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Monday, September 18. 2023
Mortality is a strange thing. We're here, then we're not. Our friends and family are here. Then they're gone. We focus a lot on things that impact us while we're alive, as we should, to make our lives more interesting and enjoyable. Outside of rare conversations on spirituality or religion, many people spend little time thinking about saying good-bye or preparing for what is inevitable, aside from taxes. It's a strange thing that death is actually one of the more important parts of life, after perhaps birth, and just like birth we have little to no control over when it takes place. We have some control over ourselves and our lives during the interim period between birth and death, though. Maybe that's the point?
Two things occurred in the last week which started me thinking about mortality and specifically my own mortality. They were both events which get most people thinking. First was a discussion with my in-laws about their end-of-life planning, as they have now both passed their mid-80s. Second was a notice that a classmate from high school had died, not someone I was extremely close with, though we had a relationship which had recently ended poorly.
The conversation with the in-laws was entirely wrapped around typical discussions of where they'd like to go, and how we'd handle it all as a family. Financially, structurally, and in terms of various responsibilities. Nobody likes to view themselves as a burden and my in-laws are the most active 80+ year olds I know. Sharp mentally and physically, and always up to travel (having just returned from Europe not too long ago). We didn't spend any time talking about the preparations which would occur afterward, nor would we really want to discuss events which are far too morbid for anyone as vibrant and vital as they are. So it was about making their life as enjoyable and meaningful as possible for themselves and their family, to optimize their lives and the time they have left with the family.
The second conversation was vastly different, though it was ostensibly about the same topic - mortality. When the notice that the classmate had died suddenly and unexpectedly came in (embolism) - I wrote to the few classmates I still converse with to let them know, and it sparked a few phone calls.
The tricky thing is my high school experience was not good. The few people I still communicate with were close friends or people I barely knew who I connected with later and, as adults, patched up the messy adolescent stuff we went through. I don't look back fondly on my teen years. As time passed and other classmates died, their deaths were a blip on my radar but not something which captured my attention. It's not that I disliked them or didn't care, I just didn't know them.
I did know this classmate. We were friendly my senior year, we reconnected after he got out of the military, we shared a lot of similar values and several good conversations over the years. Then, the last few months, his behavior became erratic and accusatory, and we ended the relationship on relatively poor terms.
Suddenly, a few months after our last (very depressingly bad) conversation, he was dead.
The conversation which took place was with another classmate, who I barely knew in high school, but connected with at a reunion. She was stunned, and while our email exchanges are usually about film, TV viewing and various topical social items, she reached out asking to speak since email simply wouldn't help. I spent an hour on the phone with her hashing the sudden imposition of finality into our otherwise workaday lives. Death and finality, these personal emotional things weren't something we typically discussed. Yet it's also something which can bring distant people together and find common human threads.
We'd both had similarly bad teen experiences, we both were friendly with the deceased classmate, we both shared similar views regarding various members of our class and how the time changes people. We agreed that as bad as some were or had been, we were adults now and that's all just adolescent BS that we're well past. The deceased, however, had been friendly with us both and it seemed so sudden that she was struggling with the news.
Perhaps I struggled less, because her view is "my father died at 65, and I'm 4 years from that, and while other classmates are gone, this was unexpected." My reply was most death is unexpected. I didn't mean that to wave her feelings off, it's just the reality. The expected deaths are often a blessing in some way. The unexpected ones are more common and take us off guard.
She knew the deceased better than I did, and my main concern was the disappointing finality of our last conversation. She explained there were several things I didn't know about - which explain a bit of why he'd become erratic and irrational. I don't know if the embolism played a role, nor does it matter. However, she and I agreed we want to end things as well as we can, as often as we can. That's just not always possible.
It was here that I wrapped up our call around my in-laws' conversation and said "I guess we have to focus on the things we have some control over, and try to make them as enjoyable and manageable as we can. It doesn't solve anything, but it does help make the time we have easier on ourselves and others. Having a positive outlook and trying to approach things without negativity is critical."
Shortly afterward, another friend texted me, saying he'd read an article about an "Elderly man attacked at local store" - the elderly man was 63. He said "I'm 61, and I'm not elderly. But maybe we're all just fooling ourselves. By my calculation, we hit the downward slope about 20 years ago." Speak for yourself, brother, ha! We wound up talking about a few other people we were in school with and I mentioned someone who was 4 years younger, saying "He's a good kid" only to realize he's 57 and hardly a kid. It says something, I'm not sure what, that he's still a kid in my memory. I hope he thinks of himself as a kid.
We are what we feel we are, and what we believe we are. That's a good thing. We have to draw positivity from inside ourselves, so continuing to think ourselves young, rather than elderly, is rejuvenating. 61 doesn't have to be elderly. After all, my Art teacher from high school just turned 99 and she flew up from Florida to meet some former students. There's a lot of life left, at any age, if we allow ourselves to enjoy it.
I will opt for my in-laws point of view and realize I can plan to make the most of the time I have left. They are among the last few of their own high school clique. They've gotten messages like the one I received many times. It's sad, maybe a bit disheartening, knowing how close to the target that news hits. Someday, someone will get that message about me. Hopefully they'll have fond memories, and a few stories to tell, as I did for my classmate. While I hope my relationships will end on good terms I know they can't all end that way - but I'll hold the memories on the best terms possible.
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I am about ten years older. We have been through more than a few deaths and I want my own to be as painless for others as possible. I try to make sure I have patched things and reduced misunderstandings. I continue to be amazed at the people who don't want things to be made right, who want to hag on to their resentments, and in doing so, punish others.
I don't understand this modern fascination with positivity and negativity, though. I, at least, regard them as empty buzzwords. I have spoken with you and know they probably have some real meaning to you, but I suggest you find some real words for what you are describing. I don't know if they will help you any, but they might help the rest of us consider more clearly what is happening.
I have been a very nostalgic person most of my life, and because of reunions I have been inspired to reach out to many these t=last three years. Over three dozen, with all schools and neighborhoods put together. I have a very few I talk with and go out to lunch with because of this, but the rest of them destroyed most of my remaining nostalgia.
The saddest thing, something we see almost daily, is a death in a family that cannot afford a dignified funeral, and the futile efforts to cover the expense.
My wife and I have been steely-eyed in our life planning. Motivated by the hardships caused by my late brother's untimely death, we purchased funeral insurance to spare our families similar hardship.
"We are what we feel we are, and what we believe we are."
We also are what we are. These days, that must be said plainly and publicly.
I agree but unfortunately I see many people who think they are something they are not.
So yes, we are what we are, we're certainly not always what we think we are. I guess I could refine my own comment and say we're not always what we believe we are - but it's my view, when I see people with an overly high opinion of themselves bustling around, they believe they something special and as a result that helps them get through the day.
I won't get into details but I know someone who makes everything about herself and no matter what the situation is, somehow it's about her. She's just that important, and she thinks she's that important - but I'm not sure she believes it because when the world doesn't go her way - good lord, you'd think everything had collapsed around her.
The one thing I know she believes is that she's so important, other peoples' lives revolve around what she does. And, indeed, some people have now become so dependent on her, that is exactly what has happened, with those people. She's always stunned when she's not that important to others.
Yes. We are what we are. We're not always thinking clearly about what we are, though.
I think it's great that you still have relationships with people that you went to high school with. I have been thinking a lot about mortality and the meaning of it all the last few years. I will be 70 soon. I'm convinced that 50 or 60 years after I'm dead there won't be any living person alive that has any memory of me. I will have slipped below the surface into the void. However, this makes the present moments very sweet. Every day I find myself being distracted by less and less. I tell myself it's the cod liver oil. And the vitamin D. But I think it's just me trying to get ready for eternity. Jack Lalane lived pretty healthy right up to around 94.
Why not me too?
I think you may be surprised who will or won't remember you after you're gone.
A person I lived with in 1983 was about the most under the radar kind of guy you ever met. Really great fellow, I really enjoyed spending a summer with him, we had some laughs.
Three years later, he was suddenly and surprisingly outed as gay (which helped explain a few odds and ends from my time with him), then shortly after that he died of complications from AIDS. We never viewed the fact he was gay to be an issue - it's just that he never felt comfortable enough to let us know, and back then that was understandable. I'd already known plenty of gay people by then and didn't care one way or the other. But I know that wasn't the standard for most people.
We still speak very fondly of him.
My point being I just think you'd be surprised what people remember. The toughest part, in my opinion, is that the vast number of people in life simply exist and then are gone and forgotten.
I'm not sure I'd care. Remember me, don't remember me. Over the course of 10,000+ years of human existence the vast majority of people are forgotten. I guess if that's where I wind up...well...that's where I wind up.
I hope you live a long and healthy life, too - and I'm sure that will help people remember who you are long after you're gone.
Thanks so much for your nice reply. Part of me thinks I may not be going after all. I plan to be held over by popular demand.
The sudden finality of an unexpected death does hit home. Even of someone you haven't spoken with in decades.
Earlier this summer I was sent an obituary of an old co-worker that I'd fallen out of touch with due to a major disagreement over a trip we'd planned. Turns out that things hadn't gone well for her over the last few years, she retired to take care of here aging parents who passed just before Covid, then eventually fell into Depression and took her own life early this summer.
So many woulda, coulda, shouldas and a strange mix of sorrow and a little of the old anger have colored my summer.
I still tear up just writing this now and wish there is something I could of done to help her.
Not much God talk, for a post on death. The inevitability of death is supposed to make us realize that what comes now is fun and all, but not nearly as important as what comes after. Old age is intended to help us realize that our days really are numbered and we need to put some serious thought into what comes after. Older people that go the great lengths to never talk about or think about their own deaths are a mystery to me. The death of friends and loved ones is intended as a merciful wake-up call. I would recommend taking your courage in hand and confronting what lies ahead. For the health of your soul. God Bless!
Why are you focused on the connection between G-d and "what comes after" - rather than G-d's connection to what is happening here and now, and the significance, dignity, hope, and meaning that G-d's presence can give to *life*?
I think many Boomer-influenced people automatically turn away from this pie-n-brimstone approach.
However, many would benefit from a living relationship to G-d... or at the very least, the stable moral code and web of relationships that come with life in religious fellowship.
I am focused on what comes after because this life is short and subject to much change, while that life is long and some fundamentals apparently cannot be changed. Your actions in this life determine your state in that life. Life is not intended for fun and games - even if you call the games significance, dignity and hope. It's not just Boomers that are turned off by pointing out the shortness of life. Most people do not like to be reminded. Nonetheless, by the grace of a loving God, at some point they will have a chance to see clearly.
I deliberately didn't discuss God. For a single reason.
We all have a different view of God and the role of God in our lives. I could share my own view, but that's only going to raise someone's hackles who doesn't agree. In my experience, if that person is an atheist, it can be downright snarky and dismissive.
I was focused more on the oddity of planning for life, and living, and trying to get the most out of it - but that death is actually a part of all that. And yet (and I pointed this out) we don't like to talk about death except for the odd conversation on spirituality or religion.
Our experiences in life (in this case, I was focused on high school since I had gone to school with the deceased) help to shape how we approach this. What's important to us? Who is important to us? To a large degree the Where and How we finish is important, too. We have no control at all over the When - so there's a need to put it all into perspective.
But ultimately the life part all ends the same way, making the end part of everything in between.
For some people, the role of God will be important and play a HUGE part in their lives. For others, less so, and maybe even none (though I tend to argue if you want to live a good, moral life and you don't believe in God as an entity, you still believe in God as a concept - because otherwise there are precious few reasons to live a good, moral life. There's limitations to my view, but it's mine and I don't care about the limitations...those are usually just verbal or metaphysical meanderings.)
But I appreciate your POV - just explaining why I didn't discuss it.
Need more reflection on Marcus Aureilus and how those of us who are Stoically-oriented deal with this sort of stuff.
Basically, we Stoics have thought it through and pictured it before it happens and accept it as part of the Great Plan. (whose plan it is, up to your own reasoning; or no plan at all).
To those with whom you have some issue, resolve it! To those you love, let them know it, BEFORE they pass! Makes things so much easier!
Part of the uneasiness surrounding death is the unequal lengths of life. As you grow up, you're placed in a cohort at school, and everyone is very nearly identical in age. It's how they're sorted. The bookend at the other end is tremendously variable.
I had people I went to high school with that didn't make it out of high school. (Let me tell you, a funeral full of teenagers is a strange event.)
I was about 3 months married, a couple of years out of school, and catch the obit of somebody we both knew in school.
The dominos just keep falling.
I'm at the age where I'm trying to get close family members to tell me what they would liked tagged with their name when my time is up. Close ones are hesitant but those a step back volunteer to have their names on things even those they aren't in the initial line up. They don't want to seem eager for my demise but I am old and it could be any time and I would rather tag it for a specific person instead of others trying to step in to take the items off their hands. I have seen families split over someone getting/taking something they shouldn't. After seeing my very wrinkled grandmother turned into a much smoother looking woman I kind of decided on a quick funeral and be put in the ground un imbalmed if possible.
I look forward to my death, purely out of curiosity. I truly have no idea what is coming, if anything, and I'll be excited to find out.
So I'm in no way scared, but also in no hurry. I've met all my responsibilities, kids are good and finances are adequate due to a lifetime of saving and living well below my means. Now it's just enjoy the ride. And if possible, die quick and cheaply.
I'm thinking about mortality a lot too. I've just discovered that a trusted family member may have embezzled most of my financial assets, with the help of my (soon to be ex) wife. If true, it will leave me bankrupt and saddled with tax debts that I will never be able to pay in the relatively short working time I have left.
I dealt with death of family at a younger than normal age. We learn from it, and are better for knowing. It shapes us, that is for sure. I'm 70 now and never thought I'd live over 50. That is life.
After a couple of near fatal accidents before age 19, I decided to take advantage of the the gift I had been given. I was able to go places and do things I never dreamed would be possible. I did not gain fame or fortune but that was not the goal. I did acheive satisfaction and comfort.
I was mostly spared dealing with death issues until recently. In 2022 I lost 14 friends, neighbors and relatives, including a daughter and a nephew both in their early fifties. It causes one to focus in on the inevitable end we all face.
We all wil die, so why fear it. There is something to be said for a fatal heart attack. There are far worse ways to go.
I cannot mend all the mistakes I made, just hope they were few and forgiven. Some one noted that in fifty years we will all be completely forgotten, that is a very sobering thought.