How to Live When You’re Dying

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Embrace the idea of death for a better life.

By Wesley Baines

Death.

It’s a concept that few wish to dwell on, but one that will eventually become a reality for each of us. For some of us, it comes rushing up sooner than we’d like, and suddenly the hands of the clock are moved up to five minutes till midnight. For others, the hands move at their normal pace, but our minds linger on what those final moments will hold.

The truth is that we are all dying. Every last one of us. But by learning to accept death, by allowing the ticking clock to drive us to greater heights rather than to deeper despair, we can truly live. And in choosing to live in the face of death, we not only improve the time we have left, but also set an example for others so that they might do the same.

Whether you’ve recently found your own clock unexpectedly moved forward or if you simply find your eventual end more discomforting than you’d like, there are lessons to learn here that will make the remainder of your life not mere a series of days, but beautifully alive.

Accept and Acknowledge

As a culture, we don’t like to talk about death—it’s one of our staunchest taboos. But the problem with this is that we don’t deal with it. We pretend it doesn’t exist, that the clock isn’t ticking at all.

And so because we don’t deal with death in a meaningful way, we become divided into two camps—those who are paralyzed by the fear of death, and those who feel it will never happen to them. Both views are mistakes.

Those who are terrified of death are limited by it. They are confined to what is safe, and live lives of mental agony. Those who feel invincible, on the other hand, lack the motivation that only an awareness of our limited time can bring.

But when we embrace death, when we acknowledge it by openly talking about it, and when we can accept that it is inevitable, we can make use of it. It can be our friend.

When Steve Jobs gave his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, he told the students: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”

He went on, saying “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Dealing with your own impermanence is painful. It means making yourself vulnerable and open. It means intentionally processing things you’d rather tuck beneath the rug. But when you do, when you accept and acknowledge, you can move past the fear of, or indifference toward, death, and in doing so, you may just find life for the first time.

Be Kind to Yourself

Learning how to live in the face of death means learning to love yourself. It means you learning to be kind to you.

This means several things. First, it means, as Jobs said, avoiding the idea that you have something to lose—forgive yourself for any perceived failures. The burdens you place upon yourself, the weights you pile onto your shoulders—take them off. They’re not a big deal.

This doesn’t mean shirking your responsibilities toward those you love and care about. It doesn’t mean that you don’t work to make the world a better place. This simply means that you don’t carry these things as a weight. You don’t constantly berate yourself for not attending to them well enough.

You do your best and move on.

If you have a habit of being unkind to yourself, tapping into the awareness of death is an empowering tool that can help you forgive yourself. And once you forgive yourself and let go of your fears of imperfection and underachievement, you’ll have so much more room in your life for the things that truly matter.

Perspective and Priorities

Considering the reality of death brings perspective. It helps us see what is truly important.

What matters to you? Is it your family? Is it your web of relationships? Are you committed to a cause? Are you bent on creating something beautiful with your life? Are you spiritual or religious? What deserves your time?

Likewise, what are you doing that is wasting your time—for many, the thought of death brings this to mind first. Are you working overly long hours or spending time with people who don’t truly value you? Are you obsessed with the future at the cost of living in the moment?

Once you’ve acknowledged death as a part of life, you can use this to drive you trim the fat and focus on what’s really important to you. It forces you to examine your life, and like Socrates once suggested, the examined life is the one worth living.

In an interview with the Guardian, Holly Webber, a British woman diagnosed with terminal cancer, has this to say about how her perspective has changed since her diagnosis.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m on another planet looking in on this one. I can’t relate to people stressing about work or getting the Tube. People are so wound up, but it’s such a waste of time and energy. Chill out! I hope that by reading this, someone out there will take a second to think, ‘I’m glad that’s not me. Maybe I should worry less about the things that don’t really matter.’”

Allow death to grant you perspective on your priorities, and you’ll gain the life you truly want.

A New Life From Death

You’ve heard the old cliché, “Carpe diem,” which is Latin for “Seize the day”. This phrase is the essence of what death has to teach us. Be present. Live in the moment. Love the people in your life with all your heart and mind and soul.

Because in a hundred years, those business reports will be dust. Your money will be gone. Your fears and burdens won’t matter.

And that should make you feel free, not fearful.

So be open to the idea of death. Talk about it without fear or denial. Use it to shed your woes and gain a better perspective on your priorities.

Above all, use death to live. It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself, as well as for those who love you.

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