Embracing life by contemplating death

Halloween is here, the day for trick or treating, costumes, and ghosts.

In Christianity, those ghosts represent the dead and dearly departed, honored in the Catholic tradition the day after Halloween on All Souls Day. Traditional Mexican culture celebrates this feast as Día de los Muertes, the day of the dead, which transforms a somber remembrance into something more meaningful and even joyful. The celebration is about encouraging their departed loved ones to return in spirit and to let them know they have not been forgotten.

A major symbol of the celebration is the calavera, a model of a skull made from either sugar or clay and colorfully decorated. Some people may turn away from this kind of imagery, finding it to be too disturbing, distasteful, or frightening. For many people, death is a topic to avoid at all costs. Yet many cultures and philosophies honor human mortality and the inevitability of death, seeing it as a route to enlightenment and even happiness. Stoicism is influenced by the ancient practice of memento mori--remembering we will die--as a kind of compass or guiding star for our limited time on earth.

One of the tenets of Buddhism is impermanence and being willing to let go of the human tendency to grasp or cling to anything. Buddhist monks create elaborate, painstaking works of art called mandalas using colored sand as their medium. Once their work is completed, there is a ceremony and viewing, after which the mandala is destroyed, swept into a pile and placed in a river to carry the blessings far and wide.

Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/mirkobozzato-1988094/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=5070847">Mirko Bozzato</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=5070847">Pixabay</a>
Image by Mirko Bozzato from Pixabay

The Bhutanese, who adhere to Buddhist beliefs and live precariously among the peaks of the Himalayas, may reside in the only nation in the world with a policy of Gross National Happiness. So you may be surprised to learn of a common ritual they practice, which is to think about death, five times a day, every day. To the average American, that sounds more like a fast track to fear and anxiety than a route to happiness. Yet thinking about death allows us to remain mindful of our mortality, and examine how we are choosing to spend the precious days of our life.

I don’t think about dying five times a day, but I do reflect on it regularly. Living with stage 4 cancer will do that to you.

Hearing you have stage 4 cancer is a startling, out-of-body experience. For some, a stage 4 diagnosis is a terminal condition and essentially a death sentence, because survival options are limited. Hearing that diagnosis must cut through all the illusions, plans, and worldly concerns, going straight to the truth of what matters for whatever time is left. For others, myself included, it’s adjusting to a new normal, one that offers hope in treatment options for controlling the cancer and the understanding that cancer is an inextricable part of your physical being.

Yet even with that understanding, I'm amazed at my own ability to forget and slip into life as usual, putting things off, figuring I always have tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after...when I do finally come around, I remember I have no idea how many tomorrows I have, which brings feelings of:

  1. Gratitude for what I do have and acknowledgement of the wonders of life, the beauty, the joys and pleasures. As Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
  2. Inspiration to do and be my best, to recognize I’m behaving badly or wasting time and to correct my thoughts and actions—like putting a stop to binge-watching or mindless scrolling.

This year, perhaps consider a more thoughtful approach to Halloween, especially since trick or treating and costume parties will be limited due to Covid concerns and restrictions. Spend some time remembering the loved ones you have lost, concentrating on the joy and the happy memories, not the sorrow and loss. Though honestly, it's okay to feel sad too. Spend some time thinking about the way you want to be, and how you likely will be, remembered when you're gone.

Every human who ever lived has died. Knowing that one day, the worldly concerns we hold dear will no longer matter is not an excuse to stop caring, but to discern what we truly care about. Reflect on your mortality in order to appreciate how special and precious time is and what you should do to squeeze every last drop of goodness out of your life.