Speaking to an elderly friend, at that time in his 90s, he described himself as being in the ‘departure lounge’. Whilst feeling I’m not quite there yet, I’ve certainly gone past ‘check in’ and ‘passport control’ with more years to look back on than I have left ahead of me.

When younger, I never thought much about dying. Although I was heart-broken at the deaths of my lovely grandparents it seemed like the natural order of events – after all they were a good few years older than me at the time. Beloved aunts and uncles followed, but once I was orphaned in my sixties my thoughts turned more to my own mortality – I’m next in line!

Although I happen to have other plans for tomorrow, if I dropped dead instead, I would at least die happy. I would be sad for my family, but I have tried to minimise any grief by making a will and also a ‘living will’ and putting my affairs in order. I hope that I will stay in their memories, as my loved ones who have died have stayed with me.

I am fortunate to have no complaints about my life. I have travelled extensively and done and seen things my ancestors could only have dreamt of – the memory of a desert night sky and the myriad stars continues to fill me with awe and wonder and reminds me of how small and insignificant we are. I like to tell my grandchildren that our atoms come from stardust!

I benefited from a good state education, a wonderful childhood in a loving family, a happy marriage, children, grandchildren and friends – so until my time comes when I head out of the ‘departure lounge’ I am glad of each new day – what’s not to enjoy!

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 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.

I dyed my hair shocking pink mid-pandemic as a cheer-up measure. Friends wanted to see photos of it. One noted, ‘Enjoy yourself. Keep smiling in your pink hair and cherish your time with your grandchildren – you’re making memories for them that could be around the next 90+ years’.

My death is getting closer. If I live to 90 I have 20 years left. Cherishing those years holds my legacy to the future and my part in it. I am not dead until all memories of me have been sequestered by those who hold them.

Memories are vested liveable moments when you can conjure up the presence of those physically gone. My mother died 3 years ago but she often seems to be at my side and more frequently in cold, windy weather which she hated. It’s been windy recently. I hear her telling me, ‘I’m not going out in this scarifying wind’, and I smile to myself.

Chris, my dead husband, visits me in my dreams, giving me words of his confidence that I can handle whatever situation is bothering me.

Mortality is one-sided. I will be dead, but for others I will be in a different form of life. Memory life. I won’t be ‘here’ except in what others experience as my ‘hereness’. I won’t be able to interact from myself, only from what they create as my responses.

Thus, now, I still have means to shape those creations to some extent. My grandchildren may remember my pink hair. I hope they remember I love them. I wonder if they will tell their grandchildren stories about me and the times we planted acorns, confident of the generations ahead enjoying the oak trees.

My responsibility is huge and I may have 20 years to fulfil it. Mortality is one type of end. The legacies, gifts, and memories of it are possibilities that stretch beyond mortality.

Thoughts Towards The End of a Lifespan

I’ve lived more than my three score years and ten.
Hips, knees and fingers all ache to be still.
My once-smooth skin is lined and getting thin.
Departed friends have left big holes to fill.

But now at last I’ve free time to deploy
Without the need to please all those I see.
Grandchildren and their parents give me joy;
And savings let my thought and life be free.

As fellow baby-boomers disappear
I wonder what I will have left behind.
Some things I’ve done and said others can share;
My genes you’ll now in better places find

Each night, relaxing with a sigh of peace,
I hope death’s much the same: just breathing’s cease.

At 85, with the coronavirus circling, I of course think about my mortality. But it seems to me there is a difference between wanting to live, and the reasons for doing so, and not wanting to die. I don’t want to catch the virus, I don’t want to die period. That is instinctual. If I say to someone ‘I don’t want to die’, it would hardly make sense for them to answer, ‘Why not?’. There are circumstances that might make one want to die – intense and incurable pain for one; but without them, the survival instinct is paramount.

What though are the positive things that make me want to live? I have no children, but I do have nephews through my wife’s family, and we look after them. I look after my wife, as she looks after me. The sense of being valuable to others is key. If I couldn’t be useful to anyone at all my desire to live would be much diminished. But not extinguished. I’d still look forward to enjoying what I enjoy, books, music, movies, pleasures of the table. For a keen chess player as I am, there is always the lure of playing one more good game. And so forth.

All said and done, I want to go on living. But my time will come. I have two sources of comfort about that. One is the famous saying of Epicurus, ‘Where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not.’ That seems to encompass the finality of dying, and its mysterious absence.

And then there is the universe, its unimaginable size and age. The atoms that made up my person and their attendant consciousness will be infinitesimally small specks in the vastness. The ‘I’ that I was will be in good company.