We grow older either dreading our own mortality or wrapping ourselves in denial of the fact that it is an intimate companion of being alive. However, aging is erroneously associated with the end of life. We confuse aging with death and the two should not be conflated with one another.
My husband frequently laments the fact that he will not enjoy all the marvels of technology yet to come. On the other hand, he mourns the perceived romantic simplicity of the ‘good old days’. Montaigne captures this paradox in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living by saying: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.”
If we think about it, every day we wake up a slightly different person. Each day a small part of us dies and changes so why perceive death as one major event in the distant future when it comes every day in one way or another. It is worth reminding ourselves that as soon as we are born the aging process begins.
Acknowledging and accepting the inevitability of our mortality bestows on us the gift of passionately living in the present, whether it is shared with a loved one, enjoying the peace of solitude, marveling at the wonders of nature, engaged in a favourite activity or simply getting on with life.
Those who fear death the most are often the ones who have not really lived or are burdened with unfulfilled dreams, unresolved issues or allowed life to pass them by. Death provides a context for life and a reminder that life should be meaningful, whatever our personal definition of a meaningful life might be.
We have all had and will continue to have, experiences with death. These experiences are unique to us all and will determine what our attitude is likely to be towards death. If our experiences are of a loved one having lived a long, healthy life ending with a peaceful death, then it will no doubt be more positive than having a loved one torn from life violently or at a young age.
Such an experience makes it much more difficult to come to terms with death. The unexpected, brutal death of my eldest brother changed the perception of life, living and death that remained with my parents until the end. On the other hand, the death of my younger brother was different.
His journey with terminal cancer and his decision to eventually cease treatment meant he took charge of his own death, giving him a sense of agency. He embodied the philosophy of living for each moment as if it was his last, which eventually as for all of us, it was. His journey made me realize that death, as with birth is only a very brief stage of life. Our focus should therefore be on the life between these two bookends.
So, despite the inevitable, we must get our priorities in order and focus on the life we have yet to live before the final moment arrives. Thanks to modern technology, medicine and changes in mindset, life after 50 has a great deal to offer. No doubt the average lifespan will continue to be extended as a result. In fact, the midlife crisis will not be about reclaiming a lost youth rather than how to live the next half of your life.
Death is not an enemy to be feared or defeated. Instead it gives meaning to our lives. It urges us to do something worthwhile with the life we have. It is up to us to live that life in a way that is fulfilling and rewarding. It is not about the length of time, but the quality of a life well lived!
In the words of wisdom offered by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross,
Death is the Final Stage of Growth