Imagine you’ve got to eighty years old and you’re as fit as can be expected for your age, with a good mind still intact, and you’re reflecting back on your life. Now I’ve listened to elderly people tell stories of their pasts which function as a kind of celebration of their lives which privilege the listener, with a sense of that person facing the end of their life with equanimity and peace. It’s as if they are ready to face a ‘good death’ and the journey ahead, whatever that may be, with no regrets and a free spirit, along with the conviction that they did the very best they possibly could for themselves and the people they cared about.
And this is the way I want to feel when, or if, I reach this point, because I have also listened to people around this age ruminate on their pasts in a very different way, and the nature of this seems to be a more common insidious occurrence. Stories and incidents are recited over and over in minute detail, with every little slight from the past relived and chewed over: what someone said to them once that was insulting, but they didn’t get a chance to defend themselves or give that person ‘what for’ or as they say here in Scotland, ‘a telling’; family relationships gone ‘bad’; what they felt they were owed in life and didn’t get; hurts clung to despite their festerings from massive betrayals to minor offences; places they always wished to go to, or go back to, and never did; a love they let go of against their better judgment; doing what they were told by their ‘betters’ or obeying social conventions when their heart said otherwise….the list could be legion! And in this state of mind and heart, they have no free spirit in which to embrace death, because it is too busily tied up in toxic knots of conflict.
When I went on a bereavement and loss course a couple of years ago, I was introduced to the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, one of the first medical professionals to explore the changing psychology of people facing death in her publication On Death and Dying, as they move from denial and isolation, through to anger and bargaining, then depression and finally, if they are fortunate, acceptance. And this series of emotional states is identical for any loss of any kind, which is incredibly useful within counselling. But one of the key points that came out of the course for me was that people rarely reflect on dying and death, never mind their own death to come, because they are more often ruled by fears of the unknown in their life ending, as well as being superstitious about making their wills, or making other decisions to smooth the experience when the time comes for them, decisions both for themselves and their families. I’ve personally seen fear operating along with a gruelling lack of acceptance from a close family member who died and I duly reflected on this experience on the course. And after doing so, I decided this way wasn’t going to be for me. Not only was it hard for my relative, because they really didn’t have time to process what was happening to them, but their un-reconciled death was so much harder to bear for me and my family.
So what exactly makes a good death? Well, here is a medically orientated guide of 11 qualities of this, but let’s expand upon two of them, namely: ‘experiencing emotional well-being’ and ‘having a sense of life completion or legacy’, so bringing me back to the point of this post. How can we ensure that our eighty year old self will feel the richness of these two states, which should bring them a ‘good death’ and that can motivate us here in the now?
Well let’s pretend that older self can look us in the eye right now and make some observations, tell us what to do, or ask us some questions, so they can rest easy in the knowledge that they’ve had a good life and thereby can have a good death. These will be highly personal ‘asks’ or ‘tellings’, and you’ll probably have a good instinct for what yours would be, but I’ll give some examples that I suspect are common for creative people as well as examples of a more generic nature. And this imagined scenario of confronting our future older selves can be used as a powerful motivational tool in the here and now, a kind of spiritual ‘bucket list’ to make sure we do the work required to have no regrets:
I’d be so happy right now if you finish that book, play, (or substitute your own long-term project), that you’ve been putting off for a host of reasons. You owe it to me to finish it, so please find the time.
For God’s sake don’t worry about what people think of you, especially if it’s going to stifle your creativity! To hell with that!
You’ve got to trust yourself and your abilities. I’m sitting here perfectly aware that you can do it, despite your vulnerabilities.
I know it’s hard but I want you to dump that job you hate and start that business you’ve been thinking about to develop your potential. If you fail, then fine, I’ll know you tried, and trying is what really matters to me.
I can’t tell you how glad I am that you wrote that book and published it. Good girl/boy! Now get on with the next one and the one after that.
Why don’t you make up with ….. ? You know you think a lot of them. Forgive them and move on.
Now make sure you stand up for yourself and don’t let yourself be pushed around… Illegitimi non carborundum!
Make sure you visit that ‘place’ you loved so much the first time. Get yourself back there again and make the most of it for me, so I can remember it now with a strong sense of connection.
Make sure you regularly tell your loved ones that you love them. I want them to remember.
Keep in touch with your friends and nurture them, your life is richer because of knowing them.
Get on and make your will. You’ll feel a sense of liberation and you’ll make it easier for me.
You can be creatively alive in any situation – yes, yes, you can!
Gandhi was right – whatever you do in life will indeed be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it, because you need to express who you are for me.
Personal values in life are more important than making money. A successful life is living by your values day by day. Sort yourself out with a personal creed, it’ll keep you on track.
Give yourself a break and let your hair down more often. Have some fun!
(And in the event of sudden death, if you’ve done a good deal of the above, you’ll be more ready to spiritually take on that journey)
On a lighter note, but with the desired tone, here’s Edith Piaf singing No Regrets!
I’ll be back with some festive wishes next week, but I’m singing in a choir Saturday, for my eighty year old me, so it might be a wee bit later than usual.
Cheers all, and wishing you long life!
(top pic from pixabay)