To the Students in the Death & Life Class:
Why We Cannot Live Every Moment as if We Would Die Tomorrow
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
Because our brain is so complex, it can rapidly move through thoughts. For example, as you read these words, several ideas can flash through your brain in a matter of seconds. Therefore, for a few seconds we can know we will die and in a flash we can temporarily forget this fact. As you began your journey in this class to learn more about death in your readings, lectures, funeral and cemetery assignments, class discussion, discussions with friends and relatives, death bed fantasy assignment, journals and so on, your brain began to shift in its orientation toward death and, inevitably toward how you are living your life.
Think about it: for the past few weeks you have been faced with many, many facts about death. In response, your poor brain has tried desperately to protect itself from the harsh reality that one day it—and the body that surrounds it—will not exist (called existential anxiety). As a result, your brain is left with no choice but to let this uncomfortable, even frightening fact begin to sink deeper into its consciousness, perhaps deeper than it ever has before.
But, your brain does not give in so easily. So, just when you begin to see an increase in your awareness of death and you begin to see an increase in the importance in living a life in which you should appreciate every moment, what does your desperately rebellious brain do? It pulls back. It retreats to its old habits that say, “I and the people around me have plenty of time to live.” This is seen when we catch ourselves forgetting that we, and our loved ones, could die tomorrow—or even worse--today. Instead, we do some of the following (see if these look familiar):
Complaining about little things
Forgetting to be thankful for what I have
Yelling or raising my voice to someone
I love Showing my impatience
Putting down, ridiculing, or laughing at others
Wasting time, procrastinating, being lazy
Putting off important things
Not saying, “I love you” or “I care for you”
Not saying, “You are important to me.”
Holding a grudge
So, go ahead and let your brain struggle to block the awareness of its inevitable nonexistence. Your job as a student of death education is to catch yourself as you fall into those frequent moments of “death non-awareness.” It goes something like this: the next time you catch yourself complaining about little things, stop and say, “Yes, yes, these are problems and they are irritating, but don’t forget [say your name here], you could die today, so can you start to let go of this problem just a little?” Or, the next time you catch yourself yelling at someone, stop and say to yourself, “What if he died tomorrow? How would I feel?” One more thing: understand, that because we are emotional creatures, there will be times when you will ask yourself these questions and your brain will respond, “I don’t care right now.” Later on, forgive yourself for responses like these. After all, you’re human. If you were perfect, you wouldn’t need to be reading this. And, if I were perfect, I wouldn’t have known about this struggle and wouldn’t be typing this now.
Embrace those moments of death awareness whenever you can and make them work for you to be the best you can be. But when you forget, catch yourself and move on. After all, why waste time when there is so much living to do in the life that you have? Your death and the death of others will come soon enough. So, get out there and learn the lesson of death: LIVE.
Learning from Death to Live Now
1. Do a 2-minute Death-Think at least once a week, e.g. every Friday at 6 pm, or every Sunday morning. Include some of the following:
a. Think about your own death and what it would be like if you died this
instant without telling people what you want them to know.
b. Think about each person in your life suddenly dying and how you would react to their
death and their funeral. Do this with a different person at each Death-Think.
2. STOP and enjoy life. At various times a couple times each day say your name (it gets your
brain’s attention) and say, “(your name), can you STOP and appreciate this moment?”
3. Take risks with other people
a. Call, email, text, visit people even for a couple minutes just to say “Hello.”
b. Tell people: “I care for you.”
“I love you.”
“Do you realize how important you are in my life?”
“Thank you for being you.”
4. Make a list of long-term goals. Put it in a place where you will see it each day to keep you focused.
5. Make a continuing list of short-term goals focusing on what you need to do each day and each week.
Keep this with you for reference on how you should be spending the valuable time of your life.
6. Write a note or card to each important person in your life saying how much you care for them.
You don’t want to die or you don’t want them to die without you saying what you need to
say. Grief is tough enough. Don’t add your regrets to it.
7. Make a list of “My Blessings—All the Things for Which I am Thankful” and post them in a
place you will see them daily.
8. Take pictures and videos everywhere you go—to capture moments of your life you can later enjoy.
As life goes on, memories will be all you have and pictures and videos are magical ways to
revisit memories of loved ones and friends.
9. Make a list of places you want to go in priority order and make plans for the first place
10. Take the risk of looking like a fool. All people who are on their deathbed who played it safe later regretted not taking more risks, even risks where they might look bad. So, even though your stomach tells you not to, do it anyway.
11. At various times in your life when things are going at least OK, say, “I am so lucky right now.”
12. Create your own list of “How to be joyous and grateful for my life.”