Note from Tim: Like many of my writings, I do not always know where my words and thoughts will take me. This article is no different. I sat down to commemorate a life-affirming milestone of life and it led me to the topic of death, two topics that I suggest are far more closely related than most of us realize! You have been warned!
Here is a riddle for you. What date comes next in this series:
Hint: Subtract 4 months. Subtract 1 day. Add 30 years.
The first date (9/12/1962) is the date I was born. The second date (5/11/1992) is the date I was diagnosed with cancer. The third date (1/10/2022) marked the day that I lived as long AFTER my diagnosis as BEFORE!
The rest of my days are just icing on the cake!
I don’t know exactly when I realized the personal significance of the date 1/10/22. It was probably shortly after my bone marrow transplant (1998) – a time when I wasn’t very confident that I would live a long life and I considered the prospect of living that long to be a fairly ambitious goal! As the date drew near, I began to give the thought more attention and, for the first time, I shared it with Shel (my wife) and my kids.
I have been fortunate enough to live “disease-free” since the transplant (nearly 24 years ago). However, my rather skeptical mindset along with an understanding of the risks of recurrence along with other long-term health complications related to radiation, chemotherapy, and transplantation (things like secondary cancers, blood disorders, cardiac concerns, and organ damage) make me reluctant to use the term “cured”. Besides, as the years have passed, I have reached an age when I am far more likely to be diagnosed with cancer then when I was originally diagnosed at the age of 29!
As writer John Irving noted, “... we are all terminal cases.”
The fact that I am still alive... and in fairly good health... it simply mystifies me! I never expected to live this long or this well!
Sidenote: There are, of course, many variables that play a role in both the quality and the quantity of our days including forces, both known and unknown, in the universe as well as many factors we can and cannot control. That being said, one factor that is clearly known and within our control that I feel has played an integral part, especially in the quality of my days, has been a commitment towards physical activity!
I don’t think I have ever been consumed by the concept or prospect of death, but my personal experience along with the work I do in our Local Cancer Community has kept thoughts of death, including my own, close by and a regular part of my awareness.
Many believe, in one way or another, that self-awareness is a significant part of what makes the human experience such a precious one. Writer Vladimir Nabokov defines “self-awareness” as “Being aware of being aware of being. In other words, if I not only know that I am but also know that I know it, then I belong to the human species. All the rest follows— the glory of thought, poetry, a vision of the universe.”
Indeed, self-awareness allows us to enjoy the endless beauties of this life. But... self-awareness also makes us painfully aware that one day we will cease to exist.
Many of us fear death and, as a result, avoid and even repress thoughts of mortality (our own and our loved ones). Many consider the talk of death to be morbid, morose, depressing, and fear it may somehow beckon death to come sooner. But sound mental health would suggest that we should face our fears... especially one as real and inevitable as death. Besides, try as you will, you will never be able to fully escape thoughts of death, dying and mortality.
Death has never been an easy topic to talk about in our culture, but the many deaths related to COVID-19 has brought a greater attention to the subject.
In this article titled “Talking About Death Is Hard, but Some Groups Embrace It,” Robin Flanigan looks at the role of “death cafes” as one way people can “discuss our impermanence, as well as an opportunity to participate in the growing death-positive movement, which rebrands the concept of dying to make it more acceptable to talk about and embrace.”
Considering one’s own mortality can, especially at first, be scary. Admittedly, I have experienced countless episodes of existential angst as I have contemplated my own mortality and that of those around me. It seems to come with the territory. But seeking a greater awareness and understanding of death can also bring great rewards. In fact, some research suggests that thinking about death can actually be a good thing. An awareness of mortality can help us re-prioritize goals and values, create stronger connections with loved ones, prevent us from taking so much for granted, and gain a greater appreciation for life. Studies also suggest that greater death awareness may lead to better health choices, such as eating better, using more sunscreen, smoking less, or increasing levels of exercise.
In this article titled, “The Life Benefits of Contemplating Death,” Noam Shpancer, a practicing clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Otterbein College in Columbus, Ohio proposes that “death awareness clarifies priorities, focuses our attention and provokes strong affiliative responses. As such, it can serve a healing function.” He closes by suggesting that contemplating death “can drive us toward love.”
Finally, I ask you to consider the interesting (and somewhat surprising) work of a group of psychologists from the University of North Carolina who propose, “Meeting the grim reaper may not be as grim as it seems.” This article by Sarah Berry titled “The ‘unexpectedly positive’ experience of dying” references a paper titled, “Dying Is Unexpectedly Positive” that entails two studies designed to examine whether facing death is as scary as many of us expect. The authors claim, “In every comparison, dying was either more positive or less negative – or both – than people imagined it to be.”
I am certainly not suggesting that I am (or any of us should be) enthusiastic about experiencing death! I truly do hope I have many more miles to run, meters to row, kites to fly, games to play, and days to spend with family and friends! But I am encouraging you to invite a bit more thought and conversation on the topic into your life.
Pragmatically, perhaps the best place to start is to complete or update legal documents related to your own death including a living will and durable power of healthcare. These documents may not only assist those you love during your death experience, but they may also begin to alleviate some of your own anxieties of the death process.
In summary, I leave you with this article by Elad Nehorai titled “6 Reasons You Should Be Thinking More About Death” from End-of-Life Washington in which he writes, “I’d like to share a few reasons it’s not only important but essential that we speak about the inevitable failure of our bodies to continue running. Death may seem like an uncomfortable subject to think about regularly, but it has been proven to do wonders for the human experience.”
Here is his list of reasons (see article for details):
1. It will make you healthier
2. It will make you happier
3. You will care more about others
4. Your personal goals will be better prioritized
5. You’ll appreciate art more
6. You’ll die better