How often do you think about death?
Surveys tell us some of us think about it several times a day, whereas some can go months without thinking about it at all.
As a lawyer, I’ve written several hundred wills.
So, for professional reasons, I think about it more than most.
Death is very strange.
We go through our lives putting importance and meaning in all of these worldly things such as possessions, status or our appearance.
But one day, one particular day, at a particular time, we will each die, and all of that will be gone.
Not only that, but every single person we know and love will die.
Our neighbours, our children, our pets and our parents.
It’s very hard to process that.
So much so, that when we hear about some specific person dying we’re shocked and surprised.
‘‘What happened?’’, we’ll ask, incredulously.
‘‘I can’t believe it. He was so young. How could this have happened?’’
But why such a shock?
Did we think they were going to live forever?
Sooner or later they were going to die.
Why not this day?
What not this time?
In my job, I’ve seen the full range of reactions to discussions of mortality.
Some people dismiss it, pretending that they don’t care and that it doesn’t matter what happens after they die.
“What do I care? I’ll be gone.”
Some people want to hang on to the last vestiges of control they have in the world, dictating how their assets and remains are to be treated.
‘‘Sell this. Give so-and-so $50,000 a year. Scatter my ashes at …’’
Some people simply can’t face it at all and go missing when it comes to signing their will.
All are different ways of denying death.
Or, at least, not accepting it.
I’m not sure it’s a good way to be.
Death is happening whether you like it or not.
Is religion the answer to understanding it?
I’m not sure the Abrahamic religions have got it right.
Acting like you are just going somewhere else seems a bit speculative to me.
I think the stoics have got a better view.
They said you should focus on what you can control.
Everything else you should just accept.
Acceptance is the key.
The words that people use for death are interesting.
Occasionally, in moments of weakness, I’ve used euphemisms like ‘passed’ or ‘moved on’ to describe my clients’ inevitable deaths.
I try not to, because my job is to be frank.
I need people to see the truth, regardless of their feelings, however jarring.
It’s better people take comfort in the futility of their fear, rather than the warm blanket of denial.
Thinking about death can be a really good thing.
It can bring our priorities into sharp relief.
Our time on the planet is limited and precious and should not be squandered.
If you really think hard about your death, things that you were worried about seem less important.
What is the point of holding onto that grudge?
Or focusing on some hang-up?
Or being envious of someone?
Just let it go. It’s pointless.
Likewise, thinking about death can cause you to do and say things you might have been putting off.
Like telling people that you love them.
Or that you’re sorry.
Sooner or later you’ll be in a haze of morphine on your deathbed and the chance will be gone.
“The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca.
In the end, you and I and everyone who has ever picked up a Mountain Scene will be dead.
But things don’t need to be permanent to be worth caring about.
We don’t watch a sunset in the hope that it will stick around.
It’s the transience of it that makes it beautiful.
Relax and enjoy your life, however long it lasts.
Nothing really matters.
Scott Donaldson’s a senior associate at Mactodd Lawyers Queenstown