"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Don’t fret about death, find meaning in life

By on March 1, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

June DarlingBy June Darling

“As a general rule, the less one’s sense of life fulfillment, the greater one’s death anxiety.”

Irvin Yalom

Lucinda Weatherby, an acquaintance and grief therapist from Lummi Island, told a story that caused me to take pause and my husband to weep.

Later I read the full story which is captured in her book called Five Hours: How My Son’s Brief Life Changed Everything.

The book is a personal memoir about giving birth to a baby, Theo, who has a chromosomal disorder and dies a few hours after birth.

The book set me thinking not only about Lucinda’s encounter with death, but also about all our encounters with death. Questions began to formulate.

How does death awareness generally affect human beings? How has it affected me? How might we positively use this unique awareness of our own mortality?

Lucinda Weatherby and June Darling look at Lucinda’s book and a picture of her baby, Theo, that inspired the book. Photo by John Darling

Pulitzer prize winner and cultural anthropologist, Dr. Ernest Becker, maintained that awareness of our mortality is at the root of all of our anxieties as a species, though we may not realize it.

It sounds strange to say, but I found Becker’s book The Denial Of Death calming, perhaps it was because he articulated something I have felt since I was a child.

When I was five, I remember having a sudden awareness that my parents were going to die someday. They were in their 20s at the time. When I tried to express the despair I was feeling, I was met with dismissal and laughter.

After reading Becker’s book I finally could name what was probably going on for me, my parents, and all of humanity. Humans are affected in many unexpected ways by their conscious or unconscious anxieties about death.

We do things like cling rigidly to our worldviews, become tribal, and try to alleviate our terror in largely ineffective ways — denial, repression, risk-taking, accumulating wealth and fame.

What, then, really DOES alleviate fears of death? MEANING. A life full of meaning; that is a silver-bullet to defeating death anxiety.

Here are five big ways to find meaning, live the good life, and cheat death:

n Invest time in family, friends, strong relationships, intimacy, and belonging. Human connection is important for sensing that your life is significant and being well-lived.

n Create significant goals. Most of us gain meaning when we feel we are accomplishing a goal which lines up with our values.

It’s important that we not compare ourselves to others, nor allow ourselves to be led astray by others’ expectations and values.

n Think beyond the self. This is about giving ourselves away, being involved in a cause that is larger than ourselves.

When we work to make the world better in some way — more fair, more harmonious, safer, smarter, more beautiful, we think beyond the self.

n Live with few regrets. If you have regret, then use it to change. For example, if you regret not telling your wife that you loved her, then start telling others right now that you love them.

n Make sense of it all. When we are able to step back, look at all the pieces of our lives, and create a positive, accepting, coherent story that weaves all of our fragments together, we give our lives wholeness and significance.

Lucinda, in her book, recounts all sorts of physical and psychological suffering including terror, despair, disgust, and anger, but she is able to jump back and forth from various perspectives with different tools to make sense of it all — from not even wanting to see her baby, to viewing his birth as a blessing and spiritual experience.

You may have read this far and be saying to yourself that you have no anxiety around death. None of this is resonating with you.

Maybe you are an exception, but also consider that pit in the bottom of your stomach as you face birthdays, aging, the death of pets and friends, retirement, moving, illnesses, it could be all part of death anxiety.

That little sports car, new love, rigid diet, and multiple plastic surgeries may be ways you’re trying to cope.

But, whatever, you can’t go wrong in making your life more meaningful. And, you can do it your way. You don’t have to rely on others’ recipes for meaning-making.

You can mix up your own special concoction. Observe yourself. As you go about your daily life, notice what is giving you a sense of richness, satisfaction, and meaning. Figure out how you can do more of that.

I decided in January after reading Lucinda’s story, digesting the meaning research, and thinking about the good life; that I would make a goal of volunteering at least 12 times in the school of one of my granddaughters Sophia, even though the school is in Everett.

The result? Those big-eyed second graders from everywhere — Thailand, Vietnam, China, Russia, Cambodia, and the good ole US of A, just wormed their way into my heart.

My mind and spirit have broadened and soared. When I reflect on those experiences, I’m more at peace.

As we move into March here in the Wenatchee Valley, I see signs of both winter and spring, death and new life. March is also the month Theo was born, Lucinda reminds me.

March can be the month we choose to smash the grip of the grim reaper by living rich, full lives of meaning. We can figure out our own meaning magic or look at what the researchers tell us: connect authentically with others, serve causes bigger than ourselves, achieve valued goals, live with few regrets.

And, especially, we can do our best to weave meaningful, redemptive stories of our lives where tragedy and suffering are ultimately transformed into love and beauty.

Lucinda does just that as she weaves a tragedy into a love story:

Theo’s brief life on earth should not have happened. But it happened to us. We were the tiny pinprick in the fabric of the universe through which Theo entered this world. He passed obstacle after obstacle and came to a family and a community where his gifts of joy and wonder would not be wasted. (Excerpted from Lucinda’s book)

How might you bring more meaning into your life, dispel fears of death, and live the good life?

June Darling, Ph.D. can be contacted at drjunedarling1@gmail.com; website: www.summitgroupresources.com. Her bio and many of her books can be found at amazon.com/author/junedarling.

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