Sometimes, when we want to help someone to find into a reflective mode, we ask questions such as: "If you knew you had only three weeks more to live, what would you do?". Of course, this is not about what people actually plan for their last days in life (who would have that sort of a plan?) — it's rather intended to encourage them to reflect on what is really important to them. The assumption is that, with only a few weeks more to go, they will get clear about their real priorities, and no longer spend any of that precious time on anything but that which matters most to them. (And thinking a step further, having found an answer to that question, they might realize that the same applies to the last year, or the last decade of their life, and in the end, they should treat the entire rest of their time that they still have left in the same way: figure out their real priorities and pursue them, and nothing else.)

Thinking about our own death has this power to forcefully remind us that we only have a limited stretch of time, and so it can help us concentrating our minds on finding the best possible way of living. There are many stories of people for whom a close encounter with death has changed, and focused, their lives: an accident they barely survived, a dangerous illness that left them hovering in uncertainty whether they would die from it for a time, the untimely death of a close friend or relative. These episodes make a deep fact about us more vivid than theoretical considerations could. They blast away the illusion that we often build (supported by many social habits that ensure that we don't reflect much on these things): that we are safe, at least for now; that we still have time, much time; that we may ignore the awful fact about ourselves — that our turn will come, and possibly sooner rather than later. Even the events in these stories, however, leave different paths open to people. Some of them revert soon to the old illusion; some, the more admirable of them, don't, and apply the lesson they have learned to the remainder of their life.

But then, there comes a moment when all the additional paths are shut down, one by one — there is a final stretch of time in all our lives when death is imminent, and inevitable. For some, it arrives quickly and as a surprise, in the middle of some activity; for others, it approaches quite predictably with old age, and usually with many frailties of the body. In any case, for everyone, there is a phase of dying in our lives.

Although people sometimes reflect on the possibility of their death, few seem to think about dying. (If they do, that's usually dominated by fears; and even those fears are probably less concerned with dying itself but rather with the pain that may be involved.) A bad sign is it when people even at that time suppress all thought of death. Trying to continue life as usual, anxiously avoiding all occasions for thinking about one's last moments, displaying studied outward lack of concern — in fact they surrender to an illusion. And how could living under an illusion be a good thing, in fact, how could choosing to live under an illusion be a wise choice? If in all the other phases of your life the best attitude is one of constant reflection, of actively shaping the developments in your world, then must this not also apply to this particular stage? Deceiving yourself about what remains in store for you would be the opposite of everything you might have achieved in your efforts to live a good life; now of all times you abandon your will to be in charge, and leave yourself over to cheap self-deception?

Being able to think and talk about death in this last period of one's life is a sign of strength of character, and courage. It's certainly not easy; living well is particularly hard during that phase. It is probably no exaggeration to say that this needs life-long preparation: part of this preparation is the continuous effort to reflect, and navigate your life as optimally as possible (under whichever circumstances you encounter); another part is getting clear about the nature of death, and its meaning for us as beings whose time is limited. Only so you can build the ability to endure those final moments calmly and serenely. The way you're dying will tell a lot about the way you have lived your life. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.