When I was training for my role as the acting social worker for 11 Holocaust survivors (which I’ve written about here), my supervisor gave me a booklet to read that shook me to my core. It was full of all kinds of information about working with elderly survivors, like responding to PTSD flashbacks and navigating situations where the client may be averse to hospitals or other institutions that are intended to help them. I remember flipping through the book at my desk, devouring each and every page, until I got to a section that made me freeze in my tracks. It was about death.
It made sense that the booklet included this. Most Holocaust survivors are quite old at this point and may find themselves on their deathbeds relatively soon. But it made my skin crawl thinking about it. Death. The end of life. The final curtain.
As I kept reading, the booklet discussed the importance of accepting death. What? Accepting death? This was a new concept to me. How was I supposed to accept something so morbid? Something so unknown and therefore frightening to me? Something nobody talks about unless we’re at a funeral?
After that day, I kept thinking about it. What was so difficult about accepting death? Isn’t death another part of life? Isn’t it more inevitable than perhaps any other life event? How come we never talk about it and can’t seem to come to terms with such a regular occurrence?
I did some more research and stumbled upon this write-up about coming to terms with death. It proposes the following:
Why it is good to accept death: denial of death enables us to temporarily avoid fear and other unpleasant feelings associated with it. However, there are several good reasons to accept death:
- Death is a part of the life cycle and denying it means denying life as it is; awareness of death enables us to perceive life in its totality.
- Sooner or later everybody has to face death (of others and finally their own), which is harder to do if unprepared. Those who accept death as a part of life are in a better position and more in control in such situations.
- Accepting death can make you more courageous.
- It puts into perspective small misfortunes and self-importance.
- It can contribute to decision making too: death reminds us that the time to accomplish our projects is not unlimited and may help us set priorities.
- Being aware of death leads to respecting life more and valuing every moment: somewhat paradoxically, it makes us more alive.
Suddenly it made a little more sense. Avoiding death is avoiding anxiety about the unknown, about a frightening after that can be hard to grapple with. Whether one believes in the afterlife or not, death comes with all sorts of questions and worries that simply have few answers. Our natural reaction is to stop thinking about it at all.
We also worry that we won’t have “figured out” this whole living thing before the end of it happens. That is an anxiety all it’s own. We consider the possibility that at the close of our days we won’t have accomplished all we could have, and that is a thought too desperate to dwell on.
But, as the article discusses, accepting death can be liberating. It can help us live our fullest lives. It makes us remember to value every moment we have. Death is the only life event we have no control over stopping or avoiding, and pushing it out of our headspace will not slow its approach. We do have control over how we choose to live the remaining days we’ve got, and this is all.
And so, after realizing this, I try to think of death often. Not only my own death, but the deaths of my loved ones as well. It pushes me to cherish the time I have with people I care about, to remind them of how much they mean to me, and to live fully with every second I have. I do not want to find myself on my deathbed and remember the time I spent watching television alone in my bedroom or scrolling through social media in an attempt to numb any thoughts of painful situations in my life. I want to remember achieving goals, experiencing new things, and spending time with people I care about. Granted, I don’t think of death so frequently that it consumes me, but just enough that it propels me.
I don’t have it all figured out. There are still days when I think of death and feel anxious, but I find that these days occur when I haven’t been doing my best to fully lean into the time I’ve got. When I’m diligent about living well, I feel that I will also die well, and I am comforted.
There is a poem I want to share with you because I love it and because the author’s orientation towards death is one I aspire to imitate:
They tell me I am going to die.
Why don’t I seem to care?
My cup is full. Let it spill.
Isn’t that lovely? If you’re interested in reading more about death, here is a good article that discusses the topic in a way I enjoyed (although it is admittedly highly theoretical and abstract).
What about you? What is your stance on death, and how do you approach it?