‘The Long Goodbye’- How Acknowledgment of Death Can Help Us Really Live

No, not the 1953 novel by Raymond Chandler, nor the 1973 film adaptation of same by Robert Altman.

No, what I’m talking about here is that feeling you may or may not have when you reach a certain age, some say by your 40s, others insist that it’s older, that one day you won’t be here any longer and that you’ll leave behind all the people and things you love so dearly.

For me, one of the things that helps make it easier to keep perspective each day and to behave in the most Emotionally Competent manner possible—in other words, to keep my head screwed on right—is that I keep in mind the rather sobering thought that one day, hopefully not for a long while, but, inevitably, I won’t be around anymore.

I’m always appreciative of that fact and I try to let it influence my behaviors and my choices each day:

We behave better and more deliberately and consciously when we know that there is a limit to our lives.

And I’m consistently and regularly touched by this fact.

Yes, it’s a sad thought, but the seriousness and the urgency of it can help us to feel more appreciative and thankful, and they can also help to ultimately create more joy and more healing in our lives.

In fact, this thought occurs to me when I’m about to react badly to my kids or to my wife; when I’m about to react to a neighbor, a friend, a sibling, or a situation; and even when I’m alone with myself thinking about the current, ‘majorly huge’ issues or problems I am facing—whatever they might be at the time:

‘My life is not infinite. One day I’ll be gone. This moment counts and is real so let me do my best right now to have more patience, more kindness, and more willingness to listen and learn before I react.’

So much of the trauma people bring into my office involves interactions they’ve had or things that have happened to them in their lives, especially their early lives, that are a direct result of someone NOT reacting in an Emotionally Competent manner with them.

Whether they were punished often and unfairly, or not encouraged to be who they truly were, or never given the time of day, or ‘steamrolled’  and bullied during conversations with their parents or teachers, or frankly abused either emotionally, physically, or sexually—whatever the case may be—things could have been different had the adults around them acted in ways that reflected their knowledge of their own ultimate mortality.

And that is, again, because we behave better and more deliberately and consciously when we know that there is a limit to our lives.

Life is real.

We’re born. We go through childhood and schooling, both good times and bad. We work and pay our proverbial taxes. Then we get older and more frail, eventually having to give up some or all of our hard-won autonomy and become dependent again. And we die.

Life doesn’t mess around. These things WILL happen to all of us.

So what are we waiting for?

The next time your child comes to you and you’re beside yourself with exhaustion or your patience has long ago been used up, think about the above fact.

The next time your spouse needs some understanding or mercy, think about it then too.

The next time you find yourself caught up in feeling somehow disrespected or treated unfairly or that you’ve “finally had enough” of somebody, think about it then too.

The next time your parents or grandparents need you or you feel like they’re a pain in the you-know-what, think about it.

And the next time you’re alone, all by yourself, and you’re feeling out of sorts or are experiencing free-floating anxiety or fear, think about it then too.

In fact, another way of saying all this is that NOTHING is permanent in life.

It ALL goes away eventually.

Someone once told me that the way they had dealt with school performance anxiety was to ask themselves the question, “Will this grade count when I’m on my death bed?”

In reality, not much will, my friends, so take it easy on yourselves and on others.

Have more mercy.

Have more compassion.

Listen more.

Learn to let more go.

Comment less.

Ask more questions so you can learn more about what people are really trying to say to you.

Learn and explore more and judge less.

Take care of yourself, but don’t be too obsessive. The goal is to have quality of life, not to be a prisoner to perfectionism.

Now, as I often say in my office, “I’m not trying to make you MORE depressed or anxious here…”; but we’re all grown-ups (well, sorta), and it is healthy to live our lives with the conscious, deliberate working knowledge and understanding—and acceptance—that we eventually die.

This way, when we look at our kids, they will see our true love shine through instead of our worries, our anger, or our feeling overwhelmed at the moment. We will be focused on them and not distracted.

When we speak to our spouses, our tone will reflect our sincerest appreciation for them in our lives and our knowledge of their vulnerabilities and their own problems and the things that traumatize them that we may be doing.

One of the things I enjoy about church when I go is that the main themes are these very ones. The liturgy, the music, the chants and prayers—all of it has to do with our ultimate mortality and the hope that we can be in communion (‘common-union’) with each other.

Sinatra, rest in peace, sang about regrets and having ‘too few to mention’.

The surest way for us to be able to say the same thing when we’re all in our 90s is to live our lives every day—to interact daily with our loved ones and with others and to focus on our passions instead of on acting out behaviors—as True, Emotionally Competent Adults who carry our mortality with us and are not in denial about its inevitability.

Let that inform us and our choices about what we do and how we behave.

It’s sort of like what they say about busy people: If you need something done give it to a busy person, they say.

Well, if you want to live your best life, live it knowing and accepting that there is a final limit to it and then pour everything you’ve got into it.

With good thoughts towards you and yours,

Anthony Ferraioli, M.D.

Author, Don’t Get Married (Unless You Understand A Few Things First)

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2 thoughts on “‘The Long Goodbye’- How Acknowledgment of Death Can Help Us Really Live

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