Let's be honest about the reality of death.
By Ben Tudor, LMFT
Photo by Rob Wicks on Unsplash
Not to be morbid, but…let's be real.
I get frustrated when someone preambles a statement around death, dying, or mortality this way. As if they have to passively apologize for bringing up such a thing. Especially when it is THE THING… the one thing, that is everywhere and always, that colors our worlds, philosophies, and decision making, whether we want to admit it or not.
Morbid is defined as “characterized by gloomy or unwholesome feelings”.
Do conversations about death have to be defined the same way? Has death always been seen this way culturally, or have we taught ourselves that to talk about death means to be dark, depressing, uncouth?
There is obviously a before and after element to the discussion I hope to arouse. Conversation prior to one’s death, and reaction to a death that has already occurred. Let’s begin with the latter. Mourning one’s loss of life as we know it doesn’t necessarily have to be grim and awkward. There are lots of examples of death of a loved one being treated in a more honorable, realistic, and even celebratory fashion.
Día de los Muertos- “These celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed.”
Jazz Funeral New Orleans- “‘When the deceased is laid to rest – or they “cut the body loose”– the mourners “cut loose” as well.’”
Sitting Shiva- “embraces a time when individuals discuss their loss and accept the comfort of others”.
Back to the definition: “unwholesome”…grrr. My frustration persists.
Answer me this- what could be more wholesome than to talk about something that is guaranteed, and learn how to use its ubiquity as a motivational informant towards getting the most out of life?
“Death allows authenticity”, a go-to quote of mine from an unknown source. I sometimes swap out “allows” for “demands”. If you were to live to 1,000 years old, you could live many different versions of life. Death demands that we are intentional. That we are brave and aware explorers that go after what interests us, what feels right, and what aligns with our value system.
What matters to you?
How can you make this a regular part of your life?
Who is most important?
How do you want to treat those people?
So this is how death becomes a tool…
…but only if we don’t turn a blind eye to it. In the mind-bending book, The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker, he concedes that if one was to think about their own death all of the time, they’d be so consumed by the starkness of this reality they’d become paralyzed and/or unhinged. So there is a necessity to move your eventual and inevitable demise to your subconscious more frequently than not. But Becker makes it very clear- to ignore death, to live so arrogantly as to not address death, is to live an ignorant and diluted existence.
4 Major Existential Threats
Existential therapist, Irvin Yalom, notes that there are 4 major existential threats that can cause disorder in one’s experience of their life:
Freedom & Responsibility
As for death, he directs one to face up to it- “oblivion, nothingness; the inevitable, inescapable, uncontrollable and unpredictable fate that annihilates our existence, the finitude and fragility of our lives, our own mortality.” “We must find a way to live despite the fear and the fading..though the physicality of death may destroy us, the idea of death may save us”. Only then can one live a true, fulfilling, and productive life. Big ask, big reward.
So what does the practice of acknowledging and honoring the inevitable look like?
Dot your life exercise- this can light a fire under your behind!
Read and research others thoughts around death (here’s a start) to begin developing your own philosophy of, and relationship to, death. By doing so you will also find your philosophy for life.
If religious, consider how your religion discusses death and how this informs how best to use the idea of death to better life
Ask people what they want to happen to their bodies when they die (I’d like to become a tree 🌳)
Storyworth- a keepsake that helps collect stories about a loved one’s life, and a memory piece upon their departure
Create a shared bucket list with a loved one
This has not been to help you become numb to death or to save you from grief. It is to respect death, be in awe of it, and not “surprised” by it. There are few topics that are as expansive as one about death, so please consider this a small, one-sided, 700 word offering of my experiences and thoughts. I’d love to continue the conversation and hear the thoughts of others. Please feel free to reach out.
Let's talk about the hard stuff.
Artesian Collaborative is a mental health practice based in Chicago. We excel at guiding individuals and teams through tense and difficult topics - and helping them feel good about it.
Our therapists provide mental health counseling for individuals, couples, and families. Our team also leads corporate and community trainings in the areas of Stress Management, Diversity Equity & Inclusion, and Relational Leadership.