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 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.

A great hero of mine, Michel de Montaigne, wrote that perhaps all the wisdom in the world ultimately teaches us one thing: not to be afraid of dying. Once you lose that fear, he said, you can get on with life.

Thankfully, I lost that fear very early in life. My father died when I was a baby and consequently, although I had no emotional connection to him, there has always been a father-shaped hole in my life. It meant I understood from an early age about someone being – in those smiley photographs on his ship, and in the anecdotes told by those who knew him – and then not being. Visiting the very spot in Teignmouth where he drowned, by then a father myself, is probably the most emotionally powerful experience in my life – because it rammed home how arbitrary is the line between life and death.

Having no fear of death means that I can put all my energy into what really matters – making the most of life and helping others to try and do the same. That sounds virtuous, but if we have that mindset it helps retain our optimism – and that can brush off on others. Wherever possible, we can turn that into practical help too.

If Covid has taught me anything, it is that I have taken the simple things in life for granted, especially carefree social interaction with others. Perhaps the pandemic is also breaking the taboo of talking about death. I want to use that to help others to lose the fear and get on with life, like the man said.

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.

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.

As a young child in a family of practising Roman Catholics I remember lying in bed at night worrying about dying. Death was something to be feared. I can still feel the echo of that in the pit of my stomach as I write this piece.

Since then I have encountered death in many ways but now it no longer has that grip on my heart. I understand that we are part of a changing and evolving universe where, for me, the gift of life is a random event, so I feel beholden to make the most of my existence while I am still a living, breathing being in our world.

This was most reinforced for me when my previous partner was killed in 2013. Suddenly losing her with no forewarning was an extremely painful event. It led me, however, to understand that I could die at any moment. Because of this, and also to commemorate my partner’s passing, I resolved, wherever possible, to do good in the world for as long as I am able.

Knowing one day that I, as a conscious, living entity, will no longer be part of our human existence, also makes me more determined to make the most of every day I am gifted life by our universe. To take time to encounter the world; to acknowledge the troubles, worries, needs and desires of my human companions on this planet. To allow the natural world to impact me; whether it be insects in the ground I am digging; birds flying above me when I am outside; or the rich variety of trees, plants and all life forms sharing our existence.

Accepting my mortality means that I am committed to living my life to the full and to helping others do the same. It is as simple as that.

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.

I was aware of mortality from a young age, due to the loss of people close to me, but found my grief was managed and directed by others. I was told ‘they are in a better place’, ‘you will get to see them again’, ‘they are watching over you’. Whilst the intention behind these sentiments was good, it did nothing to help me move on, accept the grieving, and take comfort in the best memories of those I had lost.

When I was old enough to challenge my beliefs, and really think about the ‘end of life’, I found much more comfort in living for now and not some idea of anything after this life. I don’t have any fear of death or dying. Losing someone you love is still heartbreaking but focusing on what you shared whilst they were alive, the experiences and memories, that makes grieving less painful. It also makes me more determined to make the most out of every moment.

Now I am in the position of guiding my children through difficult times, I can understand the tendency for people to fall back on what they see as paths of hope and reconciliation that may be perceived as easier for children to comprehend. But honesty is much better in the long run. Explaining that people believe many different things but nobody can give a definitive answer gives children the opportunity to find a path through grief which works best for them. I don’t know if there is an afterlife, but I believe there isn’t, so concentrate on now and live life to the fullest. I think about how I want people to remember me the most, and that is laughing, learning, loving and finding joy in everything I do. That is enough for me.

Our society shuns away from talking or thinking about death. We know it hovers in the background, like a cloud, somewhere, but we never wish to turn and look it in the face. We certainly are not encouraged to talk about it.

The deaths of my father, my much loved cousin (who was like a brother to me) and then two years ago my beloved husband, have caused me to face this wispish cloud. I am still determined to live forever, but now realise this may not be reality!

I have no children to carry on my line, a great sadness.

Instead, I write and paint, hoping that my creations will remain treasured in the world long after I am gone. Maybe they will offer comfort to others and bring smiles to faces unknown to me.

What we leave behind are memories, with our family, our friends and sadly also with our enemies. So, it seems to me that a great importance in life is to try to ensure that we have no enemies. That there will be no one who thinks badly of us in the future. That we leave only golden memories, happy memories with lots of laughter, fun, wisdom and friendship.

The way to do this is to live well, think before we speak, love others, be happy.

I want to be remembered with a smile, or not at all.

Ideally, if we live a full life, when the end comes we should be ready to meet it, perhaps even welcome it. Endings of any kind necessarily embody sadness, and in one’s ending of endings the sadness is intensified. Yet endings can also embody satisfactions: in having stayed the course, having achieved things, having put more in than one has taken out.

I have had a disjointed, though colourful, life. I suppose those two are related. There is a danger, particularly in ‘developed’ countries, of seeing success in life as being defined by material accumulation rather than the development of enlightenment, knowledge and wisdom. It is fine to accumulate wealth provided we do so by doing something we love.

Another corrosive issue is safety culture. One aspect of this is keeping life going when there is no life left in life. I intend to plan my exit and be present at my wake, which I hope will be a hell of a party. I found the book ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris an inspiration for this.

My greatest satisfactions are in having effected positive change through doing things which I have taken delight in. I also get a kick out of confounding expectations. I think it is true that as one gets older one regrets more the things one has not done, due to lack of courage, than the mistakes one has made due to poor judgement. Another regret is not appreciating things enough, which I expect is quite common.

A peculiarity of my life is that, after experiencing poor health in childhood, my health has gradually improved as I have aged. This has led to me feeling more light-hearted. Thus, in the autumn of my years, I am enjoying the occasional spurt of late flowering immaturity.