Working Mum of two, Andrea Galligan leaned into her meditation practice after experiencing grief, the result was a new found appreciation in the value of ‘mortality mindfulness’ …
Busy and time sensitive, modern life feels like what Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed, calls tiny fragments of ‘time confetti’ slipping through our fingers. We’ve got soulmates to find, children to conjure, and careers to manufacture. An annual yoga retreat aside, who has time to reflect on how well adjusted they are to life, let alone to death? Avoidance not only protects us, it is ingrained. Our fascination with youth culture, our indifference towards the elderly, our devotion to the multi-billion anti-ageing industry are all helpful distractions to keep us focused on the ‘now’, rerouting us away from an examination of the deeper and more uncomfortable issues of our own mortality. But are we missing out on a personal growth opportunity?
For the religious, faith provides insights. But for many agnostics, it’s simple: we don’t want life to end (and hands up, that was me until recently). We invest in the business of ‘isness’ looking for immediate returns. According to poet and priest Pádraig J Daly, “the comforts of modern life mean that most people aren’t thinking about death regularly. Funerals can cause a jolt of contemplation but that feeling can fade”. The Catholic Church has even softened the language it uses when congregants are anointed on Ash Wednesday; ‘to dust you shall return’ has been replaced with ‘repent and believe’. A far cry from the anecdote that Cistercian monks dug a sod of their own grave each day as an act of daily penance.
There’s other practical evidence too. The location of our death is more likely to be an unfamiliar one. It takes preparation to die at home and most of us don’t want to plan it (including preparing a will) or be the recipient of it. “A will is something that many people, despite their best intentions, keep putting off, usually due to being time poor,” says Brendan Hanifin, a solicitor based in Dublin. “The irony is that the sense of ease people report when things are ‘in order’ can leave them feeling psychologically stronger in the long run”.
And according to a rural undertaker, people pre-planning any aspect of their funeral are few and far between while advance payment on a funeral is even more unusual. “It’s not the done thing and Covid isn’t changing that. Once in a blue moon, a local might pop in to discuss their needs, but it’s very infrequent”. It’s our families that make the final decisions on how we are commemorated. They pick up the pieces and make the big decisions for us based on remembered conversations or interpretations of our wishes.
But ignoring that our lives will end may be more than just denial; it can blind us from the opportunity to grow. Research suggests that awareness of our own death can help us build supportive relationships and encourage the development of peaceful, charitable communities. Not only that, it helps us to be open-minded and growth oriented. Using the knowledge that life is finite can help clarify what’s important. So perhaps the invitation here is to gently welcome these questions into our lives, the answers will change depending on life circumstances, but the wisdom remains the same. If we define broadly how we want to feel at the end of our lives, we can adjust while alive to influence that conclusion.
Little did I know the loss of a loved one this year would bring so many of these ignored personal questions to the surface for my own assessment. From the basics of where I want to be buried, to the emotional legacy I leave my children and how I prepare with them for this, while alive; it’s a uniquely individual endeavour to consider these things. But it has allowed me to initiate some adjustments that otherwise I might easily have ignored, until some far out unarrivable date in the future.
Here are some suggestions inspired by my own studies on how to meditate on mortality mindfully. They might change not only the way you look at death, but also at life.
If you’re an optimist, take the best-case scenario – French supercentarian, Jeanne Calment, lived to 122, she is believed to be the longest living human on record. If more realistic, take the average life expectancy (81), now work backwards and identify your big life goals. Planning backwards gives us clarity that focusing out into the future doesn’t. Founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, famously referred to this as ‘connecting the dots of your life’s work’ but by looking backwards.
Every day counts
As a twenty-something, my ideal final day on planet earth would have entailed international travel and a party to end all parties. Now in early middle age, it’s not what I’d do, it’s how I’d do it. Figure out what’s important to you and plan for it daily. Bronnie Ware’s best-selling book The Top Five Regrets of The Dying might help to serve as inspiration.
Goodbyes with meaning
Fans of the much loved National Gallery of Ireland’s watercolour ‘The Meeting on the Turret Stairs’ by Frederic William Burton will identify with the moving embrace of Hellelil and Hildebrand as they bid each other their final goodbye. Why wait, treat every goodbye like it’s your last. Embracing is good for our health and allows us to connect with our loved ones. And now with mass vaccination on the horizon, this will truly take on significant meaning.
After counselling over 1,500 people at the end of their lives Die Wise author Stephen Jenkinson has labelled society as “death phobic” and suffering a collective “refusal to die”. Consider how you would like to feel when you say goodbye to your loved ones for the last time, who would be there with you, how and what would you celebrate? This scene can inform the type of life you want to live right now.
I had reservations when I attended my first “living wake” in the US, but let’s give it to the Americans, they’re always ahead of the curve (they even brought divorce parties to our shores). Attending your own funeral might just be the inspiration you need to set a few things to right in the here and now. Michael Hebb, founder of Death Over Dinner, encourages people to gather around a dinner table to discuss death in a light-hearted and social way, it can kickstart wonderful and invaluable conversations.
The obituary is a formula that announces and commemorates death. For the daring, why not contemplate your own. What would it highlight about the life you lived? The moving and self-penned eulogy of Irish writer Emma Hannigan is worth considering. “Life is short. It is so very, very precious and it’s not a dress rehearsal.” What wisdom would your eulogy impart? And would you have lived up to your own words?
Death was on trend in the 17th century. Skulls, crossbones and skeletons became fashionable, while ‘Memento mori’ (remember you must die) could be found carved on jewellery. Each reminding the user of the brevity of life. This same thread of thought has been used by modern fashion icons in our lifetime, note Alexander McQueen and his obsessive use of the skull emblem. Find your equivalent and be its wearer.
Look to the skies
Brian Greene’s latest book Until the End of Time examines how we grapple with our existence through narrative, myth, religion, science, the quest for truth, and a deep longing for the eternal. The perfect book for the imperfect time. Pack a copy, book yourself a God Pod at Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick, then ponder on the things that will make your life so very special when it does eventually draw to a close.
Andrea Galligan is a lifestyle entrepreneur and promotes healthy outdoor play on her Instagram account @numu_dublin. She writes on the topics of sustainability, health and wellbeing. Contact her directly @andreagalligan on Twitter.
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