Knowledge of Our Mortality

Sometimes they are nudges. Other times, pokes. More rarely, thankfully, they are punches in the gut. Most often, I think of them as “mortality slaps.” Whatever their intensity and however they come, they are reminders that our lives are limited. One day, who knows when (or perhaps we’re getting a pretty good idea), we will die. For many, if not most of us, that is a hard reality to truly consider. No wonder we often choose to think of other things.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this way of reading obituaries: “Older than me. Older than me. Younger than me. About my age…whoa.”

Mortality slap.

Someone you know is losing their memory or their eyesight or their ability to walk.


Signs of Aging

You see an old picture of yourself. Did you really look like that? You compare with what you see in the mirror. Do you really look like this? My goodness.

A nudge, a poke, and sometimes a slap.

There are some things you used to do without really thinking. Now they are hard. They take a lot longer. Or maybe now they’re not really possible.

Slap some more.

A funeral notice for your friend’s parent. A coworker’s spouse dies. Your class reunion will have one less classmate to invite. The results of the biopsy came in and treatment will start in a week.

More slaps.

Then some slaps turn to punches. Death takes your best friend. Your partner. Your mom, dad, sister, or brother. God-forbid, your child.

Back-handed slap and to your gut.

Living with our Mortality

How do we live with these reminders, from subtle to harsh, that our days are numbered?

We seem to do several things.

One is what might be called “adaptive denial.” We don’t think about it all the time. We do this when we drive down the highway. The reality is that a mistake on our part, a mistake on another driver’s part, or some random thing could lead to our death whenever we get behind the wheel. But that’s too much to ponder each and every minute. So, we don’t think about the potential life-and-death consequences at all times when we drive.

But when we pass a wreck or we have a near miss, our “adaptive denial” takes the backseat as we sit up, put our hands at 10 and 2, and pay more attention. At least for a while. Then we gradually go back to being reasonably safe and cautious and not so anxious. The threat is always there but it doesn’t have to be our constant focus.

More Attention to Possibilities

That matter of focus is another way to respond. Rather than focus most of our attention on the losses and the eventual losing, we focus on what is not lost and the possibilities that remain. Attention to losses and losing is needed, but we try not to get stuck there. Sometimes we need to visit the cemetery, but the cemetery is not where we want to live.

We also try to find the balance between things we mostly control, like our decisions, and those things outside of our control like the passing of time and the reality that everyone dies. In the world of expecting parents, mothers are often encouraged to follow a “best-odds diet” — a diet that doesn’t guarantee a healthy baby (no such guarantees exist) but gives the “best odds” of a healthy baby.

In similar fashion, we often seek the balance of a “best-odds” approach to living. No guarantees but some choices will increase our chances for life and living that are both potentially longer and more satisfying.

And we go with it, go with the awareness that comes from being slapped and being mortal. We pay attention and ponder and weigh our priorities. We hope and pray for wisdom to make good use of the time we’re provided. And we lean into the reality, at least for a while, of our limitations as there are important lessons there. We practice living with greater awareness and less avoidance of the reality of death.

Less Anxiety about Death

Those living closer to the edge of living, closer to death, often have some insights for the rest of us. Insights like there can be things worse than dying. Insights like there can come a time when there is a relief in our mortality, where death does not have to be regarded as an enemy, where endless living in our present state would not be a blessing.

My first lesson about a less-anxious approach to death was from my paternal grandmother. She was a religious woman in her eighties, widowed twice, lived alone, didn’t feel well, and rarely left the house. When I was a boy, she told me, “I’m ready to go any time.” There have been others met since then, mostly old but sometimes young, who have felt the same.

Perhaps for these, and for some others, it is not a slap or a poke or a punch. Maybe instead it’s a touch on the shoulder, one hand taking another, or perhaps even a welcoming and warm embrace.

Maybe for some future mortality slap, one option for us would be to take that slapping hand in our own and say, “That’s not really necessary. I’m trying to pay attention. Why don’t we just sit together for a while?”

Greg Adams is Program Coordinator at Center for Good Mourning:

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Greg Adams

Greg Adams is a social worker at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) where he coordinates the Center for Good Mourning, a grief support and outreach program, and works with bereavement support for staff who are exposed to suffering and loss. His past experience at ACH includes ten years in pediatric oncology and 9 years in pediatric palliative care. He has written for and edited The Mourning News, an electronic grief/loss newsletter, since its beginning in 2004. Greg is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work where he teaches a grief/loss elective and students are told that while the class is elective, grief and loss are not. In 1985, Greg graduated from Baylor University majoring in social work and religion, and he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Missouri in 1986. One answer to the question of how he got into the work of grief and death education is that his father was an educator and his mother grew up in the residence part of a funeral home where her father was a funeral director. After growing up in a couple small towns in Missouri south of St. Louis, Greg has lived in Little Rock since 1987. He married a Little Rock native in 1986 and his wife is an early childhood special educator and consultant. Together they have two adult children. Along with his experience in the hospital with death and dying and with working with grieving people of all ages, personal experiences with death and loss have been very impacting and influential. In 1988, Greg’s father-in-law died of an unexpected suicide. In 1996, Greg and his wife lost a child in mid-pregnancy to anencephaly (no brain developed). Greg’s mother died on hospice with cancer in 2008 and his father died after the family decided to stop the ventilator after a devastating episode of sepsis and pneumonia in 2015. Greg has a variety of interests and activities—including slow running, reading, sports, public education, religion, politics, and diversity issues—and is active in his church and community. He is honored to have the opportunity to be a contributor for Open to Hope.

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