The stories we are told as children make a difference: are other people basically kind or competitive? Is everybody beautiful or am I never good enough? Is death friend or enemy? I was told from an early age that while I would probably live to old age, I might get run over by a bus so I should value each day.

My parents were Christians but they didn’t worry about death and they didn’t believe in hell. The focus was all on how to live this life.

So, that’s cool. I have always known that death waits at the end of the road and sometimes nips up on you like a joker. Friend then, rather than foe. My nonchalance ended when my 92-year-old mother became very ill and entered a nursing home. She is lonely and confused. I am sometimes overwhelmed by sadness at what her life has become, and I fear it for myself. It is fear of dying rather than death – I know death is the end of consciousness and a welcome relief for an old body – but they are imaginatively connected. If dying means losing freedom and control, it sounds like being dead but alive enough to experience it, which is scary!

I aspire to grow old as Bertrand Russell advised: like a river which flows more quietly and eventually merges into the sea, not lost, just dispersed. We all influence and change each others’ lives in an endless evolution. Our moment passes but future generations stand on our shoulders. I hope the values I hold in life will serve me in dying – thinking of others as well as myself, making myself busy with lovely or helpful things, not off-loading too much on others – though at the age of 60 I still need lots of practice!

I remember the moment when I realised that I was going to die. As a life-long atheist, I was aware that my existence was finite but, when I was around the age of ten, I comprehended the prospect of my own annihilation for the first time. The idea of death as a negation, a state of unbeing, became suddenly clear.

At the time, I was momentarily struck by paralysing fear and an urge to shrink away, to deny the reality of my mortality. I have regularly revisited that thought since and, although the fear has lessened with time and maturity, the idea of my death still has the ability to stun me. My fear of death is a fear of incapacity; of absence; of an inability to think, feel, and act as I want. Some of these things may well be visited on me by old age, injury, or dementia. I fear that too.

Yet my awareness of, and engagement with, my mortality has had a profoundly beneficial impact on my life. My fiancé’s parents believe in an afterlife and have asked me, with some curiosity, about my lack of belief in life after death. My slightly glib response was that mortality is a good motivator.

My awareness that I have one life, that every waking moment is precious and gone in an instant, gives me focus. I pour as much time and effort as I can into the things that matter most to me: family, friendships, and relationships; writing, reading, and music; and supporting causes that make a positive difference in the world. I want to make my finite life as meaningful and as packed-full with pleasure and personal achievement as I can, because it’s all I have.

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.

I have enjoyed the comfort and thrills of experiencing life with a loving partner for more years than I have without him. I have lived a life of love and fulfilment, of academic and career successes, with many joys and challenges, including raising a beautiful daughter. There’s still more to come, I hope – a new business venture, my daughter’s successes and even retirement in India (maybe). But I wouldn’t want to live forever. The certainty of death is my friend. A friend who helps me lead a good life, helps me to laugh and cry, to love, to take a risk, motivates me to be brave and say yes to experiences whilst I can.

As a child, I was reflective, gentle, and artistic. I was a dreamer and at one with nature – rational and unafraid of dying. I couldn’t remember being unborn, so I convinced myself I wouldn’t remember being dead. I reasoned that when the time comes, it will be okay to go back to the earth and allow other organisms to live through me. These thoughts from a young child may have been naïve, and admittedly they have become more challenging to maintain as an adult. It is painful to think of my loved ones in grief and I worry about the challenges they will face as they inherit this messy planet. I hope I will live through them as they inherit my behaviours and traits – hopefully the good ones! I am certain my legacy will be remembered through them, so I’m trying to make good memories and to tread lightly on this earth for the fleeting time I am lucky enough to be here.

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!

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 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.

On mortality

To try to understand my own mortality I must look back at my life and look forward to my death. Mortality meaning the fact that I am subject to death, I am not immortal. In my mind I wish to dispute this solid truth. Although I am old, I try not to be old.

My death will be defined by my life; the life I have lived. On balance, without false modesty, I believe that I have been more positive rather than negative. I have experienced great successes and acknowledge dismal failures. Such has been my life’s pattern. I was an unwanted child but I am privileged to have known great love for forty years, from my wife who departed some years ago. In my life, I have touched people, influenced them or given cause for reflection. Those whom I have inspired or taught and, in more recent years perhaps, those whom I have married and the loved ones of those whose funerals I have conducted. I will have left behind some monuments, things that I have made or written, that will outlive me. Eventually, these also will fade away. So, what is this life of mine? I want to say that I have done my best to be a useful contributor to the kaleidoscope of events and philosophies that have surrounded me and, I suppose, none of us can ask for more than that.

I have no fear of death but great concern about the manner of my dying. I might come to the point where I am a burden on others or am stripped by disease of my dignity. If I see that coming I shall slip, quietly, away.

Dying, death and being dead. I’m perfectly at ease with all three – in fact, I rather look forward to them, whenever and however they come. We’re certain these things will happen, and if we’re lucky we have plenty of time to prepare for them.

Dying is about coming to terms with the end of life. It’s a process, not an event – an opportunity to reflect on one’s achievements and impact, mistakes and oversights. It’s a time to leave nothing unsaid.

Death is about letting go – that moment of sweet surrender when you allow the inevitable to take over and relax into unconsciousness, like that delicious point between exhaustion and a much-needed sleep. Buddhist thought holds that suffering comes from struggle, and death comes when you allow both to end.

Being dead is simply about physically being no more. Everything you were persists and all that you’ve done remains, but your body has moved on for recycling. It’s exactly as things were before you were born, but the world and the people you love and who love you have had the benefit of your being. Whether life lasts minutes, days, years or decades makes no difference to the universe: you have been.

This is how I view my mortality. Life and death come as an inseparable package deal, and each of these elements play an essential part. I accept them, value them and embrace them for the essential experiences they are.

Some talk about or believe in a life after death. And of course they’re right: the stuff we’re made of has been around since the beginning of time, and will be until its end. I just think of the joyous chance and good luck that for a brief, wonderful blink of time, some of those molecules were assembled into me.