It’s true. I’ve read a couple thousand submissions by people who wrote what it might feel like if they had 20 minutes to live: who they would want at their bedside, who would they not want there, what they would say to the entire group, what they would say to each individual, their future regrets and what they learned from the writing. I require students to create a 4-digit ID number that they will use for everything they submit in class. On the first day they write their name on one side of a blank 3 x 5 card and the ID number on the other. I keep grades by ID number and only match ID numbers to names at the end of the quarter. This, I feel, permits students to “bare their soul” on some of the very personal homework assignments, especially this one.
This was an assignment in both my Death and Life and Psychology of Human Relations courses in which students, who ranged in age from 17 to 65, were to imagine dying at the age they are now. While no two writings are the same, common themes emerged.
Who they would want there
When I ask them to list the people they would want during the last 20 minutes of their life, it almost always includes close family members, parents, siblings, friends. Some people keep it to parents and siblings. Others include a whole host of friends, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. Length of the entire paper ranges from two pages (which is a minimum for the assignment) to an excess of ten pages.
Who they would not want there
As you might guess, ex’s are a frequent choice for omission: ex-spouses, ex-boy/girlfriends. But, if there is anyone else chosen, it frequently targets absent fathers who were “… never there for me in my life—why would I want him there now?”
What they say to the entire group
- Almost no one wants to die alone.
For those very rare individuals who wished to die alone, I responded to their wish by returning their paper, and asking that they instead write a letter to each significant individual in their life. Even for these folks the themes were similar.
- Thank you
When they address the entire group, they thank them for being in their life. They appreciate the support that they got, the love they received.
- Don’t cry
Many requested that their loved ones not cry and not be sad. I usually add a reminder that many of their loved ones will cry during and after their death; and this is something they cannot control.
What they say to each individual
In the assignment instructions I state that this is the crux of the assignment, so a couple sentences for each person won’t do.
- More thank you’s
Thank you for sticking with me, for having my back, for not giving up on me, for doing so many things for me, for loving me, for being the person they are
- Remember when
This is part of the assignment instructions. Many bring up meaningful experiences from the past with descriptive terms such as: “Weren’t we (choose one or more): wild, crazy, stupid?”
- 3. I’m going to miss
Here is a recognition that the writer’s life is ending which naturally lead to an acknowledgment of a separation, an ending. At the same time it is a reminiscence of good times.
- You mean so much to me
Similar to the thank you’s this theme focused on the significance of the person in the writer’s life.
- Live your life
I’m dying, but you are alive. Go forward and live your life the best you can. I won’t attain my goals, but you can work on yours.
- I’m telling you off
While rare, some people do include ex’s or fathers who had largely been absent and tell them off. “Why did you do/fail to do these things?”
This section was a chance to look at their life being cut short and deprived from attaining future goals.
- Not attaining a certain age
For those under 21 this was a common theme. For some, it meant not reaching a magical age that had significance. For others it meant not celebrating the moment where they could take their first legal drink.
Rarely were any other ages mentioned. Almost no one regretted not making it to age 30 or 40, although some expressed regret not getting to live to an old age.
- Nor getting “things”
Common regrets were not getting: a car or a home. Some regretted not living long enough to get their parents a house. Almost no one mentioned clothes, phones,
- Not getting a family
We often hear that young people today have abandoned any desire to get married and start a family. I can only speak to the population of students who take this assignment when I say that I’ve been giving this assignment for more than 40 years and I’ve seen little change in the desire to find a mate, get married and have a family. They want it now as much as my students of 40 years ago.
- Not seeing loved ones age
Many regretted not seeing their little brother or sister grow up or their children reach milestones—graduation, marriage, grandkids, careers, successes.
- Not attaining educational and career goals
For many, the prospect of not graduating college and not getting a good job was painful. Many expressed regret at working so hard only to see it snatched away with death.
- 6. Not travelling
For some it meant failing to travel the world. Many listed favorite countries they would never see.
- 7. Risk-taking
Bungie-jumping and parachuting were common regrets. A few regretted not taking the risk to share their feelings with a desired person.
What they learned
I estimate that this assignment has around a 50% “tear rate” meaning that about half of the 2,000 report anywhere from “tearing up” to “crying a great deal” to “sobbing uncontrollably.” Most report they had never written something so emotional in their life.
- 1. Work on my goals
For many this was a wake-up call that life—their life—is limited. A few bemoaned how lazy and unmotivated they’ve been with their life. Many say that by writing about their death, they feel energized to get to work or continue work on their educational and career goals.
- Spiritual Beliefs
For some, this was a reminder to recommit to their spiritual beliefs. Few stated that they would begin or increase their attendance at their place of worship. A few believed their death at this age was God’s will, but most were angry, sad and/or regretful at the bad luck.
- Live each day
A common response to this assignment is: “I’m going to live each day as if it’s my last.” As I read their words, I am often compelled to inform them that this is impossible, but I don’t. They will discover soon enough that for the majority of minutes of each day, all of us totally forget that we could die.
- Express how I feel to my family
This is the most common theme. I would estimate that more than 80% state that they have not expressed enough of the love they feel toward their family and friends. The typical response is that they will somehow “work” on doing this. As a way to nudge them to actually doing it, at the bottom of their paper I write phrases such as:
Will you really do this? or
Did you write this just to complete this assignment? or
Are you going to do this or were these just words you wrote in the emotion of the moment? or
Will you gradually forget what you wrote here?
Often I end with “well?” “WELL?” “Well?” By writing this I hope to urge, push, exhort this person to put their words into action.
So, there it is. Although these are reactions from students taking a Psychology course, I must point out that these themes are from people from all walks of life, teenagers, twenty-somethings up to 60s, gay, straight, from countries all over the world, from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Death is what we all have in common. The question that this assignment asked was, “What do you want to say and what are you going to do with the knowledge that you could die—not tomorrow—but today?
I learned that we humans have similar ideas about what it would mean to have our life snatched away. We want certain people surrounding us in our last minutes. We thank them for being in our life. Individually, we tell them how much they mean to us, how we love them and how we are going to miss them. We review some important life events with these people and thank them for the good times. When we then consider the end of our life at the age we are now, common regrets include: not attaining educational, travel and family goals and not seeing our loved ones grow and attain their own goals.
What have they learned from this imaginary endeavor? Some commit to being nicer to their little brother or sister. Others appreciate all that their parent(s), friends and/or spouse have done for them. Many cry at the prospect of dying at this young age, at not accomplishing their goals and most importantly, losing everyone. They realize that they’ve not done enough to tell their loved ones how much they mean to them and they commit to do just that. They promise to spend more time with the important people in their life. A few finish the assignment by thanking me for making them look deeply at a possible truth: that they could actually die at their present age. Most all are surprised what they wrote and what they felt. As I stated earlier, nearly every single person agrees that it was the most emotional paper they’ve ever written in their life. It should be. It forced my students to look at death—their death—in depths most people would never do voluntarily.
I can only hope that they took this assignment seriously and will use it to live out their lives with the knowledge that death could come at any time. After all, isn’t that one of our most important goals—if not the most important goal: To reach the end of our life with as few regrets as possible? So, stop wasting time reading this article and get out there and live. Your (and my) death will come soon enough.