Thoughts About My Own Mortality

It’s been a huge relief to find my home in humanism. No more myths and legends masquerading as truth. No more just going along with what others think, taking the easy way. No more avoiding the big issues. A Damascus Road experience in reverse.

So now, when I come to think of my own mortality, there’s no reckoning, no divine judgment, no heaven, no hell, no purgatory, no future, no reuniting, no passing, no better place. Just nothing.

I will leave a fading, once bright, imprint on others who knew me. Maybe that will last a couple of generations. I hope I’ll be remembered fondly. I think I will. I’ve done my best to achieve that.

That’s fine. I’ll settle for that.

I’ve been lucky so far. A good, long, and healthy life. I must make the very most of what’s left. I’m unique. No one can do it like me. I’ve got things to join in. Things I can’t join in. Others to think of. Challenges to meet. Experiences to enjoy. Time alone to reflect. People to love. Plenty to think about. Highlights and dark times. That’s life. I must get on with it.

I am not afraid of death or when I am going to die, just how I am going to die. My life is finite. I will have to die sometime, probably not of my choosing. If I had a life threatening and debilitating illness, I would like the choice of when and how. Bring on ‘Assisted Dying’!

I have thought of and accepted my death for a long time – as a teenager, in adulthood and now, my senior years. There have been difficult times when I thought I would end my life. In those dark times I dwelt on who I was and why living seemed unbearable. I knew I would not have any regrets if I did die but realised this would have a huge impact on those closest to me. Somehow, I found positive thoughts: recognising the love around me, difficulties I had overcome, and that life can be exciting.

Life is for living, through good and bad. We all have different experiences of what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ times. My bad times have not been terrible, although they felt it at the time. I have been fortunate, with my upbringing and education. I learned I must take responsibility for my life as far as I can, to ask for help or accept love and support from other people, even from strangers, as little acts of kindness can make a huge impact.

I accept my death will happen as I am human. So, I want to live my one life being kind, respecting others and making the most of what I have. Experiencing each day, good or bad, offers new opportunities to learn, enjoy simple pleasures and to make a positive difference in this world. My death will be the end of a simple life.

Attitude to Death 

As a 72 year old who’s highly vulnerable to COVID infection, I’ve had good reason to consider my mortality recently, and while I may claim not to fear death, I do fear dying alone on the ITU, away from my family.

In more normal times I suppose I view death as something to be postponed as long as possible, but because I can’t choose when to go, I have to (cliché alert) live each day as if it was my last. And I’m lucky – I have a good life, with a lovely family, a comfortable pension and reasonable state of health. This affords me the luxury of concentrating on the here and now and making what’s left of my life a good one, in line with my humanist principles. But it’s easy to imagine circumstances where that might not have been the case, and where I would now be viewing death as a release.

Of course, if I get time to prepare for death, rather than going under the wheels of a bus, there will be regrets at the stuff I’m going to miss as my children and grandchildren’s lives unfold, but I hope there will be some good memories for those who survive me. While I find it odd (doesn’t everyone?) to imagine the world going on without me, I remember that in a few billion years the sun will become a red giant and engulf the earth, so in the great scheme of things, mine is just one little life and my death will be equally inconsequential. From stardust we come, and to stardust we return, and while religious folk may find that a bleak outlook, I would rather rejoice while I can at the wonderful improbability of my brief existence.

In my late sixties, a routine blood test gave an off the scale reading. I knew I’d got a problem. The consultant confirmed the worst.

‘Is this going to kill me?’ I asked.

He didn’t mince words. ‘Most certainly it will’

Dozens of appointments and treatments followed and a lot of thinking. I decided to confront, not deny, to be happy, not miserable, and to use every minute.

For me, the issue has three parts.

One: That I’ll be dead. I really do believe it will be just like it was before I was born. So being dead holds no fears.

Two: The potential pain, indignity and distress of dying. I have always supported campaigns for assisted dying. Now I have even more reason to. I have spent time researching how I might protect myself and have taken what steps I can.

Three: The frustration of leaving the party while I’m still enjoying myself. I don’t begrudge others the fun they’ll have when I’ve gone, but I could be fed up thinking of all the happiness I’ll miss – my family and friends, especially the grandchildren growing up, the countryside, music, good beer, hot buttered toast and other pleasures of the flesh! So, I set about squeezing maximum enjoyment into what time there is – seeing more of the family, walking every day, exploring Wagner’s operas, drinking more beer, and the rest.

Postscript: My initial prognosis was two to three years. I’ve been spectacularly lucky. Things were not quite so bad – one important diagnostic parameter was atypical and deceptive. My salary package included health insurance which paid for an expensive, unproven but promising treatment not available on the NHS. Now, four years from diagnosis, I’m almost completely without symptoms and enjoying life – perhaps more even than I did before!

I sometimes think about death, and my own death in particular. While I remain conscious it will always be ‘now’ for me, and so I will never experience that state of not being alive. What will that last moment of ‘now’ be like?

At times I almost rejoice at the idea that on my death I will merge with everything in the universe and be part of it.

And I often consider that as long as another human, any human, knows the joy that I have myself experienced, then that would be enough for me, and I will be satisfied with my life. I just regret that my own great projects will remain unfinished, and that I won’t know what happens.

I hope to leave my affairs in order and to dispose of many possessions well in advance. I also hope that if the need arises, I will be able to access assisted dying in this country.

In the meanwhile, my desire and aim is to give an unhindered flow of love and goodness for as long as is possible.

I have not found peace with the idea of dying that some other people have. I am ‘raging against the dying of the light’.

Perhaps more than anything I want to see what happens next, to humanity and the natural world. Will humankind pull back from the brink and stop terrible loss of human and animal life due to climate change, the destruction of most forests and ocean wildlife, all caused by humans? Will all humanity slowly and painfully migrate towards democracy and welfare states and human-rights, such as we have had in the West, or will hierarchies always dominate most of our societies, with all the wealth and power at the top, and most people in poverty and treated cruelly? They are stories I want to know the end to.

I want to see what happens to my children and my nephews and nieces, but maybe if the endings are going to be sad it is better if I don’t know.

I still want to do lots of things. One of the things I would most like to do is to make my painting and other artwork as good as it can be, to fulfil my potential. It is said that to fully achieve one’s full ability in any creative activity one needs 10,000 hours – that is 3 hours a day, 7 days per week, for 10 years. I know that I will probably never reach that, but I won’t die happy until I have gone a long way down that road.

I know in my head that my little bit of consciousness will one day be snuffed out, but I’m not ready yet. I want to grow into my eighties or nineties, and do more of the things that I have for so long wanted to do.

My Mortality is like the mirage-image ship above the horizon: it is not approaching, but it won’t vanish. One day, I may sense that it is nearing, but until then I won’t give it much thought.

Today, the weather-doll Life is out in the open, while Mortality has gone indoors. I’ve been enjoying a blackbird on the chimney, seeds sprouting in the cold-frame, the sounds of Bach and gutsy gusts. Seizing the day means that I’ll work, walk, write.

Humans, like a coral reef, are composed of infinitesimal cellular bodies of different shapes and sizes, beautiful and multi-coloured when alive, but white when dead. I’ll opt for the colour version while I can.

Still, I shall look forward to my final examination. Will I do? When I have no blood left to give, they can take away my body. The medical students who probe and explore will marvel, not at my wasted shape, but at the intricacies of the human body and its thirty-seven or so trillion cells. Until that day, I’ll carry on marvelling at Life.

I have long felt that belief in life after death was just arrogant wishful thinking. Fortunately, early in my student days at Imperial College in 1971, I discovered The British Humanist Association where I found others who also chose to live a caring but rational, evidence-based life.

I have always been conscious of my mortality due to the premature death of my ancestors; I never met either Grandfather, one Grandmother died at 65, my Mother at 55, and Father at 73.

I have led an active and stimulating life and try to make every day count. What I most value in life are my family and friends. Simple pleasures, like dog-walking with grandchildren through woods by a river, provide much joy whatever the season.

Now, approaching 70 years, I am aware of my declining health. I do not fear death as I do not expect to be aware of anything afterwards. What I do fear is life without quality and a lingering and possibly painful death.

Some years ago, I joined EXIT, formerly known as the Scottish Euthanasia Society, where I learned how I could plan the end of my life, simply, without suffering or traumatising loved ones. This knowledge continues to empower me in the belief that I could have control over the end of my life.

I will be satisfied that after I die, I will live on in the memories of those I loved.

My nana (a key figure in my life) died when I was 13 and I found myself thinking about ‘heaven’ – a place people talked about to reassure me. I found it disconcerting and uncomfortable, imagining this strange place where I could look down on the people I had loved and left but being unable to let them know I was okay and out of pain. People tried to comfort me by saying I would not be bothered by this loss, because this was heaven and all earthly worries would fade. I found this even more horrific! All my care, and love, and free will removed from me so I didn’t feel? I wanted nothing to do with it!

Looking back at 13 year-old me, I recognise the start of me really understanding what it meant to be human, and this eventually led me to appreciate living now rather than for an afterlife. I only have the moments I stand up and can choose to be kind, curious, passionate, joyful, as well as sad, angry, anxious and all the other amazing gifts of being human in these moments. After death, I lose those gifts: I will not feel, as I am not here, but I find comfort in knowing those gifts will be enjoyed by others and some of their gifts might even be connected to me and my actions. Having no ‘heaven’ means using my gifts now, living, feeling and maybe even improving some moments for other people. At 55, I know I have fewer moments ahead than those behind me, and I can use my gifts to treasure them all – regrets as well as accomplishments – then at the end of my life I release them, glad to have lived them.

The French philosopher Auguste Comte is a neglected pioneer of humanism. His much-derided ‘Religion of Humanity’ was a bold attempt to describe how men and women in a post-religious age might transcend their egoistic interests in order to serve the common good. His idea was that we should devote ourselves to the growing good of ‘Humanity’ which both precedes and succeeds our individual lives. This idea found expression in George Eliot’s memorable poem ‘The Choir Invisible’:

“Oh, may I join the choir invisible

Of those immortal dead who live again

In minds made better by their presence; live

In pulses stirred to generosity…”

Through memory, artefacts, and affection, I feel keenly the presence of deceased parents and friends whose well-lived lives continue to enrich my own. My task in turn is to live well and leave some imprint of goodness in the world, however small or seemingly insignificant.

I’m not afraid of dying – but I do think about what could possibly be involved in the run up to that event.

As a fiercely independent woman, the prospect of a long debilitating physical illness or of me losing my marbles makes me cringe!

Since the death of my son in 2002, my life has been far from care-free but it has been fear-free. Knowing that I have survived the worst possible thing that could ever have happened to me – I feel that I have nothing to fear, including death.

People with religious faith have asked me how I can face the end without the comfort of planning to be with family and friends again in an afterlife. However, I can’t gain comfort from something I don’t believe in and simply concentrate on enjoying life now.

My only concern about me no longer being in existence is the pain and loss that may affect those who have cared about me and valued having me in their lives.

I know just how devastating grief can be and during my thirteen years of conducting Humanist funerals, I see that in other people in some way most days.

I hope that my nearest and dearest won’t suffer the loss of me for a few years yet and meanwhile I will continue to make the most of every day with family and friends – hopefully creating a catalogue of memories for them to look back on in the future.

All animals are the products of natural selection and it is unsurprising that one of the most important tasks of any nervous system is to identify circumstances leading to death or injury and to avoid them. Yet, as far as we can tell, humans are the only animals that are aware that death is sooner or later inevitable.

We can conjecture that when our ancestors first discovered this, it must have caused a debilitating fear. But to spend one’s life worrying about its end would not contribute to survival and reproduction, so mechanisms were selected to avoid this. The first is that we have acquired a wonderful ability to not think about it, despite its massive importance. The second is that we lower our critical judgement to accept fanciful stories about an afterlife.

Of course, the second of these adaptive mechanisms created an opportunity to practice the trade of shamans and priests. This is probably hundreds of thousands of years old, but I suspect that it became more organised when humans began to live in settled agricultural communities over 10,000 years ago.

We humanists have figured out that the priests’ stories are without evidence and the knowledge that we are the products of evolution makes it certain that animals simply cease to exist when they die. So what will it be like to be dead? It will not be like anything to not exist. If you would like to think what it was ‘like’ during the millions of years before you were born, that should give you an idea.

As I write this, I am approaching my 82nd birthday. I am using the defence of not thinking about it too much, and I will try to use whatever time remains as usefully as possible.