The Benefits of Meditating on Mortality

My mother-in-law loved music, art, and food. Her hearing was selective at the dinner table. If a guest dared to decline a dish, she ignored them. She would place the food in front of the person and say, “I am just going to leave it here. Just in case. You never know….”

She died last week at the age of 87. While expected, her passing was still a blow. My husband spent months preparing for it but to paraphrase Kathryn Schulz one’s unresponsive and dying parent is, in some extremely salient way, still alive. Imagining her gone is not the same as living in a world without her breathing in it.

Loss may not be something we can simulate but that doesn’t mean we should avoid thinking about it. There is evidence that reflecting on mortality — our own and others — can help us live our lives more fully. For the most part, we bend over backwards to veer away from discussions about the transitory nature of life. Discomfort with the topic coupled with endless distractions and a preference for lighter and upbeat subject matter sideline conversations about death. As psychologist Sheldon Solomon told The Atlantic’s Julie Beck, “Americans are arguably the best in the world at burying existential anxieties under a mound of French Fries.” Halloween is the only time of year we embrace death but that’s because it’s sugar-coated, literally. Edible ghosts and plastic skeletons don’t invite contemplation of our inevitable demise.

A study in Personality and Social Psychology Review found that when reminded of death people make better use of their time. They make healthier choices such as using more sunscreen, smoke less, and exercise more. Awareness of death can also motivate increased expressions of tolerance and empathy. People invest more time in their relationships and feel more grateful for each day when they are asked to consider their limited time on earth.

To make better use of our time and to crawl out from under the mound of French Fries, Harvard professor Arthur Brooks in a New York Times article suggests approaching each day as if you had one year left to live. If an activity doesn’t pass the “last-year test,” don’t do it:

If this year were your last, would you spend the next hour mindlessly checking your social media, or would you read something that uplifts you instead? Would you compose a snarky comment on this article, or use the time to call a friend to see how she is doing?

Living with the end in mind can help us make better choices today. As the oft quoted saying of dubious attribution goes, “I’ve never heard of anyone on their deathbed saying, ‘I wish I would have spent more time on Instagram.’

Contrary to what one might think, meditating on mortality doesn’t promote self-absorption or turn you into a Debbie Downer. In fact, there is evidence that being reminded of death facilitates creativity, open-mindedness and can even make you funnier. In the study, people primed to think about death created funnier cartoon captions than those who didn’t receive instructions to “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.”

In his book The Four Things That Matter Most, palliative care physician Ira Byock writes about the four things that we say before we die or to someone we love who is going to die:

Please forgive me.

I forgive you.

Thank you.

I love you.

If these are the most important things we can say to one another, what are we waiting for? You never know…

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman