We face death every day, but do we really take time to think about it? (Bruce Secrist photo)
I recently read an article about having a relationship with death, and it surprised me. It proposed that you cannot truly live the most fulfilling life unless you have a relationship with death. Initially, the idea of having a “relationship with death” sounds unsettling, but I think they might be on to something.
Everyone dies. First responders see a lot of deaths and near-death experiences on the job. Many people fear death. But, what if fear of death is what is holding so many people back from truly living? What if the thing many people are missing, the thing that makes them live in fear, is a healthy relationship with death?
This doesn’t mean becoming more comfortable taking risks, though taking appropriate risks is a part of growing and pursuing dreams as a human. Having a relationship with death goes deeper than just confronting your fear head-on. Having a relationship with death has to do with how you see your relationships, your time, your challenges, those you need to forgive, and even your relationship with a higher power.
The Death of a Situation
Every change in life requires adjusting to a new way of doing things, a new schedule, a new rhythm for daily life, a new set of expectations, or even a new way of relating to the people around you. Marcus Arelius believed that “Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight.” Change is inevitable, and loss is all-to regular. Some changes are easy, and other changes will bring up unexpected emotions. This is a natural part of human processing.
Similar to physical death, changes are the death of a situation. They are the end of the way things were. Whether it’s the loss of a job or just shifting to a new boss at work, moving across the country or just moving across town, a falling out with a close friend or just a friend moving away, the end of a marriage or just a change of schedules that affects the time you have with your spouse, life’s changes often call for us to grieve. It could be loss of what you once thought was your dream job. It could be the loss of someone dear. It could be the loss of a particular level of a particular relationship. Regardless of the loss, it is just another change. Change is something that is natural and necessary. Grief is a natural part of processing the death of a situation.
Alan Watts, thinker and writer, proposed, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
Rather than living in fear that your situation will change, the same principle applies to the death of a situation – you cannot truly live the most fulfilling life, unless you have a relationship with death. You cannot truly live your current situation to the fullest unless you have considered what life would be like if that situation came to an end. As you picture your life without some of the things, people, and rhythms that define your daily life, you may find that you grow in gratitude, pay closer attention to the small things, and a greater sense of intentionality with how you spend your time.
“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another,” pondered Anatole France.
Escaping the Idea of Death
In first responder fields, it can be easy to become overwhelmed with the prominence of death and life-change. The civilian population has to face the idea of death to a certain extent, but first responders are confronted with the reality of death on a daily basis. Nearly every day, you see people pass away, become injured, or lose loved ones, and it can be easy to hate the idea of death and grieving enough to distance yourself mentally from it. The problem is that when death and change are viewed as an all-to-common enemy, first responders start turning toward escapes instead of talking about them and forming a relationship with them.
These escapes take the form of substance abuse, pornography, keeping busy, goal attainment, affairs, etc., which serve to buffer first responders from having to think about it. Thinker Omar Khayyam stated, “I drink not from mere joy in wine nor to scoff at faith – no, only to forget myself for a moment, that only do I want of intoxication, that alone.” If first responders rely on alcohol or these other distractions to keep their minds off of the pain they have experienced or the deaths they have seen, they usually end up spiraling downward. Instead of growing emotionally, individuals end up with strongholds and addictions in their lives that only keep them enslaved to the pain of their past.
The greatest possible upside to facing death daily is that first responders can actually live more self-actualized lives. When individuals face hardship, they grow. People who are given situations that are beyond their control have only one thing that they can control – their response. Viktor E. Frankl once stated, “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Pain usually produces the most profound growth in people. So, when first responders see pain and process through it, they have the beautiful potential of becoming the most in-the-moment, grateful, and connected people. Looking death in the eye and processing through pain will help first responders move from fear and avoidance to acceptance.
Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher, who was the youngest of seven children. He spent much of his childhood surrounded by the deaths of his loved ones, leaving only himself and one of his siblings still living by the time Kierkegaard turned 25. This exposure to death caused him to think deeply about life and death, and his thinking became, what many people consider, the foundation of existential thought. After years of pondering the idea of death, he came to the conclusion that “The ‘healthy’ person, the true individual, the self-realized soul, the ‘real’ man, is the one who has transcended himself.” How? Kierkegaard believed that transcending yourself can be done by realizing the truth of one’s situation. People who experience hardships and loss “build up strategies and techniques in the face of terror of his situation. These techniques can become an armor that can hold the person prisoner. The very defenses that he needs in order to move about with self-confidence and self-esteem become his life-long trap. In order to transcend himself, he must break down that which he needs in order to live.”
Kierkegaard’s perspective found that people grew up with the idea of avoiding the reality of their own mortality. This idea that humans grow up, build strengths, live in their identity, and contribute to the world around them, only to die was unsettling and anxiety-inducing. But, that by realizing this truth, humans could transcend themselves. By recognizing that death is inevitable, humans find the meaning in the moments they do have here on earth. They enjoy the social structures and symbols around them, admitting that their successes are built upon “borrowed powers”. Individuals live on a finite timeline with the support and structure of those who went before them. So, they can live, enjoy relationships, and contribute to the world around them, then face death.
Living Like You Could Lose What You Have
I think that you’ll find that when you’ve thought through some of your questions about death, or about any major changes in your life, for that matter, that it changes the way you live day-to-day. Thinking about your death doesn’t motivate you to die, it motivates you to live, really live. Thinking about a divorce or loss of a loved one doesn’t motivate you to end a relationship with that person, it motivates you to celebrate what you have!
Often, when people have experienced a traumatic event, they find that they have a renewed sense of gratitude for life, warmer and more intimate relationships, and better ability to live one day at a time. This is called posttraumatic growth. But, you don’t need to have your world rocked by trauma to change your thinking! By spending a minute with a pen and paper answering the questions below with a few sentences each can start your mind in the right direction.
A Premortem for Life
There’s a term, in the world of Fortune 50 Company management, known as “Premortem.” When someone has an idea, one of the most thorough ways to vet that idea is to write a premortem. When you want to execute something as well as could be imagined, you need to know what it would look like if that idea fell flat and completely failed. What would it cost you and the organization? A premortem is a look at the worst-case scenario – at the failure of an idea or organization – then working backward from that idea to determine what caused failure.
Perhaps it’s like that with life. Maybe we never quite live until we have a premortem for life. What is the worst-case scenario outcome of our lives? Perhaps our confidence in life comes from the security of knowing what comes at the end. Perhaps our perspective to love others, live in the moment, forgive freely, embrace change, and overcome loss comes from our understanding that our lives are temporary and death is inevitable. Perhaps how we view death shapes our lives more than we realize.
Here are some categories to consider and questions to ask yourself:
1. Spirituality: Do you have spiritual beliefs? What do those beliefs tell you about death/the afterlife? What do you need to do to settle those beliefs and become okay with the afterlife/your relationship with God? If you don’t have spiritual beliefs, what is your thinking about what happens when you die? Are there things you need to settle or questions you need to ask to become okay with the perspective you hold?
2. Experiences: Are there some experiences in your life that you would like to have happen before you die? What are they? Do you have control over making them happen? What would it look like if those things never occurred/took place?
3. Relationships: Who are some people in your life that you would want to have by your side as you died? What if they weren’t there? Are there things you need to say/do for them now or in the meantime, so you are settled in your relationship with them?
4. Places: Are there places you would like to see or see again before you die? What if you didn’t see them? What are some things you can do now to satisfy your desire to be there?
5. Passing: What is your ideal situation, place, and way that you would like to die? What would be the worst? What would it mean if your life ended the worst way possible?
You can use this similar line of questioning about almost every great thing in life – marriage, jobs, goals, loss of your health, other relationships – everything in life.
1. What would you want?
2. What’s the worst possible outcome?
3. What would it mean for you if your worst scenario came to pass?
4. How would you want to live, now, in light of that?
The phrase that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone is true! When you picture your life and you know in your heart how temporary (and sometimes hard) it can be, you learn to live fully, love deeply, and forgive readily because the fear of losing what you have is no longer a crippling fear, but a motivating fear.
This healthy fear motivates you to live more in the moment, appreciate connections with people, and be thankful for what you have. Almost every genre of music has a song about this concept. “Live Like You Were Dying” by Tim McGraw, “Big Yellow Taxi” by Counting Crows, and “Like I’m Going to Lose You” by Meghan Trainor all echo this same concept. People need to have a relationship with death. We need to have an understanding of our finitude and the temporality of the things we have.
So, ask the questions you need to ask. Have the conversations that need to take place. Do this, so that your life does not consist of holding back, but consists of living, loving, and giving because you have thought through what it would be like to lose.
One day at a time, you are spending the moments that make up your life. You get to decide how you treat people. You get to decide what you invest the best of yourself in. You get to decide what you want to make last. Maybe settling your relationship with death will help you define who you want to be and how you want to live. What are you waiting for?
Jada Hudson, M.S., LCPC, CADC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified alcohol and drug counselor, clinical director of program development for Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support, and clinical consultant for Operation Shattered Stars. Hudson is dedicated to helping firefighters process and heal from trauma, pediatric death, substance abuse, depression, and retirement transitions.