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 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.

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 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.

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.

It’s 3.00am and my daughter is awake. I go to cuddle her and realise she’s crying. ‘I don’t want to die’, she says, ‘Or you to die. What will happen? Would you miss me?’ I get a flashback to my own childhood and the moment when the realisation hit that me and everyone I knew and loved was going to die someday. I recalled the fear, the sadness. Here it was replayed in front of me.

I want to support my daughter through her worries, but 3.00am with a 3 year old is no time for philosophy. We have stories as our common language and lots of them. I remember the stories that helped me, inspired me, that taught me that it was important to have your own story to tell at the end of your life and that you had to work hard to create it. All those little bits of hope, wisdom and guidance kept me going even though I didn’t even know I had them until I needed them.

They taught me that my own worries about death, when I was able to stand up and address them rather than shy away or ignore them, gave me insight into what I really cared about. I was thinking about the people I wanted to spend time with, and was terrified I wouldn’t get to write my own stories or learn or see anything new. My passions came to light when a limit was put upon my time. I don’t always get it right, but now I have this awareness I hope I am living in accordance with these passions, so that when I come to the end of my life, I can rest with the knowledge not that I did everything, but that I did my thing.

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.

Phil on Death

When did you first meet?

I first met Death when I was ten years old living in a boarding school. My grandmother and uncle died around the same time. I wasn’t allowed to go to the funerals. I became very depressed and it led me into an uncomfortable preoccupation with Death, which lasted for years.

When did you become friends?

I studied evolutionary theory at university and it is really through this that I recognised Life and Death as two great forces that drove creativity and change. They were both essential, and both responsible, for love, diversity and beauty.

What do you like most about Death?

As an artist I can’t help but be in awe of the power of death, the mystery and even the glamour. It can also be a motivation for exceptional behaviours, for creating and expressing life. Exquisite really…

What do you least like about Death?

I am still scared of Death. Of course I am. I can’t quite bring myself to accept Death. I hope that my ideas and actions live on, at least for a little while, in the memories of others.

Then finally, as my body balances on the cusp of nothingness, I will look back and know that I loved and cherished life. I think that will be my comfort.

Growing up, I seemed to think about everything more than my friends did. I often thought about dying, or being dead. It may be explained by the Friday night meetings I got taken to by well-meaning Plymouth Brethren Christians. They collected us in their cars (no child protection or safeguarding back then) and took us to a small hut in the local village which was owned by the highly respected Postmaster. There, we were fed sweets whilst simultaneously reciting bible verses, and gustily singing choruses that spoke of black hearts; the blood of the lamb; and hell, fire and damnation. To my 9-year-old sensitivities it was all completely horrific.

Those early experiences shaped me irreparably until, in my forties, I became aware that I had been afraid my whole life, and that what I had been taught back then about my life and my inevitable death had coloured everything I’d been told since. I found the strength eventually to begin to unravel the belief that I would be judged when I died and hopefully go to heaven. I had long since reckoned that hell was a fantastical and outdated notion. I was still however left with the highly unsatisfactory idea that I would have to eternally worship an unfathomable God-type figure.

Finally, aged 47, I stepped away and no longer believed what I had been told as a child. I lost friends, and even my identity for a while, but finally I was free and no longer afraid.

One day I was half listening to an interview on Radio 4 when the women speaking announced that she would be compost when she died. My ears pricked up, what a wonderful thought, that I would simply be compost when life’s breath left me. My mortality is no longer a concern.