When Death Surprises Us

It is always remembered as that definitive moment in time. That very instance in which bad news was learned. Before the news, life seemed normal. After the news life seemed forever tinged. Very few things in life bother us more than an unexpected death; the death of a person whose time should not have come. When death surprises us it is one of the most shocking and disorienting moments of our existence. We see our lives as journeys that have some sort of predictive storyline: go to school, get married, have kids, move up the ladder, travel, retire, die of old age. When this plot suddenly falls off the tracks, we tend to pause in befuddlement – questioning our destiny. Usually, we try to rationalize an unexpected death. We convince ourselves that there was a “cause.” We try to put order to a thing that just seems random. Death caused by something is better than death caused by nothing. Randomness is scary and we quickly rush for explanations to help us rationalize our control on life. It’s like watching a scary movie and saying that we don’t live in that haunted house so we couldn’t possibly be killed.

Of course, there are sensical things to be done to avoid death. We know not to stand in the middle of the road, play with venomous snakes, smoke 10 packs of cigarettes a day. Along with the obvious, there are daily health habits which can help a person reach old age: eat fruits and vegetables, exercise, limit stress, etc. In general, people tend to live longer and healthier lives than past generations. It is for these reasons that we tend to forget about the inevitable – death. We think that if we follow a formula that the outcome will be fireside chats with grandkids and a peaceful death at the ripe age of 95. More than ever we believe that our “own” choices can dictate our future. Unfortunately, we have absolutely no control of the future. Sure, we can do our best to live healthy lives in the “hope” of old age, but there are no guarantees. This may sound fatalistic, but it is the truth – we have zero control over the future. Our lust for control is why unexpected death always sends us into an internal panic. We reassess our goals and look at our loved ones in a new light. It is this mindfulness that is always so fleeting but yet so vital to our existence.

A very special co-worker of mine died this weekend, and I feel almost frozen with questions of why. Why did she have to die so young? Why did God take someone so smart and amazing? Why did it seem so random? Grief is a complicated beast, and I had to write this post to tweeze through a lot of my thoughts. I miss my friend, and I do believe she is in heaven. Life teaches us to never take for granted the present. What we have today is not guaranteed tomorrow. It is ok to make plans for the future but never rush through your days trying to get there. We can’t escape death, and we can’t control our futures. Love deeply whenever you can because you may never get a second chance.

 

Waiting to Die

My whole life feels like one big waiting game. I could not wait to get done with High School. I could not wait to get married. I could not wait to buy a house. I could not wait to eat my dessert. I am always waiting for something in life and it is not good. We all tend to do this to some degree because we are uniquely gifted with the understanding of the “future” tense. No other animal is consciously waiting for some future event – they are always responding to stimulus in a programmed manner. The ultimate example of the waiting game is that guaranteed end point – death. I am scared that I will eventually run out of exciting things to wait for and ultimately begin to wait for my last breath. It sounds macabre but isn’t that what a lot of elderly people are doing at this very moment. There are nursing homes around the world full of people that have one last future plan. I don’t want to rush through life anymore and try to speed up what is already a fast-tracked existence.

On any given day, I am waiting for a myriad of future events. In the middle of the night I wake up waiting for my alarm. In the morning I wait for lunch time. In the afternoon I wait for the end of the work day to get done. In the evening I wait to eat dinner. While lying in bed I wait for my favorite TV show. While I close my eyes to sleep I wait for my dreams. When I’m waiting for the aforementioned events, I am waiting for even more things in the distant future: blog posts to write, books to read, plans to be made, sex to be had, money to be saved, and chores to be completed. During my waking hours, I probably spend 75% of the time thinking about things in the future or things that are unrelated to the present. Even when I am doing something fun, I catch myself waiting for it to be over so I can move onto the next activity.

When I was in college, I was in a huge rush to get done and start my life. I could not wait to never have to write a stupid paper or turn in an assignment again (ironic now that I blog). I did everything I could to graduate early and now I look back with deep regrets. I missed out on seeing my friends whom I rarely ever see now. There was nothing for me at the end of the process – all I had was that habit of waiting for the next step. Are we all destined to wait out our lives until we’re dead in the ground? I am realistic and know waiting will always play a role in my life. How could I ever plan for the future without daydreams? How could I ever better myself without future goals? I will never stop looking forward but I need to find a way to balance my gaze more towards the present. What is the best way to be mindful? The number one way to get out of the waiting game is to notice the details. Your brain is almost always on autopilot and can function pretty well with minimal concentration. Whenever you take your brain out of its autopilot you begin to concentrate and focus on the here and now. My top two ways of doing this is by focusing on my breath and focusing on specific details. For example, my mind was wandering while writing this blog so I focused on my breath for a couple of inhales. Almost immediately, I began concentrating on the task at hand and was completely present. If you find yourself in the waiting game focus on something extremely particular. I love looking at the sunrise or the stars when I let Max out to take a crap. Focus on one thing and just analyze it for a couple of seconds. You will be present and your thoughts will stay in that state for quite some time thereafter.

I know this is all stuff that people have heard before but I personally always need reminding. Practice being present and stop waiting for the next step. Life is a river that you float down; every bend is unique, some bends are bad, some bends are good, but you can only stay at each for a certain time – once you pass one it is gone forever.