Thinking about Death
THINKING ABOUT DEATH SO… THIS IS IT?
May 29, 2020. I woke up this morning blinded by a slash of spring sunlight.
I got up and walked out towards the sun on the balcony. I sucked in the fresh air in a big gulp. I looked own at Walden pond and watched two large families of Canada Geese putter about along the water’s edge. The doe and fawn that visited daily in winter, often curling up in the snow below, wandered by and nibbled on the bark of a tree that appears be their treat, and the main reason for their frequent visits to our condo. The warblers are back, their radiant yellow breasts flit by like rockets, while a lone hawk swoops for some unknown prey. No sign of the coyote and her kit today.
I see the magic in the environment better than I ever have before. I know things now. I see how tightly woven I am into fabric of all I see. I am linked inseparably by over 4 billion years swimming in the evolutionary stream. I am the environment!
So out of that first Big Bang where my energy swirled, churned, and boiled and finally coalesced to forge my little sliver of a life. I am in awe of the magnitude of existence. As Mark Twain said “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
Yes, billions of years. I marvel at how long we have been at work. How long did it take to evolve a gall bladder, my tonsils, my kidney? Why did evolution leave out the one gene which evolved to protect my kidney from developing cysts? At a road cut through the Niagara escarpment in the Bruce Peninsula I marvel at the tick tock of time, and layering, beginning 415 million of years ago in multiple distinctive geological formations – Lockport dolomite, Queenstone shales, one after another of millions of years of sea bottom deposits.
Where did this grain of sand on my beach come from? How long did it take to get here? How was it originally formed?
There’s this and there’s that. There’s a billion years and there’s a life, there’s it and there’s me. I am just a grain of sand. Why did I matter? How does one see one’s significance in this blink of existence?
I’m shaken from my reverie by the shriek of an ambulance. It pulls up to our condo entrance. I look around say aloud. “So this is it?” I wonder, whose turn it is today.
As I approach my mid 80s I find I am thinking about death a lot, especially cooped up during this pandemic. I know it can happen any day and it will be most likely be by surprise. Each day is another blessing.
But is it unhealthy to think about death? Numerous studies have some surprising conclusions. One revealed that thinking about death makes you healthier…. and happier. The reality was noted, ‘that when we actually think about death, it actually elevates our mood and makes us happier’.
In another study, participants wrote about death each day for one week, and the researcher noted, “… participants, have been reporting lower levels of depression, increased positive mood, increased self- esteem and increased intrinsic motivation”.
On a generational study of self-esteem, I noted that the teen years are at the lowest level of self-esteem (especially girls). Self-esteem rises steadily into the 40s and 50s, till at around age 80, then self-esteem plummets to below the teen years. It’s not surprising.
It’s a matter of… is that it? Depression and lack of self-esteem are chronic conditions of the elderly.
I’ve learned to ignore when I am talked over, dismissed, walked over, ignored, simply because I am old. No one in our culture wants to hear the political opinions of a senior citizen, or on any subject, for that matter. All we do is show up to vote. I do fight the emptiness. But it is brief when I reflect on my history. I am buoyed by my memories. My memories ward off depression and loss of self-esteem.
As the Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel, wrote: “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.”
I am enriched by my memories. At times of the day I have memory flashes of incidents, people, family, that I haven’t remembered or thought about in over 70 years. I suddenly remembered today at the age of 7 or 8, 50 running barefoot down through a cedar forest on the face of the Lake Ontario shoreline at Fairport Beach (now Pickering), soaking in the distinctive odour of a cedar forest, and feeling the soft crunch of drying cedar fronds underfoot. I remember minute by minute, the hours in hospital hoping for a healthy baby, having already lost one son, Joshua, and twin boys who were still born. Lindsey’s birth was cause for sheer elation. Dozens of long forgotten memories tumble out. My stories of my family growing up, of my travel adventures alone on the road, of schools, colleagues and students, stories of teaching and learning.
Joan Didion mused “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. Yes! “Narrative is a primary act of mind.” (Barbara Hardy). As important as it is for children to hear or read stories, it is important for the elderly to tell their stories. As Catherine Bateson expressed it, “Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories”. They erupt out of me.
I have been telling stories ever since I began teaching, but only now think of myself as a storyteller. As one student from the early 1960s at Richmond hill high school wrote on my Facebook recently: “Jerry, your stories have always fascinated me, since way back in grade 9 geography class at RHHS! Well I remember tales of you sleeping in the Taj Mahal, adventures on the kibbutz in Israel etc. Absolutely magical for a young girl who had never even left the province.”
The psychologist, Jerome Bruner opened my eyes to the fact that argument and story are two ways of knowing: “two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality… a good story and a well-formed argument are different, natural kinds. Arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their life-likeness.”
I told stories as I taught, and now I have written up and posted my stories as they bubble up from me on the internet. Students from decades ago and students from my most recent years of teaching at York have found my blog or my Facebook page where I post my stories. Dozens respond with comments like these: ”I truly hope you know the joy you continue to bring to everyone you touch!” Russell wrote. “Thank you for sharing your life’s journey with all of us!”
In response to a recent story, super cool Frank, a student from my last class at York wrote… “You’re a gentleman Jerry, and an inspiration to every living being you’ve come across.” And colleague, Sharon Moss commented: “You’ve impacted so many lives, how could you not celebrate?! Your experiences remind me of a Hopi quote, ‘The one who tells the stories rules the world!’”
It is stone cold silent on Walden pond. I whistle softly to assure myself that I am still alive. How glorious to be alive! To have lived this life. An integral part of the web of life I behold. I turn to the sun and close my eyes. The sun dries my tears and washes my face. I realize my life now is crystallized in memory.
Interested in more discussions like this? Go to the Aging Well Support Group.
@jdiakiw Beautiful! Your way with words is very special. I so appreciate the honor you have given us through your words. Bless you
I sit here crying as I read your beautiful post because I just lost my 36 year old son. I wonder how I can go on. Maybe it's my duty to keep his memory alive through our stories, but for now both the past and future feel lost to me. Any words of help how to get through this pain would always be welcome. My only thoughts now are of death. His at too young an age, and mine to bring relief. I used to fear death but no more. I will just let nature take it's course and will no longer be afraid. I will not hurt myself, but will go on and live with his memory so that I can share it with others in time. For now the stories stay in my heart. I don't mind anymore not being seen because of my age. That gives me more peace, which is what I desperately need.
@beatricefay. My sincere condolences for your son so young My only son is 46 I pray for him every night Psalm 91:1 is a very comforting verse of you believe Friends and family are a comfort for you as well as some grief counseling have you looked into this? Mayo has a grief counseling information I'd like to ask @Colleen to help you with this
As my piece mentions it is healthy and helpful to talking about death among the elderly. Or those facing death and I believe also about the loss of a loved one to death. The one study mentioned reported how helpfu it was to write about death m or loss , or while grieving. To write stories you best remember of your son is helpful ….as Dideon said ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’. Good advice. Tell your stories to others and in writing to yourself. A record of a good life
@beatricefay First, my sincere condolences on losing your son. As @jdiakiw mentioned, writing can be very therapeutic. There is a discussion currently under the Just Want to Talk group, on journaling https://connect.mayoclinic.org/discussion/journaling-the-write-stuff-for-you/
There is also a Loss and Grief group discussion under this header https://connect.mayoclinic.org/group/loss-grief/
Each person has their own timeline for grieving, their own way of expressing how they feel, and what they are going through. I would encourage you to look under the Loss and Grief group to see if a topic might "speak" to you?
Please do what makes you comfortable, and avail yourself to grief groups through your local Wellness Community, hospice, or place of worship.
@gingerw Thanks Ginger I don't know how to post that info . Not tech savvy
Ginger, thank you for the suggestions. I will first try the loss and grief group.
Well said. However: I have found mourning the dead is far easier if I have not left kind words unsaid.
Here is a rhyme I wrote that expresses what I mean.
Maybe some here have someone they would like to share these thoughts with.
Don’t Write It
On Their Epitaph.
When I was but a little tyke,
A phrase I’d heard grown-ups relate.
“Don’t write it on their epitaph”,
“Don’t spend kind words that late”.
Others passing will seldom notice,
Kind words now spent ‘bout others.
Would have meant so much more,
If shared by friends or brothers.
Why is it hard to find the phrase,
That says the things we aim to say?
Harder still to find a time,
To share kind words amidst the fray.
Today your name has crossed my path,
Reminded me of times gone by.
Times of joy, or fear, or triumph,
Each time we part with but: “Good bye.”
Well I had “time” today, to set a spell.
To stop and pause and gather thoughts.
And now I’ll share what’s on my mind,
How knowing you,
much goodness brought.
We all know folks, nice people too,
The type we all call: “Kind and Just”,
But few we know, are always there,
When good times turn to bitter “rust.
That few that always seem to care,
Have that sense of
“What’s happened there”.
Will always take the time to stop,
To sit and listen, when ya need to share.
Well you know by now, I’m meaning you,
We’ve known each other for
“Oh so long”.
But in those years, I’ve never said:
“Thanks for being so near and strong.”
So I’ll “not” write these here,
Upon you tomb or graveside rock.
I’ll write them here for YOU to read,
Each time you have an “elder” block. ‘o)
As you think back to what you’ve done,
Take out this rhyme and read anew.
How much you friendship meant to me,
My care for you, just grew & grew.
Written by oldbuck, April 6th, 2010,
as he thought about
some of the wonderful folks
he’s known through the years
and how seldom we tell them
how much their friendship has meant.
Good one. I've been collecting epitaph for years but now I'll share the ones that are on my list of possibilities. " I did it my way " " I told you I was sick" "
"See you on the flip side" Feel free to use any as I'm having my ashes scattered.
Here's one for your collection: Sample of an old Epitaph;
"Stop ye travelers
as you pass by
As you are now,
so once was I
As I am now,
soon you shall be –
Prepare yourself to follow me."
* * * * *
To that, oldbuck added these words:
"But too follow me,
don’t be content
How do you know,
which way I went?"
And as you think
upon that thought,
Was I called or was I sent?