(The) Year of Magical Thinking: #A-Z Challenge

‘We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Here we go. Another risky post. But like its kissing cousin, religion and spirituality, we need to talk about death. Facing our own mortality is a defining characteristic of midlife and it is what sends many of us on a quest for life’s deeper meaning and a stronger sense of purpose.

Most of us have mourned family members and friends who have died. We have done the math and realized that the term ‘midlife’ may be a bit optimistic; that there’s less time ahead of than behind us. If both of our parents have died, we have realized that we are now members of the “oldest living generation,” a startling and discomfiting thought.

It’s Normal to Reject Facing Our Own Mortality

Some psychologists and philosophers posit that facing our own mortality leads to fear and anxiety that we attempt to relieve through all of the usual self-soothing, numbing forms of behaviour. For example, researchers found that after 9-11, there were significant increases in drinking, gambling, smoking, and comfort food eating.

Referred to as the terror management theory, the idea is that when we fear death, we close the circle, rejecting people who aren’t like us, and stockpiling material possessions in an attempt to feel both secure and significant.

Responses to talk of death range from plugging our ears and chanting “I can’t hear you!” to fantasizing along with William Saroyan,

“Everyone has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case” 

or laughing along with Woody Allen:

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

But There Are Positives to Facing Our Own Mortality

Leaving a Legacy

Knowing that we won’t be here forever does a wonderful job of concentrating the mind. For many of us, that means rethinking our purpose and consciously deciding what legacy we’d like to leave behind. There’s some evidence that this desire for legacy is correlated with efforts to be healthy and to seek spiritual growth.  I’m actually a big proponent of this positive, but can’t resist quoting Woody Allen on this topic too:

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.
I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.

Loving Our Life

Life is made more precious by the knowledge that it ends. People who have had a diagnosis of cancer, suffered a heart attack, or come close to death know this well, but it’s a reality we can all embrace. The awareness of time passing can help us to stop taking the beauty in our world for granted; to let go of old and unimportant concerns, and to feel and express gratitude for everything we love and all we have been given.

Try Not to Fear

When doing research for this post, I came across the transcript of a TEDx talk by Stephen Cave. His closing words are comforting to me. Hopefully they help you too.

“Imagine the book of your life, its covers, its beginning and end, and your birth and your death. You can only know the moments in between, the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”

How are you with the idea of  facing your own mortality? 

 

 

 

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56 comments

  1. Hi Karen,
    I’m comfortable with my mortality and very aware of it. There’s still a lot I want to do, but if I don’t get to do it all, I’m already happy with where I am at life so at least I’ve had that. And that brings me such a great sense of peace and well-being.
    I know a lot of people who are unwilling to face the facts about their own mortality and usually I see that they are not fully embracing life either.
    So I think the two go hand in hand – you can’t live your life fully if you are unable to accept/afraid of the realization that you will die.
    Yes, definitely “Life is made more precious by the knowledge that it ends”. Well said.
    Have a good day! Enjoy life!

    Deb

    1. Hi Deb, What a great place to be both mentally and emotionally. I think that’s a very difficult place for most people to land at, especially when still young as you/we are. But it seems worth the effort to get there because your sentence about life and death going hand in hand says it all. I’m not quite to your point yet, but I’m working on it.

  2. Touchee. On target with so many aspects.

    Two years ago, my daughter was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer (17% survival rate). She is still here, being treated with something that raisses that to 33% at four years… we have faced her loss several times due to reactions to treatment, and she’s not yet out of the woods with the initial cancer, plus she has side affects that are sometimes debilitating.

    And last week, the last of my father’s cousins passed. There were three still with us six months ago, and then they went, literally one-two-three. So here we are, the next generation becoming elders.

    Thanks for addressing this issue.

    Beth
    https://bethlapinsatozblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/28/yarn/

    1. Beth, I’m really sorry to hear about your daughter’s cancer. I don’t have children, but would imagine that facing your own mortality, while difficult, is much easier than contemplating your child’s. You sound strong and probably have all sorts of supports but in case you haven’t heard of it, please check out Heather Erickson’s blog, http://facingcancerwithgrace.com/ I just met Heather through the A-Z blogging challenge and have been so impressed by her wisdom and her empathy. She was doing an A-Z about creativity which I followed, but also an A-Z on the facing cancer site. One of the reasons I suggest it is because the cancer site is for caregivers, and Heather knows whereof she speaks.

  3. I have attended funerals since I was six years old when I experienced my first major loss – my cousin who was my age died in a tragic accident. I am grateful my parents allowed me to be a part of the family grieving process. They accepted the fact that life isn’t permanent and didn’t try to shelter me from this fact. In my work as a registered nurse, I’ve witnessed many deaths and helped families accept the inevitable. And I am in the position of being the oldest living generation in my family of origin, having lost both parents. I don’t relish the idea of ‘leaving’ but trust that when the time comes I’ll be ready. My religious faith gives me comfort, and my sense of humor helps me joke about it. My grandmother used to preface her future plans with, “If I live until spring…” and now I say the same thing and laugh at myself. I thought she was being morbid at the time and now I’ve become her!

    1. How wise of your parents to ‘normalize’ (for want of a better word) death at a time when they could provide you with support, Molly. Like you, I’m not ready to leave. There are many days when I still want an exception to be made! But I really do think it’s important, and not at all morbid or gruesome, to prepare. I’ve been wondering about volunteering in a hospice setting. Do you have experience with that environment?

      1. I have also considered volunteer work with hospice, Karen. I have guided many people to hospice and am a firm believer in utilizing it at end of life. It is hard for me to get people to accept it early enough due to stigma. My mother and sister both had hospice and so I’ve have had personal experience with family. It was wonderful support in both cases. For my mother we had it for three weeks and my sister for 6 months. I’m convinced my sister lived longer because she ‘gave up’ on chemo and accepted hospice. And her quality of life improved immensely. Being part of someone’s end of life experience is a privelege and extremely intimate. Everyone who works in this area tell me it is very rewarding.

        1. I’ve considered hospice work too, Molly. I even have the application downloaded to my desktop. I haven’t been able to apply until recently because they won’t accept you within a year of a significant loss and I’ve had a run of those. But now I can apply…and as I am getting closer to retirement I think I will revisit this possibility at that time. I agree it is a privilege to be there, and helpful to the person especially if family members don’t want to accept their passing or even hear them talk about it (which has happened, in my own extended family). We have this big hoopla over births and weddings in our society – why not give dying a little dignity and respect and support too?

          Deb

          1. Thanks, Molly. There’s going to be a hospice centre built in my area in the next couple of years. I really think I’d love to be involved. I might look into it this fall.
            Deb, that’s neat that you’ve been thinking the same thing. It would be fun to compare notes when we start the process.

      2. I had to add another comment, Karen. I love this quote from Philip Roth and I am putting his book, ‘Everyman’ on my to-read list. He said this, “Old age isn’t a battle, it’s a massacre.”

  4. Wow. What an amazing post. You wrote about the exact thoughts and feelings I’ve been struggling with for the past year. It was such a relief to read that it’s normal to become more anxious at this later point in life, when the years behind us are more than the number of years we’ll face ahead of us. I’ve had anxiety issues that relate to my body’s capabilities as I age. Many of these symptoms are in my head, not necessarily real, but they feel very real anyway. I didn’t expect to experience this kind of anxiety along my life’s journey. Also, I loved your Woody Allen quotes. I laughed out loud. Comedy makes everything better.

    1. Hi Cathi, I’m glad to hear that you feel less alone in your concerns. There’s a book I bought years ago, and still haven’t read. It’s called The Denial of Death and it won a Pulitzer. Our fear of our own mortality is very much a reality as we age, and a major thing we need to come to terms with by uncovering our authentic selves. From everything I’ve read, when we get to that place, we also get to wisdom and getting to wisdom means starting to come to terms with death. It’s a quest, a profound journey if you will, and we WILL figure it all out. I’m glad we can share thoughts, feelings, and ideas on our blogs.

    1. Thanks for your support, Donna. I don’t want to alienate or upset anyone by raising such an uncomfortable topic, but do know it’s in the minds of everyone midlife and beyond, whether we want to acknowledge it to others (or ourselves).

  5. Hi Karen, I like all the quotes you have in this post. I don’t reject facing my own mortality. Each day I’m focusing on making a good story for the moments in between that make up my life.

    1. Thanks, Natalie. I’m not a fan of Woody Allen at all, but I do love his two death quotes. And the Saroyan quote – I actually believed that one when I was younger. I remember announcing to my startled and amused English teacher that I had no intention of dying, it simply wasn’t in my plan.
      I remember you saying in response to a previous post that you try to live in the present moment. I would think that would be especially helpful when you’re focusing on each day’s good story. I always plan to do that but then get lost in dreams of the future.

  6. Hi Karen, First of all, I love the quotes especially Woody Allen’s. I have felt a lot of what you talk about in this post on mortality. However, I have already written about this in the past so I won’t repeat it. I don’t find the topic at all morbid as it is a part of life. Having said that, I still haven’t settled on my preferred way of dying. Long and slow, gives you the time to put things in order, to enjoy those sunrises and sunsets, and to revisit favourite places one more time. Short and fast is probably less painful in the long run, but it can leave alot of life undone. I am still thinking.

    1. Personally I’m opting for short and fast, preferably in my sleep and well after my mom is gone. Here’s hoping, once you decide, that you get your choice 🙂

  7. Good post, Karen. I do love my life but am perfectly happy to die. It’s got to do with the chronic junk that fills every day. Maybe I’ll change my mind when death is upon me.

    1. Wow, Jacqui. I feel as if I’m just starting to live so I’m still quite afraid of dying. I don’t know whether to envy you for how you’re feeling, considering it a sign of a life well lived, or to feel sad for you about the chronic junk that pulls your spirit down.

  8. I am not ok with being the family elder and facing my own demise. I really liked that ‘neutral’ zone.
    On the other hand, I have even stronger feelings about losing quality of life – of my world shrinking smaller and smaller, becoming a burden on my children.
    Given a choice between the two, I would choose the exit door. Sadly, we don’t really get to choose, do we?

    This series of posts all month have been very thought-provoking. I feel like I’ve been going through an informal psychoanalysis with each new day 🙂
    You’ve been putting a tremendous amount of work and research into each of these posts. Thank you and well done!!

    1. Thanks very much, Joanne. I know what you mean about the informal psychoanalysis. In Monday’s post you’ll see me referring to the month as a mini-curriculum in self-understanding.
      I’m not okay with facing my own demise either. Hopefully we have a good couple of decades before we need to think about which way it all might go.

  9. I’ve been surrounded by death since I was about 8. And I grew up thinking — for various psychological and psychic reasons (none of them health related) that I would die young and before I could accomplish anything in life. Despite understanding why I believed this, the thoughts still return from time to time — even at 54! So – facing my mortality is not new. As my mother, who passed on March 17 often said, “Your world ends when you die, why do you care what happens after that.”

    1. I appreciate you sharing that you have felt that way, Janet. It feels less lonely to know that I’m not the only one. My fear didn’t start until after I’d retired. My fear is dying before living.
      Your mom sounds like a very practical woman.

  10. Hi Karen. I had to get intimately acquainted with my own mortality when my husband was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. In the beginning, I had an irrational fear of leaving the house. I thought surely I would be in a fatal car accident or fall into a sinkhole, I actually imagined oncoming cars veering into my lane head-on. A psychologist told me this is actually a really common phenomenon for people who have never before been intimately acquainted with the reality of dying. And, it’s not all bad. It’s your mind’s way of adjusting to what you are facing. It also allows you to sort through your feelings about your own mortality. This is a wonderful post! I have shared it on my facebook page because I think it will be something my readers will appreciate. Facing Cancer with Grace

    1. That is so interesting, Heather. I appreciate you sharing your fear after your husband was diagnosed. After my father had a heart attack, I had a similar reaction but didn’t know what it meant. The psychologist’s interpretation makes sense.
      Thanks so much for sharing the post, Heather.

  11. Hi Karen, risky posts are good because they make us think. Having lost my mother at 63, my Dad at 66 and 2 years ago my brother at 65, when I turned 60 last year I did become more aware of my own mortality. Each died from a different form of cancer. I think as we get older we don’t fear death as much. I think for me is that I don’t want to leave my gorgeous and loving family. However, on a positive note, I totally agree with focusing on leaving a legacy and enjoying every moment – we never know when it will be our last. Have a wonderful weekend, Karen and I’m sharing on my Facebook page.

    1. That’s a really tough go with your family, Sue. I think I’d be in a fetal position, afraid to get out of bed and worried constantly about my future. Instead, you focus on thriving and helping the rest of us do the same. There’s a legacy for you!
      Thank you for sharing the post. I truly appreciate it.

  12. I have no trouble facing my own mortality it is those I love I have a hard time with. My husband has cancer and the thoughts of losing him are overwhelming some days. I was an oncology nurse before I retired and I know how hard the journey he is on can be. I pray that God gives us a miracle and heals/cures him but I am also aware God has His own plan.

    1. I’m so sorry, Victoria. Your expertise will help your husband – he can trust that you know how to care for him and what’s normal for him to feel versus what isn’t. At the same time, your expertise must make this so much more difficult for you. You can hardly be the objective caregiver you were able to be when at work. I truly hope and pray that you get your miracle and, if you don’t, that you feel the peaceful acceptance Steven Cave talks about in the quote at the end of the post.

  13. I, for one, am in denial…. sort of, anyway. It’s not that I think I will live forever, it’s just that I feel so darn good it’s hard to believe that things will change.

    I heard a really interesting quote the other day: “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” It’s by David Eagleman, a writer and neuroscientist, who has written several books, including Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (where I think the quote is from). It really made me think about the legacy I want to leave. I haven’t read the book but, based on the interview I heard, it’s on my list.

  14. Many years ago I was in a terrible automobile accident; and was told later that I “died” twice on the way to the hospital. Obviously, I survived – but I have absolutely no fear of dying. I have heard this from numerous people over the years who “died” after a heart attack or drowning, and yet survived. My mortality is not something I fear for myself but for those I leave behind. I read a book called “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” by Katy Butler and realized that we must all prepare – no matter our age. So in anticipation of my demise – which I certainly do not expect any time soon – I have written a letter to each of my children and to my dear trusted executor, explaining what must be done and how. I believe that those who die intestate or without clear instructions create a terrible burden for their friends and family and like a Boy Scout – we should be prepared.

    1. I’ve heard that too, Anna, that death or near-death experiences leave people unafraid of dying. Why is that do you think? Is it because people who go through these experiences found them peaceful or oblivious? Because they’ve had a second chance at life so every day feels like bonus time? Something else?

      You’re so right that we have a responsibility to be prepared. Much like the death cleaning I talked about in a post a few months ago, dying without leaving clear instructions, including a will, puts such a heavy burden on already grieving family and friends.

  15. I’m a bit weird in that I think about my death and funeral on a fairly regular basis. I like to be prepared and so I have picked the songs I like, the coffin I like, the type of funeral I’d have etc. None of it is cut and dried and none of it is really serious, but I think it desensitizes me to it all. I’d like to leave a happy legacy and for my kids to laugh about how prepared I was and how little they had to do when the time comes.

    1. It hadn’t occurred to me to do anything like that, but I don’t think it’s weird at all Leanne. I suspect you are right that it desensitizes you to the trappings that surround death. And, after all, sometimes those trappings are some of the scariest things about it. What a thoughtful thing to do for your kids. When the time does come, many years hence, it will make things so much easier for them.

  16. This is wonderful, Karen. When my mother died, I did the math, and realized that – if I lived as long as she did (and there is the argument that she took better care of herself than I have) – I had less than 7500 days left! Then I looked back on all the days I’d lived so far, and how few of them were clearly remembered, or even genuinely appreciated that they were lived. That is the reason I started my blog: to pay attention to the days as they speed by. Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

    1. That’s one of the best reasons I know of for blogging, Cindy. Of course I’m a little biased since it’s the primary reason I blog too. I want to pay attention and I want to be accountable to myself and everyone else for living my life with intention, passion, and joy.

  17. Hi Karen. I read Joan Didion’s book a few years ago…whew, we’re almost done with A to Z and I thought I was going to go 0-for-26 with your excellent book selections! My father died when I was 8, and my maternal grandfather was a mortician, so I’m sure I thought about death much more than the average child. (Hopefully I wasn’t quite as bleak as Wednesday from the Addams Family!) But my mother is 82 and still going strong, so I’ve had these two very different experiences with parents and mortality. I think my biggest fear of dying is leaving unfinished business–from laundry and dishes in the sink to books unwritten and words unsaid. So maybe my to-do list will grant me immortality because I’ll never reach the end of it, ha ha!

    Cave’s book metaphor is brilliant, and I’m so grateful you included it in your post. Thanks again for spreading wisdom far and wide!

    1. Hi Jenny. I love your take on life. I’d forgotten all about Wednesday from the Addams Family but once you mentioned her, I had this great image of you as an 8 year old visiting your grandfather at his work.
      I’ve got the same fear of unfinished business and am hoping that makes me an exception, at least until I’m really old and my to-do list doesn’t feel as urgent and all-important.

  18. I’m not sure exactly why or how, but, for some reason (a dream, a thought, a “vision”), I have been aware of my mortality and of the preciousness of time since I was twelve or so. I know, kind of weird, but it has been a strong realization in me as long as I remember. I think, unconsciously (since it’s luckily not on the forefront of everything I do or think), that might be the instigator of my life less ordinary since being in my twenties. But, who knows.

    I agree that we have a short time on earth and that what we do between the time we are born and the time we die, is up to us. We need to fill in that story, and make it a happy and satisfied one. As of now, I have the first line of this paragraph in the introduction of my memoir. But, my husband is worried I’m “stealing” it from somewhere. No wonder, your blog post sounded familiar. Everyone already knows these wise words. -)

    1. Hi Liesbet,
      I just looked it up so that Mark can rest easy. The actual quote he is thinking of is by Steven Ramirez who wrote a book titled ‘Tell Me When I’m Dead.’ (Interesting title!) Anyway, he wrote, “We are born. We die. Somewhere in between we live. And how we live is up to us. That’s it.”

      I’ve often wondered if your pursuit of a life less ordinary since a young age had anything to do with an awareness of death. Thanks for addressing that.

      1. Thank you for the research and the quote, Karen. I basically wrote exactly that, not realizing I was quoting someone. I guess those phrases make a lot of sense. Hmmm. I guess I need to address that next. 🙂

  19. good on You karen – it is something to talk about if we dare- I come and go with it as a topic – I figure I am actually living with my death every moment of my life – mostly this is a great comfort to me and occasionally I can feel throttled with fear of the dying process not the death itself. I love that quote – that we’ make it a good story’ – that is me, that is what I am attempting to live and tell and be – a good story – whatever that may mean …in the eyes of the beholder…

    1. Wise of you to make a distinction between the dying process and death, Sandra. I imagine it’s the dying process that scares many/most of us.
      That’s a nice definition of a life isn’t it – to be a good story, however you conceive that.

  20. A great article, and thanks for bringing this out into the open. Once I accepted the idea that more of my life was behind me than before me, I’ve come to think about my own mortality a lot. Not in a morbid way, but with a seeker’s mind – what are the possibilities? How might it actually be to die and leave this life? I’ve had a variety of ideas, always changing and always positive. I’m almost to the point that I strongly sense that whatever it is you believe, that’s what you get! For me, I think that facing and exploring our mortality is essential to leading an awesome later part of our lives. I see what we are doing right now as part of the thread that goes with us into eternity and was with us before we came into this life.

    1. What a thoughtful and inspiring comment, Jane! I love your conceptualization of looking at your own mortality with a seeker’s mind. And I agree completely that without an awareness of the end, we can’t experience that awesome later part of our lives. We need the boundary, the knowledge of ending, to pay attention and make the present sweeter. Thank you so much for visiting Profound Journey, Jane.

  21. My kids are my legacy. No matter the messy house days or the clean house days, the happy days or sad ones, the long work hours or the days doing nothing none of it will be remembered by anyone after I am gone. But my gorgeous Barbarians will be leaving an imprint on this world and that will be how I am remembered. As I am sliding down the “senior” slope, my two are climbing up. How could that ever make me sad?

  22. An important post, Karen, and tastefully done. I think I’m okay with my mortality. Just want to see my son full on into adulthood, on his own feet, with his own family and life. I think it’s the act of dying most people fear, because once dead, it’s over. The fear of suffering or of causing pain to others. I grew up in a culture where open casket funerals were too many and we attended often. So, I came to terms with that part, however morbid. A friend who believes human consciousness is linked to the law of the universe and will rejoin the universe at large after death says death is just an illusion. 🙂

    1. Unless something quite drastic happens, you will see your son into adulthood and still have many decades left. I do hope your friend is right. It would be lovely to imagine death as an illusion. At the very least, though, I’m with you – the fear is of the act of dying, especially of causing pain to others. On this I don’t expect to be the exception William Saroyan hoped for, but I do hope it will be at least a couple of decades down the road.

  23. When I was young, I was terrified of dying and the idea of death, and didn’t like being around elderly people (because they made me think of death). In my middle years, I was very concerned about leaving something that I would be remembered for after I was gone (a piece of art, a book I had written, a program or institution that I had created).

    Recently, I have discovered to my surprise, that I am no longer afraid of dying or death, and that it no longer matters to me to leave a legacy. Life is in the living, not in the material signifiers one leaves behind.

    What has changed? Well, I have experienced the deaths of several family members and friends close up. As well, I have seen my children grow up and begin their adult lives. I have grandchildren. I have made contributions through my work that have made a significant difference to other people (e.g., students or colleagues that I have mentored). Even if few people remember me after I am gone, I know that I have made at least a little difference in the world.

    It is tremendously freeing to no longer be so afraid of death or to need to live on through a legacy. I can write a novel for the sheer joy of it, not because I’m driven to write a treatise to “save the world.” I can enjoy spending a day hanging out with my three-year-old grandson doing things at his pace without feeling I have to rush around getting a million things done because time is speeding by. I love life and being alive, and it will be hard to say goodbye when the time comes, but I no longer fear it.

    Jude

    1. What a wonderful place to be, Jude. Not fearing death is a central task of the final third of life. Look at you – just into that final third and already in great shape!

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