Could Thinking About Death Be Good For Us?

I roll over and click the tiny button that illuminates my watch. The time is 2:33 am. I hate waking in the middle of the night. It’s too early to start the day, so I stare at the ceiling fan and count down the minutes until morning.

Here we go again. 2020 has brought this unpleasant, but oh-so-familiar pattern to me. Nightmares and strange dreams wake me from my slumber. I open my eyes, confused and disoriented. It takes me a minute to figure out where I am and what I’m doing here.

This morning I stare at my phone. “I don’t need to look at it,” I think, but time passes, and sleep is not forthcoming. After waiting a bit, I can’t fight the urge anymore. I lean over and pick it up off the nightstand.

A Linked-In Request

A Linked-In request sits at the top of my email list. I click the link, and the app opens. I check the time. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning.

For the next hour, I scroll through the profiles of former coworkers. Familiar names appear alongside faces I don’t recognize anymore.

I can’t believe how many people are still employed by the company where I used to work nine years ago. I glance at a coworker’s profile and count the number of promotions in my head. 1… 2… 3… 4… The rise in rank from senior developer to manager, director, and finally VP.

Four! At first, a strange sense of sadness washes over me. I think about lost dollars, promotions, and layoffs. I reflect on all of the money I could have earned between the day I walked out of the office for the last time and now.

Then I take a deep breath, pause for a second, and remind myself of my deepest beliefs. I don’t want a career. I don’t need to compare myself to others either.

Mixed Emotions

I never look at Linked-In. Today, in the wee hours of the morning, is an exception. I’m not sure if I’m feeling sad, jealous, or annoyed. I can’t quite describe the emotion when a realization pops into my head.

I was one of the youngest people working in my department. If I’m now in my early forties, it means most of my coworkers are in their fifties or sixties.

Why are so many of them still working? Why are they still sitting behind those same desks clicking on those same keyboards? Do they enjoy it? Do they need the money or health insurance?

“Maybe the older ones retired and didn’t update their Linked-In profiles,” I think. I sure hope so.

Before closing the application, I see the number 32 next to an old boss’ profile. Can you imagine working thirty-two years for the same employer?

The truth is, I planned on being a lifer there too. After five years on the job, I dreamed of reaching my tenth anniversary. After ten, I dreamed of twenty. Those aspirations are long gone now.

A Perfectly Pleasant Day

As I shower and start the day, I can’t help but think about those Linked-In profiles. After a morning of homeschooling the boys, we head to the beach. I sit back and watch them play for a bit before my mind drifts back to my former place of employment.

My kids are five and eight now, so they don’t need a ton of supervision as they dig castles in the sand or stand at the water’s edge. They are slightly afraid of the water, so they never go in too deep.

I pull out a pad of paper and begin to write and draw. I’m immersed in my thoughts when two emergency vehicles race across the sand in front of me. My boys look up long enough to see it whiz by, then quickly return to digging their castles.

I watch the dune buggies race a hundred and fifty yards down the beach where the lifeguards abruptly stop, jump from their vehicles, and drag a lifeless man from the surf.

Thinking About Death

The day is perfectly sunny and calm. The waves don’t appear big or particularly dangerous. It’s the kind of day when you let your guard down, a day when you don’t worry about the ocean’s power or force.

Everyone is watching from a distance. It’s too far away to make out exactly what’s happening, but I can tell a man is sprawled out on the beach, and it looks like the lifeguards are performing CPR.

We all watch and hope for the best. A long time later, a woman who had been out for a jog returns to her nearby beach chair. “Is he okay?” her friend asks.

“He’s breathing!” she shouts. “According to the lifeguards, he was out body surfing when he suffered some type of neck injury. He wasn’t breathing when they pulled him from the water, but he is now!”

Eventually, EMTs arrive on the scene, and the man is lifted into a truck and carried off the beach for further medical assistance. The other rescue vehicles turn back around and leave the scene.

We stay on the beach for an hour after that. Happy families walk right past the spot where that man laid. If you hadn’t witnessed the moment, you would never know a man nearly died there.

No one ever says, “I Wish I’d Spent More Time at Work.”

Until today I had never seen a real-life ocean rescue, and I can’t stop thinking about this poor man. Is he okay?

Our lives can change in an instant. One minute we are laughing at the beach on a warm, summer day. The next, we can be clinging to life.

I’ve faced one of those life and death moments. It’s the number one reason I chose to stay at home with my kids rather than return to work nine years ago. It’s the number one reason I left my high-paying job.

I couldn’t help but think about my former coworker who spent the last thirty-two years at his job. If he witnessed that man on the beach, would he regret all the time he spent at work? Does he love his career, or would he want to live his life differently?

Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow.

What have I learned in my forty-plus years on this planet? I’ve learned that I shouldn’t put things off today, in the hopes that I will get to them tomorrow.

You know all of those things you say you’ll do but never get around to finishing? One day I’ll get around to cleaning out my basement, purging my possessions, and turning my home into a peaceful mecca.

This summer, I’ll host a garage sale and list my unwanted possessions on eBay. Without a doubt, I’ll mend my broken relationships and secure my friendships. I’ll set aside time to pursue my hobbies or travel.

Deep down inside, we all know that life is fragile. Thinking about death reminds me, our health may decline, our loved ones will pass, and our careers will not flourish forever.

Yet, in spite of this knowledge, we allow life to push us and tire us out. We fail to pursue the things that truly matter, but every time I forget this fact, I’m abruptly reminded.

My good friend in college died of Huntington’s disease in her early thirties. My sister-in-law was the same age when she developed brain cancer.

I think of mortality as a gift of sorts. Don’t get me wrong. I fear death, but I believe that fear helps me live to the fullest. Over the years, it has helped me prioritize.

Can Thinking About Death Be Good for Us?

I’m sure I think about death more than most people. I’m pretty certain that anyone who has faced a major medical crisis does.

According to Emma Pattee, COVID-19 is forcing more people to think about mortality than ever before. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing.

Thinking about death can allow us to live more freely in the present moment. It can enable us to focus on the here and now. When we recognize that we are granted a limited number of hours on this earth, we appreciate them more.

It’s easy to waste away our time when it feels unlimited, but when faced with the truth, it’s harder to piss away. Our time shouldn’t be squandered if we have any choice in the matter.

How do you want to spend your most precious resource? Do you want to walk in and out of the doors of your office for thirty-two years, or do you feel compelled to spend your time in a different way?

Without my medical scare, I would not see these truths. I would not recognize the beauty of my life. I might not have walked away from work to spend with my children.

People often ask if I would change my medical situation. Would I undo the past and release myself from chronic pain. The answer is oddly no, and I am not alone.

In episode two of the happiness lab, Dr. Laurie Santos discusses this in detail. If you haven’t heard this episode before, take a minute to listen to it now. It may seem hard to believe, but “winning the lottery can ruin your life while contracting an incurable disease can be ‘a gift.'” 

Mortality can help us view this gift of life and attempt to make the most of it.

How Do You Want to Be Remembered?

If we die quickly, we won’t have the time to make amends. We can’t apologize to our loved ones for the wrongs we committed or say, “I love you,” one last time.

In the end, we are nothing more than memories for those we left behind. How will our parents, children, family, and friends remember us? Will they think well of our deeds and actions or be glad we are gone?

Thinking about death helps me focus on performing good deeds for the world. The pursuit of financial independence can be inherently selfish, but thinking about death makes me much more generous. As someone who has is emotionally attached to money, the fear of death makes me want to share my fortune and my time.

I want to be a good person and to do good deeds for those who need help. We don’t talk about this much in the personal finance space. I think in part because those with money often have the privilege that comes with it. Maybe it’s because many rich people have never suffered or been sick. I really don’t know.

When we think about financial independence, we often picture long stretches of beaches and margaritas, but we rarely talk about helping others who aren’t as fortunate. When I think about death, I am prone to act less selfishly.

Focusing On What’s Important

Last year I faced an unexpected and scary call back after my yearly mammogram. While I felt a range of emotions, primarily fear and sadness, during that worrisome time, I also felt angry.

Angry at all the time I wasted on nasty family members, who bring drama and chaos to my life. I vowed to spend less time with these toxic people. If I have a limited time on this planet, I will not spend it on people who have taken too much from me already.

In general, when I think about death, I focus less on the minor inconveniences of life. I am less bothered by the friend who doesn’t return my text messages or the amount of time it takes to check out at the grocery store.

Who cares if I don’t receive a lot of traffic to this blog, or it takes me a week to write a post? Instead of focusing on the goals of writing, I take my time and enjoy the process.

I planned on getting a job this year but COVID-19 through a curveball into that process. Rather than feeling annoyed by the redirection of my journey, I embraced it. I am thrilled to homeschool my children and spend an entire year teaching them. The way I see it, I get a whole extra year to snuggle and love on them.

When I think about the all-encompassing idea of death, I feel less stressed by the bumps in my life.

Living Life to the Fullest

I fear death, so when I think about death, it helps me live life to the fullest. I want to exercise, lose weight, and eat well. My goal is not to live as long as I can, but to live as long as I can while I’m healthy.

I suffer from chronic pain, but I don’t want that to stop me. I want to enjoy bike rides and walks to the beach. While my children are young, I want to be as physically active as I can. I hope that by staying active now, my body will continue to carry me into the future.

Fearing death helps me to focus on my grey matter too. What do I want to learn about? What challenges do I want to create for myself? What goals do I want to embark upon?

I am no longer content to sit waste my time. I want to write, draw, and create.

I don’t want to look back at my life with a long list of regrets. By thinking about death now I can reprioritize and focus on the most meaningful aspects of my life.

Seize the Day: Write Your Own Obituary

If I’ve learned one thing in my forty-plus years on this earth, it’s this; you only get one chance to live this life. You can’t wait until tomorrow, because tomorrow may never come.

If you want to think about death in a productive way, sit down and write your obituary. When your life is over, what will you want it to say?

8 thoughts on “Could Thinking About Death Be Good For Us?”

  1. We are all so different. I started work with the goal of running the billion dollar company I interned at my last summer of college, which I did by the time I was 41. I worked there, for three different corporations who bought it out, for over 32 years and if I could go back I wouldn’t change a thing. Work was enormously fulfilling for me, it allowed my wife to do what she wanted, be a stay at home mom, and still let us live well while accumulating wealth. Some of my best moments were all about work, others were about my wife or my three kids but my life would have been diminished without the career I had. It was just mostly fun most of the time. I won’t look back on my death bed wishing I had worked more hours, but neither will I wish I had worked less. Your example sure brought back some memories, I was the only guy available to administer CPR on a dead person two different times in my life. One I brought back and he is still living 35 years later and one who was totally beyond hope, having been crushed by a tree. That one I try not to think about, it was beyond words.

    • Oh Steveark, I adore your comments. I love how you always point out the opposite point of view in my posts. If I hadn’t been laid off in 2011 I would definitely have been a lifer. I started working at 21 and planned to finish at 55 so I could collect medical insurance at the company rate for the rest of my life. Yes, that’s how far in advance I envisioned my future, even as a recent college graduate! I am so glad that you enjoyed your career and that you look back on it fondly. I wonder if I shouldn’t have searched for a more technical company sooner in my career. I worked in the banking industry where the focus was on business, not tech. I think that soured my views as the years progressed. I loved my early years of work, solving problems, learning new things, and working with great team members. I don’t know how many of my former coworkers are having fun or enjoying their careers, but I hope they feel the same way you do. 32 years can feel like an instant or a lifetime, depending on how you feel about your career. Thank you for reminding me of that!

      I am sorry about your second CPR experience. It’s amazing that you were able to bring someone back to life and equally amazing that you tried to bring the second back to life too. Seeing the man on the beach reminded me that I should review these skills. I haven’t taken a CPR class in a very long time and I think some things have changed since then.

  2. Remember that you cannot buy time and good health as much as everyone would want to. You can’t take all your wealth to the grave.

    • I think this is where most people struggle. You need money to live a comfortable life, but at some point you have to recognize that you can’t take the excess with you! Thank you for your comment.

  3. I have not written my own obituary yet, but I have someone else’s ticked into a folder on my desk. I didn’t even know her, though a few of my friends did. She was unconventional and lived her life according to her own terms. The pressure to conform can be subtle but intense. I try to remember what’s important- my family, and living every second I have according to MY dreams, not what everyone else thinks I should be doing.

    • I’ve tried to write my own a couple of times and only get a few sentences in before I stumble. I am determined to write it though. The one you sent me is a great starting point to thinking about the life I want to live.

    • Ha! Ha! Ha! Definitely not, but if you start at age 20 and you work til age 50 in a high paying job then are you working because you need to, never considered an alternative, or because you enjoy it? Thinking about death helps us consider what is valuable if you do have an option. We don’t all have this option in life. I would bet my former VPs and highly-paid engineers do.


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