I started to think about my mortality when my children were quite small, and it was largely a negative feeling, that my children needed me to be around for them, that it would be awful for them if their mother died while they were still so young. It was some years later when I felt that I could die now and my children would manage without me. It was a huge relief to know they were independent individuals who had developed their own identities.

When I was in my early 50s my husband died very suddenly; he killed himself after leaving a note saying he couldn’t cope. Early in my bereavement I felt I had no future, but despite the grief and shock I knew also that I wanted to live my own life to the full. I made positive changes in my work (becoming freelance) and in my lifestyle (giving up smoking) to ensure I was in the best possible place to enjoy the life I had in front of me. I’ve always embraced change, enjoyed making decisions and being in control of my own life.

Now I’m in my early 70s, and I think about my own death more often. I’m amazed to have lasted this long, as my father died when he was the same age I am now. I still want to pack in as much life as I can – I want to see my grandchildren grow up, and to continue to be healthy, active, constantly learning, and politically engaged. I want to be able to choose the timing of my painless, peaceful death and I’ve written my wishes for my funeral. Then, my only wish is that I am remembered by those who love me.

My mother and my grandmother both dropped dead – out of the blue – apparently well and happy one minute, and dead the next. I am now 10 years older than my mother was when she died, and twenty years older than my grandmother. I have regularly taken funerals for people much younger than me and have recently been treated for cancer.

You might think I should be well aware of my mortality. But I am not yet living my life as if I know my days were limited. If I have any fears it is that I will die too late – after the ‘me’ that I know and care about is long gone. I am thinking now of the woman with dementia who could scream and cry for days on end. Death can be a friend that keeps away for too long.

Recently, I was meeting with a woman, diagnosed thirty years ago with cancer, who set out making happy memories for her children who were then quite young, and trying to ensure that they would be strong and independent for when she was no longer here. Thirty years on, with a life full of happy memories and now terminally ill, her awareness and acceptance of the imminence of death made her determined to enjoy every single minute she had left. Her life was so rich for it. Looking at a tree was blissful.

So I questioned myself: am I living as if I actually believed my days were limited? Is doing ‘life housekeeping’ – preparing for being dead – enough? The answer was clearly no, on both counts. So, I asked myself, if I knew for sure that I had a matter of weeks or months left, how would I be fully savouring my gift of life? And I am currently working on this.

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!

My mother has had cancer twice and thankfully survived both episodes of illness, but we live with the shadow that it may return. This has brought my awareness of our relationship to a different and sometimes complex emotional place. My father/s and other relatives have equally been treated for cancer in alarming numbers. So, whilst Covid-19 has cast a shadow of fear of death globally, these realities have already played out for me and my family several times.

My brother-in-law currently has a terminal diagnosis of cancer and is living his remaining days in excruciating pain. We are only three months apart in age. As someone contemplating that I have at 45 likely lived over half my life, I can’t help but feel fortunate, whilst younger relatives and increasingly friends of my generation have since passed away. A close friend once told me aging is a privilege, having lost her own father suddenly in his forties. Years of indiscriminate loss of life around me has brought my mortality very much to the fore of my mind. Having had brushes with death, it has been survivor guilt that threatened to overwhelm me rather than fear of death itself. My hope is to have choice and dignity when it eventually comes for me.

Yet as a humanist I cherish life, love deeply, and endeavour to notice the seasons change, watch the sun set, and be here mindfully, now, without regrets. Life frequently challenges my philosophical efforts and I get distracted with stresses that in time I know will seem insignificant. I have spoken with my spouse and a few close relatives about our mortality and we have shared our wishes for the dealings of each of our deaths. In the meantime, I live each day reminding myself this life is truly spectacular.

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.

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.

On Mortality

Our temporariness is such a short time.

I strive to do my best.

I strive to accept my best is ‘good enough’.

I fear deterioration in mental and physical capacity. To me, those capacities enable me to contribute my best to life on earth.

On the other hand, I accept an end to living. Life on earth thrives from cycles of ideas, inputs, happenings – beginnings and endings and lives in between.

I accept my influence is in the now. We are finite beings.

We need to prepare ourselves: to learn to step aside; to pass on to others; to pass on the baton!

The pandemic has emphasised our vulnerability and our mortality. I have talked more about death – the end – during this unusual time. The end is non-negotiable. It is harder to talk about getting there. This path is more ‘messy’, more unpredictable.

My uncle whom I did not know well died recently at the age of 94 years. I knew him from afar as he emigrated to Canada with my aunt in 1955. From when I was a child, I thought of him as an adventurer and courageous. He broke the mould and broke the rules of the time! He grasped life and opportunities. He was a thinker and wise counsel, a considerate, kind man. His family was very precious to him. His aspirations for his children, with his help to prepare and support them in their lives, was for them to be kind to each other and to others. He and my aunt also discussed the end of life and made plans, and fulfilled them courageously.

Thinking about his life and his achievements has focused my thoughts on my life and my end. Yes, we must all talk more.

I am fortunate that my life has been a happy one. Now retired, my days still fill with simple pleasures, a favourite of which are walks with my wife Lek, our still-growing family, and my whippet. Lek and I treasure above all else these times spent with our family. But I am now getting close to the end of my life. This prospect does not trouble me greatly even though, as a scientist, I discounted long ago any supernatural explanation of life in favour of one based on natural forces, including evolution, genetics, and heredity. My own genetic make-up, inherited from my parents and theirs, has already been passed to our children and grandchildren in that cycle from birth to birth that bypasses death. Although I am saddened to think that my death may cause my family grief, they will surely be comforted knowing as they walk away from the grave, that they together represent more of me than lies behind. And they will know that I loved them each and that their company was my greatest pleasure. I find immense comfort also in knowing that the same ties of heredity binds us to all life on earth, in all its various forms. We must therefore be kind, and look after each other.

Looking towards my final days, I want to avoid that greatest of all indignities and distresses, of declining into mental confusion and helplessness. If that seems likely I have planned a merciful end to my own happy life.

Mortality – that’s a tricky one. I find it difficult enough to think about a lovely summer’s day in the depths of winter, or vice versa, without trying to envisage something of which I can have no experience, at first or second hand. The only tool I have for tackling my own mortality is my imagination, which is not helpful, as it inevitably dwells on the awful ways I could die rather than the fact of dying. Like many people, I like the idea of quitting the party while it’s still going on, quickly and without warning. But that is so not good for the people left behind.

Sudden death is a physical as well as an emotional shock. And it’s messy. Even the most prepared people won’t have thought of everything and may not have updated their will or their funeral wishes very recently. That can be difficult enough to cope with, but the worst thing is not being able to say goodbye.

A ‘good death’ allows for that. Beyond making sure the important people have your computer and email passwords, there may be the doing of the as yet undone, the mending of relationships, the reallocating of priorities, the saying of things not yet said. It may be preparing loved ones for a life without you, or it may simply be creating or stashing away a store of good memories that will provide sustenance in the dark days to come.

I hope I will be lucky and brave enough to have a good death.