 04/04/04