A Contemplation on Mortality

Just before dawn on a cold October morning in 2008, I boarded a puddle-jumper out of North Dakota after my father’s funeral. Mom, my two siblings and I were returning to California, and it felt like we were abandoning Dad. As I listened to Rainbow by Jia Peng Fang and looked out the window at the dots of light representing isolated farmhouses of South Dakota, then Wyoming, then Colorado, the song burned a powerful memory into my mind. Every now and then I hear it, and it reminds me, and I’m flattened, stunned stupid with grief all over again. So then I wonder,

Why the hell did humans have to get stuck with knowing they’re mortal?

It’s such a burden, and it’s a special gift to humans alone. Animals have no concept (although sometimes I wonder about elephants). Think how comforting it would be to have the limited consciousness of a dog, for example. You eat, sleep, poop, and watch for opportunities. You don’t think about your eight missing litter-mates or parents.

And then this is amazing: we humans adjust. I can go a whole month or two without feeling bad about Dad. What an underrated coping mechanism! We not only get used to the idea that we’ll lose our loved ones, but once we do suffer such a loss, we adapt and move on. The drive to survive wins out over grief, and even allows us to repress the knowledge that some day, we’re going to deliver that same blow to our loved ones.

Recently I noticed Bill was moping around. He was missing his parents, he said, but when I tried to comfort him, he declined. “The pain reminds me  of the love I felt for them. They were good parents.” Bill, who doesn’t believe in a God or afterlife, believes he will live on through the people he’s influenced positively.

I get fearful sometimes in the wee hours, when the arithmetic seems more stark and life more of a crap shoot. Like you, I’ve survived tragedy; I’ve dealt with situations that made me feel almost mentally ill at the realization of a horrendous truth, or some kind of great loss. Sometimes it seems we humans know too much. One way to alleviate that burden is a form of denial: you stay busy and productive, enjoy the sun on your face and the fragrance of new-mown grass, and try to ignore it.

I finally told Bill about my existentialist woes. I didn’t want to bum him out, because he’s always such a Pollyanna and I didn’t know if he could handle my dark side. He shrugged and said, “Life is wonderful, but it IS a ticking bomb.” Cracked me up. I felt relieved. We  know we will die. The choice is what we do with that knowledge.

I’ve pretty much decided to ignore the fact in favor of energetic productivity, and let the chips fall where they may. What about you? What’s your strategy for dealing with this?


  1. isthisthemiddle says

    I can so identify with this post and with so many of the comments. You were able to pack a lot of reflection into a few words. I have angst but no answers, unfortunately! Except that I’m glad I found your blog!

  2. says

    Lynne, I found you because we both follow Barbara Winter via Facebook. Your “voice” drew me in immediately, so I had to check out your blog. I’ve only read a few posts so far, but I love it! I enjoy the midlife-related topics you address and your open, conversational style, not to mention the thought-provoking comments of your readers. Thanks for writing–I look forward to reading more!

    • says

      Amber, you are too kind. I’m so glad you like it. Look forward to seeing you around the place. BTW I checked out your blog, and I can’t believe you loved Idiocracy, too! One of my fave all time movies. Almost describes the current situation, doesn’t it?

  3. says

    Lynne: I, too, often entertain notions concerning the fragility of life. You expressed many of my own thoughts. However, I’m not sure that animals don’t think about their missing offspring…we really don’t know what our pets (or other animals) are thinking…or if they do, in fact, think. I suspect that if, or when, we discover just how much their thought processesses parallel our own, we will no longer be able to rationalize our behavior towards them.

  4. Morgan says

    After my health problems the last few years, my joke is that “if what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, then I’m immortal!” I pop off with that line, but at the same time I know it’s not true. I know I will die, sooner or later, and I’ve made peace with that. I don’t fear it for myself, but I’m sorry for those I will leave behind (right down to my cats and dog). I’ve defined my purpose in life as “to live, to love, to learn, to laugh.” I’ve managed to do all four of those, and with that I’m content. I hope I can leave with some positive impact on others’ lives, and immortality of a sort in their memories. Maybe even an inspiration, by what my roommate called “persistent, resilient adaptation.” And for what’s on the other side? I’ll find out when I get there.

  5. says

    Since i consider myself a bunch of molecules, genes, chromosomes, chemicals, I feel I will go back to that in the thousand years it takes for my body to disintegrate back to where it started. My soul will be out there in space, maybe part of the Black hole or anti-matter we know little about. My mom, when dying, said she did not believe in after-life. I told her I firmly believed in after-life, but perhaps in unknown form. She is still part of me in my genes, memories, and actions. My daughter say they become more like me as they get older–in different ways. We become part of the universe–so much more than the house we lived in together, the town, on earth. Early science classes taught, “Matter is neither created not destroyed.” We do not know if that holds true now, but it looks like our substance will still be around when the last breath leaves us.

    • says

      Iris, you speak of something I can’t quite get my mind to accept: that even though matter is finite, what happens to all the energy we exert trying to learn, to mature, to grow? (Some might call this the soul). I would hope reincarnation is real, because I’d like to believe that wisdom isn’t wasted.

  6. Peggy says

    Lynne, this is a difficult issue to address for most of us. Like Bill, I am a “non believer.” What I leave behind is any good I’ve done that in some way made life better for someone else. To me, that is what matters. As for death, or being afraid of dying…I don’t fear my death, nor do I need to be comforted by a belief in an afterlife, but I do fear and dread the death of those I love. My mother is getting close to her time and I know I will miss her terribly. I sometimes already find myself grieving. My husband, who is healthy, is nonetheless 13 years my senior. I see him as a 70 (about to be 71) year old man and I wonder how many more productive, active years we’ll have…and it scares the shit out of me to think that maybe not so many, and unless an accident or some unforseen illness takes me before my time, I’m likely to be a young widow and that thought breaks my heart. So, I do my best NOT to think about death, to be grateful for each day I’m alive, to enjoy each moment to the best of my ablity, and appreciate what time my husband and I have together right now.

    What I find interesting is that even though we all know we will die some day, we don’t know when that time will come. Could be I’ll live to be 110. Could be that my husband will outlive me. Could be that any of us can suffer an anurism or stroke and die one minute from now. Might as well just have some fun, do some good while we are here, dwell on our “living time” rather than think about our “dying time.”

    • says

      Peggy, you are reading my mind. I worry about being widowed, but who do you think catches all the colds and flu that come around? Not my “old man”. If we could find the sweet spot between living in the moment and planning ahead, that’d be the ticket, wouldn’t it?

  7. says

    Lynne, my deep faith sustains me in this one. I firmly believe in an afterlife, that once again I’ll see my loved ones and there will be no more pain or suffering. I’m comforted by this. It probably sounds like Little Mary Sunshine, but it works for me! I find it hard to be depressed for long when there’s so much positive to look forward to, after my sojourn here!

    • says

      Deb, my mom is going thru hell right now, and if she didn’t have her faith, I just don’t know how she’d manage. She says so, too. I’m glad she has it, and I kind of envy her that comfort.

    • says

      Thanks for clarifying that, Madeleine. Good to hear from you. (I always picture you behind the wheel – is that what they call it? – of your plane, with the goggles and scarf. You rock.)

  8. want45sweetz says

    I fear dementia far more that I fear death. I don’t even want to think about someone having to clean me up and feed me every day because I don’t remember how or why to take care of myself.

    I worry that we still don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s Disease (or other dementias) or how to treat them. I cope by taking good care of my health and doing what studies show “may” prevent dementia. All of those things are things I should be doing anyway, such as being active physically, mentally, and socially. So far, so good.

  9. want45sweetz says

    I fear dementia far more than death itself. I can’t face the idea of someone having to clean me up and feed me and take care of me every day because I can’t remember how or why to do the basics of living.

    It’s especially scary because we still don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias or how to treat them. I cope with the fear by doing the things which some research suggests “may” help prevent dementia and hoping for the best. It’s worked so far, but I’m also aware that the risk increases with each passing year.

  10. Marsha Boyer says

    I feel the same way Bill does about leaving a positive legacy to my family and friends. That will be my “immortality” and so I try to keep all my encounters with them as positive and giving as possible. A few years ago I was going through a rough few months of chemotherapy and decided that I wanted to laugh every day and have fun with my closest friends and family. My daughter brought my one year old grandson most afternoons to read to me his favorite books. My son, who works in the medical field, made suggestions to help counteract the effects and just provided a calm atmosphere.My husband sought out wonderful funny books for me to take to treatments and my friends brought food and laughter. My nurses;who knew I crave chocolate; made sure I had some waiting for me in the treatment room every week. All of these little acts of kindness and the laughter got me through and still is in the forefront of my mind all the time. When I was finished; my family invited all my friends from every part of my life to a huge surprise party to celebrate the end of my chemo and my recovery. I try to live my life using the wonderful example they set with all their love and caring and hope that at my end; they will all have a big party and laugh while they remember the good things I brought to their lives.

    • says

      Marsha, your beautiful words exemplify the art of living a life with deep appreciation in spite of horrible circumstances. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, and best wishes in your continuing recovery.

  11. says

    I’ve been trying to come to terms with this over the winter. This is my first one when I did not have to go to work, drive into the city, struggle through winter storms. It was hard. Turning 65 in April this year loomed all winter. I have so much I still want to do and see. But severe illness three years ago has made me aware that it isn’t going to go on forever.
    I think though that what I fear is more being incapacitated than death. I mean, when I’m dead, it won’t matter to me anymore. But if I can’t look after myself, it will be prolonged dying, and that I do not want.
    I’ve been seeing a counselor for a few weeks, to try to come to terms with it all. I have almost always bounced back quickly from setbacks, but this one has been harder.
    I am trying to keep pushing the thoughts to the background, to let survivor skills surface, and enjoy what time is still given me, rather than mope around and waste it worrying about the time being over.
    I do not believe in an afterlife, not in the form that most religions suggest there might be. I tend to believe energy goes back to the universe at the moment of death. Whether it returns in human form, or takes a different form, I don’t know. So, onward with contentment I hope.! Carol

    • says

      Wow, Carol, I wish I could do a whole blog about your reply. Because it’s the 3 a.m. blues that we have to be able to deal with, and none of the slap-happy affirmations of positivity that work during the day are enough to insulate me in the wee hours. I remember a scientist, an atheist, saying that she believed in “enjoying myself, and being of service” in life. Those were her two core principles. If nothing else, know that I’m here, too. Thinking of the same big questions at 3 a.m. Best wishes. Stay in touch.

      • says

        Thanks, Lynne. I ‘ve had little depressions before, last a couple of days and then I’m ok again. Even when hubby had a car accident that saw him go through two bouts of pneumonia and toxic shock before dying seven weeks later. That was hard; all my friends were far away; but new internet friends helped me through. I always thought that retirement would be wonderful and that I would not miss work at all. And I don’t miss work, but facing the aging and how few years are left~I wish I had gotten back to writing 30 years ago and feel like so much wasted time. And then over the winter began to fear every little ache and pain. Anyway better now. And right now I am replying from Utica NY, more than half way to a retreat in Massachusetts~ and I made it out of my driveway! Yay!


  12. says

    Lynn, I actually find human consciousness a gift. Our awareness of awareness allows us to make high level choices in life, an evolutionary step not available to animals lower on the life scale rung. Knowing that someday I’m going to die helps me be aware of how I live my life today. I find that knowledge invigorating, inspiring and in a way – comforting that I’m not the only living thing going to die. It’s a phenomena that all living creatures share.

    What’s important is to have no regrets. It’s not that we won’t make mistakes, nor should we live life trying to avoid them. The key is to learn from them, grow from them and not resent having made them.

    Working in hospice for the last three years has certainly helped my growth toward appreciation of life and its acceptance. I used to crave exceptionalism – like the Broadway show character Pippin, I wanted to live an extraordinary life. I’ve grown to love mundane, because a mundane life is still life – which, by definition, is exceptional.

    Thanks for another good piece!

    • says

      Hospice would teach a person a lot about priorities, and about perspective. I love what you said about mundane. It takes a big person to appreciate simplicity.

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