We seem to have lost the ability to talk about tough subjects like death, dying, loss, and grief. Yet, an average of 150,000 people will die worldwide today. Tomorrow. And the next day.
About 7,000 of those people will be in the United States.
At some point or another, either through loss, a dance with death, or by occupational design, we’ve all had an experience or two that’s helped us become acutely aware of mortality. The causes and effects of it. The existential terror of it. The improbability of it today, yet high probability of it over a lifetime.
Yet, even though we “know” about it, we aren’t talking about it enough. It’s the elephant in the room — and not just in a hospital or funeral home — but everywhere. And it’s an elephant we must address — through conversation and activation — or we will continue to pay a high price.
On one side of this conversation about death, dying, and the rest, we should be actively searching for solutions that help maximize the number of quality years lived by the human race.
Whether you believe there should be equity in the distribution of years across individuals is a matter of your values and ideological predisposition.
Take for example: On a personal note, do you believe that you and your neighbor should have the same right to 100 quality years? Or do you believe that’s something a person must work and pay for?
Or on a global note, do you think wealthy countries should invest in the economic, scientific, nutritional, technological, and medical infrastructures of poorer countries with high rates of preventable death? Do you think the UN is responsible for regulating our collective well-being? Do you believe the private sector should pitch in to generate solutions? Or do you think independent nations are responsible for the lives of their people?
Whatever you believe, very well may be a matter of life and death for someone. Or rather, someones.
I pass no judgment on your political or moral beliefs. But I hope we can agree that we should be having conversations (like we always have) about mitigating the controllable causes of death — such as violence, hunger, traffic accidents, lifestyle choices, poverty, stress, and access to food and water.
If we can extend mortal life to some extent for ourselves and others, why wouldn’t we?
Yet at the same time, while this is critically important, in politics, science, technology, and business — these conversations are already happening.
And the general consensus would have you believe that most people would want to live more quality years if given the chance. In other words, for most of us:
A Good Life > An Unknown Death
Solutions that promise to help prolong quality life will always have a market of ready-to-buy consumers. The question, as investor Peter Thiel might pose, is whether you are Definitely Optimistic or Indefinitely Optimistic.
That is, do you believe “others” are taking care of this, or do you believe you must take action on the cause?
We know there are plenty of interested parties in Silicon Valley investing in ways to extend life beyond our wildest imaginations. There are scientists in search of quantum leaps in our understanding of human biology. Many medical and scientific experts believe we are on the verge of making 150 the new 80.
But average lifespan has never increased by people hoping it would. It’s increased because people, just like you and me, invested in action. People who implemented incremental safety measures such as seatbelts. And who developed new, well-thought out policies to address the dumping of waste. Who made new scientific and medical discoveries. Or have helped open access to good food and clean water.
If you want to live longer, be a fast follower of people smarter than you in the relevant disciplines. If you want everyone to live longer, begin investing in the solutions yourself (with your time, money, and attention).
On the other side of this conversation about death, we must deal with the fear of mortality itself and the universality of it.
No matter what quantum leaps we see in our lifetimes, we likely will not become immortal. And even if we did — even if you and I somehow made it to the reign of immortality — we are sure to lose a lot of friends and family on the path.
Given this, we must learn how to face death intelligently and graciously.
That is to say, when death is upon you, or upon someone you love, how do you respond? What do you say? How do you act? Do you shut down and avoid the topic at all costs? Or dive straight into the chaos?
From my perspective, in the same way many of us are reliant on the brilliant scientific minds of this generation and generations prior for elongating lives, we’ve left the exploration of death up to religious leaders and philosophers.
While about three-quarters of the U.S. population identify as Christian, according to separate studies done by Pew and Gallup, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are exploring death, dying, and grief on a deep level. Or that we have the practices in place to make it meaningful.
Our bereavement practices have not been updated for a modern context. Many of our traditions have been watered down in the technological age. And as a result, dealing with death and grief has become more isolating and more difficult.
Take for example, my mother. She died when she was 49 years old. She was an eternal optimist about her health condition, but a fearful optimist at that. She’d stay up all night before scans. She rarely ever admitted to her fear of dying. She banned me from reading the statistics.
We talked about cancer and treatments, sure. But we didn’t talk about death. We never talked about death.
In part, this can be attributed to our shared belief in optimism, positive psychology, and even parts of The Law of Attraction. They say, “that which you think about over and over again becomes real.” And so, the decision not to talk about death somehow made us feel as though she may never die.
The paradox in all of this is that there’s no doubt my mom thought about her own death, just as I do from time to time. I’m fairly certain she awoke alone at 4am every morning just to think about it. Though I can’t be sure, all signs point to the fact that the terror and fear she held inside ultimately fueled the fire.
And, as a secondary consequence, left me and my brothers unprepared to see her go.
Our attachment to life and our detachment from death is partially biological. We have these 2 million+ year old brains that are on a constant search for how to help us survive. But our attachment and detachment are also born of fear of the unknown.
And I would argue that this fear is both a result and cause of the increases in average lifespan and decreases in religious tradition.
In the Western world, the decrease in religious tradition around death and dying is a signal we’ve sent to the world and to each other that it doesn’t matter. Instead of approaching the subject with sorrow, love, and curiosity, we avoid it entirely.
Yet, like my mom eventually realized, death comes whether you talk about it or not.
Now, I say this as someone who is not religious in the slightest. My parents were Catholic, but they didn’t raise me as such. I can count the times on two hands that I’ve been to Church. A few of those times have been for wedding ceremonies. A few times for Christmas. One of my Church-going experiences was to prepare for my mom’s funeral, another to attend it.
I’m a Millennial. Which means my whole MO is being “spiritual, not religious.” I have a relationship with my Higher Power but don’t follow the structure of a centralized religion. I admit this knowing that it might not be a good thing.
My desire to talk about death, dying, and grief is not at all opposed to my desire to decrease the amount of preventable death happening in this world. Nor is that idea opposed to my spiritual belief that things do indeed happen for reason, if only you can find it.
My desire to talk about death, dying, and grief is born out of a belief that we if we can elevate consciousness, reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and become a more connected society, then we should.
And as a part of this belief, I am certain what we need now is to stop avoiding the topic of death like it’s the plague. We need to stop putting up walls around what can and can’t be talked about. We need to dive into the fringes.
How many of the people that die today had the opportunity to discuss death with their loved ones prior to exiting the body?
And if they did talk about it, what did they say? Did they give instructions on what to do with their bodies, finances, and material possessions? Did they talk about their fears or hopes for life after death? Whether expected or unexpected, did they leave something unsaid?
And after these cherished people die, will their families and friends know how to talk about it? Will they know how to cope with and integrate the losses into their lives? Will they be able to recognize grief for what it is — a terrible, but manageable consequence for having loved someone more than yourself?
With the resurgence of Stoic philosophy thanks to the likes of Ryan Holiday, The New England Patriots, and Tim Ferriss, and other important stamps on the zeitgeist such as Steve Job’s Stanford Commencement Speech, content creators are starting to talk about this idea of “meditating on your mortality.”
This, to some extent, is seen as a hack for mitigating powerful emotions like anxiety, stress, overwhelm, and depression. That is, when you think about death most of the inessential, residual bullsh*t drops off. When you think about death, what’s truly important becomes clear. When you think about death, procrastination and masturbation lose their allure.
Yet, thinking about it isn’t enough from my perspective. It’s a positive first step, certainly. But to marry your mortality and to get in bed with death, you need to talk about it. You need to attack the terror that accompanies ideas like eternity or nothingness, not with silence, but with active discussion.
Similar to investing in the extension of life, beating your fear of death requires action.
It’s not enough to think about death, loss, and grief. It wasn’t for our ancestors and it certainly won’t be for us. What’s needed is the tradition that came with philosophical and religious practice. What’s needed is a platform and space for discussing these topics — openly and honestly.
Our avoidance of death and grief is contributing to the growing disconnection and depression in the Western world especially. Instagram photos on birthdays and death-iversaries have been confused with real, shared celebration, conversation, and tradition.
I’m not making the call for a large Church going effort, although I’m also not, not making one. I’m saying this:
- We need to learn from what’s worked in the past;
- We need to learn from other cultures who see death and grief as good; and
- It’s time to get creative.
A friend of mind, who lost his mom one year ago, had a gathering on the first anniversary of her death. Everyone smoked cigars, drank rosé, and ate burgers. It wasn’t anything overly spiritual or dark. It was simple. People that came together to toast a lovely mom and her lovely son. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my year so far — and it was all by a grievers design.
The only way we can deal with loss of others and of ourselves in by preparing ahead of time. It’s by starting to normalize conversations around death, dying, and what gets left behind. It’s by starting these conversations now in hopes that not only will we we continue to live longer, but mitigate the emotional turmoil to come.
Luckily, we live in a world where I’m not the only one thinking about both sides of this conversation. In fact, I’m far from it. As you can probably tell from the unequal distribution on the two points I’ve made in this article, I’m more interested in the solutions to the second part. Not because I think it’s more important necessarily, but because I think it’s talked about less.
So therefore, I’ve decided to provide some further educational resources on this part of the topic (i.e. what to do about grief, death, and dying). They are here for you if you, too, are interested in educating yourself about the ideas further.
- Death Cafes — precisely what they sound like, these are spaces for people to drink, eat, and discuss death.
- Dinner Parties — a non-for-profit that helps organize and facilitate dinners for 20- and 30-somethings across the U.S. to talk about grief.
- The Zen Hospice Project — an incredible organization located in the Bay Area that’s partnered with Ideo, an award-winning design firm, to figure out how to “redesign death.”
- My Last Days Series — a documentary series that follows people with terminal illnesses to help weed out their perspectives (on life and death).
- Option B — a movement started by Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, that helps connect grievers (and the supporters of those grievers) with resources for starting hard conversations, building resilience, and unwrapping grief.
- Other Cultural Traditions — a look at what we can learn from other cultures in the way they approach death, dying, and grieving practices.
- If you know of any others, I’d love to hear about them. Please feel free to comment below or email me.