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Last week we tackled two questions about the physical aspects of death: Does it hurt? And what will my final moments be like? This week, we’ll continue on with 4 psychological questions about death. I know, I know, this is not exactly cocktail party conversation, but never talking about our deepest fears only makes them grow bigger. So big thanks to listener Marc in North Carolina for starting this conversation.
Fear #1: I’ll die with regrets
This is certainly a legit fear—pretty much everyone regrets something, though not necessarily a past action. Indeed, two researchers from Cornell University found that our greatest regrets come less from the things we did and more from what we let slip through our fingers. As they put it, “actions produce greater regret in the short-term, whereas inactions generate more regret in the long run.” Why do we more often regret the road not taken?
The reason may be simple: mistaken actions can often be corrected–you can ask for forgiveness, make amends, or try again. But missed opportunities—whether it’s Decca Records not signing the Beatles or you wondering what might have happened if you had taken that job in Paris or asked out your college crush—don’t usually come around again.
Which brings us to: what to do? The usual argument against regret is that it’s unproductive: don’t cry over spilt milk, let it go, it is what it is.
But you can also look at regret as an opportunity. In recognizing and regretting our mistakes, we inherently grow and recalibrate. Regret is a lesson learned; it can propel you to make different, better choices in the future. It can reaffirm your personal standards and values. In other words, regret is shorthand for live and learn.
To take things further, we can share that growth and learning with those we love. So instead of focusing on past regrets, focus on the future, both yours and the future of those you love. What can you do to make their future better and brighter? Learn from your regrets and pass down the wisdom you’ve earned.
Fear #2: I’ll die without repairing broken relationships
Long estrangement, unresolved conflict, and ongoing drama are all like an infestation of termites: it eats away at your foundation and makes everything shakier.
To borrow from Smokey the Bear, only you can make amends. When you’re asking for forgiveness, two things are vital to making it real and making it stick. First is acceptance of responsibility. Take full ownership of whatever happened. Second, actively try to repair the relationship. Whether through words or actions, show that you’re sorry and that you care.
Making peace and asking forgiveness is really hard. One way to motivate yourself is to make relationship repair part of your bucket list. In addition to skydiving or visiting the Great Wall, aim to make amends with people you have wronged and make peace with those who have wronged you. It takes more courage than bungee jumping, but the potential rewards are far greater than any adrenaline rush.
Fear #3: I don’t have a faith and I’m afraid that there’s nothing after death. I worry that this is it
Not identifying with a religious tradition—as is the case for 23% of American adults—can be a challenge when contemplating what happens after we die. Many world religions offer the idea of immortality through an afterlife, which can reduce fear of dying. Furthermore, decades of research find that practicing a religion goes along with generally positive outcomes, offering the faithful meaning, purpose, a moral compass, and importantly, a community.
But in 2016, a multicultural team of researchers from both the United States and Iran conducted a thought-provoking study that found a belief in science can offer many of the same benefits. Much like a strong religious faith, strong belief in science, it turns out, goes along with happiness, lower stress, and, germane to our topic, lower anxiety about death.
Why? Well, it goes without saying that science is not a religion, and all religions are not the same. But when researchers crunched the numbers, they found that there were two links between well being and scientific or religious beliefs: hope and purpose. In essence, science offers hope in a better future and infuses our lives with purpose by working to relieve human suffering and enhance the human experience. And that meshes well with many world religions.
Fear #4: I’ll die without having lived my life to the fullest
Many people worry they’ll die before their time—that they’ll never drink Champagne in Champagne, go back to school to get their bachelor’s degree, or run a marathon. Part of the end of life is the loss of a future—the opportunity to plan and do and experience more—and that can be really hard to come to terms with.
But living life to the fullest goes beyond experiencing the adventures the world has to offer or the achievements you set out to accomplish. It also means contributing and leaving the world a better place.
So think about what your purpose has been. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. You don’t have to cure cancer or eradicate hunger, though those wouldn’t be too shabby. But did you put time, sweat, and energy towards a larger cause? Did you inspire, support, or make someone feel good about themselves through your words, actions, or gratitude? Did you brighten the days of others? Did you model resourcefulness, creativity, compassion, or other value you hold dear?
By all means, experience all the fun and amazing things life has to offer, but also find your meaning. It’s an ongoing process, but no matter your circumstances, it’s growing beyond yourself and connecting to a larger purpose.
To wrap up, these are all heavy topics, none of which can be adequately addressed in a listicle of four tips. So if you’re just starting to contemplate your existence (and someday, it’s end), keep reading, talking, and reflecting. The fact that humans are the only animals who know they will someday die can be a burden, but it can also be a blessing if you use that knowledge to live well.
So while walking through that valley and that shadow may be far off, it’s good to take a look at the map; doing so might change your route through life.