There was a time when I thought that death acceptance was the opposite of death denial. I also thought that there were two signs of death denial: fear of death and dying, and strong attachments to life and living. My thinking was that if I didn’t have fear and anxiety about death, and I could sever my strong attachments in life, I would live peacefully with the full acceptance of death.
Memento mori is Latin for “remember that you [have to] die”. It is also an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. Yet, while we’re all going to die—and we all know we’re going to die—most people don’t think about it at all.
As you may imagine, I think about death a lot. Hey, it’s my job!
Often when I think about death and dying, it feels like an academic exercise. I read about what other people have learned, either about their own mortality, or from the experience companioning others through death and dying. I also learn from spiritual teachers and philosophers about their perspectives on death consciousness.
These past weeks my thoughts on death were not academic. Michelle’s vibrant and fit 82-year old mother-in-law, who lived upstairs from Michelle, died suddenly and unexpectedly on Nov 16. It was a shock, as sudden deaths always are.
Life is precious and unpredictable.
Besides the deep love and compassion I feel for Michelle and her family who are navigating loss and grief, I was struck by how Pat’s death impacted me personally. I was viscerally reminded how precious and unpredictable life is. During the two weeks since she died I’ve been living with more focus and intention. So let’s unpack that a bit.
Life and death are omnipresent in human existence. We all know that someday, one day we’re going to die. This knowing that we’re going to die is unique to humans. No other living beings have this awareness.
Is this a gift or is it a curse? As we wrote about in Your Mortality is an Opportunity in Disguise, the choice is yours!
There are so many great quotes about the preciousness of life, but when I read them they feel so cliché. And that’s because they are, if you don’t feel it in your bones. For most of us it takes a death, or a near death, or a life-threatening diagnosis to wake us up to the reality of our own mortality. So even though I think about death often, Pat’s death reminded me that I too will die.
Thinking about your own mortality and the preciousness of your life, is not a one-time event. It’s a practice!
When Pat died, I was jolted out of the clichés and into reality. As I felt that jolt fading, I sat down to meditate, repeating the mantra “Memento Mori, remember that you die.”
The mantra calmed me. It brought me back to the present. It reminded me that the only thing I can do until I die is live, and with every fiber of my being, I want to live fully. Perhaps instead of saying to myself “remember that you die”, I should say, “remember to live.”
In memory of Patricia Eleanor Johnson (1938 – 2020), may she rest in peace.
With all my love,
Reena (+ Michelle)
What about you?
What practices support you to remember to live?