We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep
–William Shakespeare, The Tempest
In all of life there is nothing so assured as death, and nothing so mysterious. It’s the greatest paradox of existence: it is the one sure and certain thing that has happened to everyone that has come before us. And while there are scientists working to stop it—and there have always been poets and madmen who thought they could will it out of existence—it is there, in our very DNA: the finality and inevitability of death. As Aldous Huxley said, “Ends are ape-wrought/only the means are man’s.”
It is a strange quirk of human nature, then, that while we all recognize the universal fact of death, we tend to view our own as something unique, and therefore uniquely tragic. And it is — to us and to those that love us. We are saddened by the idea that life will go on, only this time, without us. Christopher Hitchens used to say, “I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on—only henceforth in my absence.” But then, he also realized the futility of questioning that, saying “To the question ‘why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: ‘why not’?”
Our Culture Gives Us Strength in the Face of Death
The lack of an answer doesn’t stop us from asking the fundamental “why?” This was maybe best and most simply encapsulated in the TV show Angel, when Fred, about to die, asks as her very last words “Why can’t I stay?” It is something that everyone has asked, in one form or the other, throughout all of human history.
Avoiding any theological questions or discussions, the scientific role of death comes after life is used up, whether naturally, through sickness, or an accident. That might seem a bleak way to look at it, but it isn’t. It just shows that death is part of life; the last part, but it isn’t alien or removed from existence. We don’t have to resent death, because to die means simply that you have been alive, and that it isn’t a fearful or frightful thing. To quote Mark Twain, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
This idea that death is part of life is a strong and important one. The fantasy author Terry Pratchett turned the normal equation around when, in The Last Continent, he wrote “It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it’s called Life.” There’s something gorgeous and true about that. We don’t get to experience all of this—the sun over the Bay or the laughter of our loved ones or that butterfly-inducing moment where your hand first touched the hand of the one person you loved most in life—without it leading to the end. In this flashback view, life doesn’t just result in death; death enables life.
The End of Life Creates a Shared Humanity
But of course it isn’t just that. We recognize, in death, our universality. We understand that it is the factor that binds us together the most, and because of that, we find a shared humanity. It comes without regard for culture or religion or color or creed or sexuality. And that can be comforting. We find, in this new idea of shared humanity, something common and beautiful. That’s why Donne’s “No Man Is An Island” wasn’t about needing help; it was about recognizing that no matter what, our mortality is what makes us part of the human family.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Joyce, as well, recognized that the snow that falls on us all—even metaphorically, at the end of life—can be gentle, and even beautiful, in “The Dead,” the masterpiece short story collected in The Dubliners:
“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Understanding the Approach
“It’s not that I’m afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
We all do, and all will, approach the end of life in different ways. There is no correct way to do it. Some do it with a gentle but firm understanding, like Emily Dickinson:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
Other people, like Hunter S. Thompson, attacked it with a ferocity, before choosing to end his own life.
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”
And there are songs that embrace death as being a cause to truly and fully celebrate life, like “Do You Realize,” on how love isn’t just possible in the face of life’s end, it is mandated and created by it.
“Let them know you realize that life goes fast/it’s hard to make the good times last/you’ll realize the sun don’t go down/it’s just an illusion caused by the world, spinning round.”
We all go through this differently. But we are all bound by the knowledge of mortality. That’s what makes us human in a very real way. As Borges said, our conception of mortality is unique to our species: “To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death.” There is something significant in that, something that reminds us of our shared roots on the vast human family tree.
Facing the End of Life with Others and on Your Own
We can all take comfort in what we know, and what others who have come before us knew. Death is a mystery, and for many it can be a fearful one (see the ferocity of Ralph Stanley’s “Oh Death”), but we know it is the one thing that has bound us all together, throughout all of history. So embrace life, but understand that the end of it is not something to be despised. It’s a way to understand who we really are.
What do these words (and so many others) mean to you as you are approaching the end of life? After all, approaching death should not be seen just as a tragedy or a slog of difficult paperwork. It’s a time of reflection, and a time of celebration. A time to fully enjoy the life that you’ve lived, with its quietness and its roaring, with its ebbs and flows, and with the memories we have built up over all the years. Sharing the words that have brought you strength with others can help them find the same courage and peace. We believe that these songs and poems and stories are meant to be shared, and to be talked about, so that everyone can find a source of enlightenment and solace, a well of their own inspiration and peace. If you would like, please share quotes that resonate with you in the comments, or just with the people you love, or even just in the quietude of your own unique heart.
Approaching the end of life is not easy, even with the wisdom of humanity. At Institute on Aging, we help older adults and families with all the challenges and opportunities that come with aging. Connect with us today to learn more.