Not So Morbid After All: How Death Calls Us to Embrace Life

“But death is so depressing!”

If you study death and dying, I’ll bet you’ve had your share of interactions that go something like this:

Them: “You do…what? Death work?”

You: “That’s right!”

Them: “But you’re young and healthy! You don’t have to worry about this stuff yet. Death is so depressing and morbid!”

*Awkward silence*

Unfortunately, talking about death is still viewed by many people as morbid, weird, and largely unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong; there have been some wonderfully positive steps initiated by the death-positive movement. Yet, the subject remains largely inaccessible to most people, especially those outside of the death work space. For them, death is “the unthinkable,” something uncomfortable to keep in its dark box until some other day. Whenever that arrives.

It’s interesting how we as a society refuse to acknowledge death…but then we sort of do acknowledge it through our vernacular. For instance, think about those pithy quips we toss around with such ease. “Live until you die,” “live fully,” “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” “embrace life,” and even the teenager’s “YOLO! (You Only Live Once)” are all prime examples.

All of these phrases acknowledge one key concept: our lives are fleeting. We say these things without really knowing what they mean, what they entail. At their core, these phrases – and death itself – can be a beautiful wake up call, if we simply listen to it.

The Paradox of Death: It Calls Us to Embrace Life.

Herein lies the greatest and most awe-inspiring paradox of death work: we can learn to make the most of our lives by accepting their end. We don’t go on forever, and this gives life an otherworldly, glorious profundity.

And deep down, we know this. This knowing reveals itself in the melancholy on New Year’s Eve, the sadness of another year passing forever. We glimpse it in the moments when we look at our children, see them growing, wonder at their passing birthdays.

We cross off days in our calendars, schedule the next haircut, bemoan the passing time. But do we really, truly sit with those lamentations?

Although we often yearn for infinite time, nothing would be sacred in a world without death. Who among us hasn’t fallen into the monotony of life, the daily routine, the grind? Who hasn’t felt the irritation and the wearing of our supposedly sacred days, until death – the unwelcome visitor – reminds us of life’s fragility? And only after this encounter with mortality do you find yourself reawakening to life’s beauty. 

Picture this: you’re chugging along just fine. Life is good, albeit unremarkable. Then you receive the sad news that some extended family member, or a friend’s relative, has just died. Suddenly, you’re shaken. There’s an inexplicable, deep trembling in your core as you stare at the casket and think, “Thank God it wasn’t me. Or my husband. Or my mother.” Perhaps you tell yourself things will be different. When you go home, you hug your family extra close. Your life is made sacred again, as if it were brand new.

In his novel, “The Time Keeper”, Mitch Albom sums it up perfectly: “There is a reason God numbers our days – to make each one precious.”

Making It Real: Walking Through My Own Endings

Now, I rail about all of this, but I admit I can be rather dense. Sometimes it takes a while for something to fully sink in. It’s true that death has reminded me many times of the profound gift of life. But an understanding of this true enormity was only recently revealed to me as I walk through my own endings. 

This summer, I moved from my home state. While the move thankfully didn’t entail any death or sad circumstances, moving brings with it an enormous set of endings. I never anticipated how deeply I’d feel them. 

One morning after a visit home, I found myself confronting a deep sense of grief and loss. I realized I missed my old way of life, my family, friends, even the old roads I drove. I missed them with an ache that knocked me off my feet, both with its strength and its unexpected ambushing of my heart. On the next visit, I found myself smiling deeper, laughing harder, not wanting the time to end. Even more surprisingly, I wasn’t in a hurry to finish up my workload for the night. I was content and at peace, knowing the work would be waiting for me later. 

This is of course, classic human psychology: what we no longer have unlimited access to suddenly becomes precious in its limitedness.

“Everything We Love, We Will Lose” …So What Will You Do About That?

This whole experience brings to mind the Buddhist principle of impermanence – “everything we love, we will lose.” This certainly sounds morbid, but it’s not. The implied other half of the question asks, “But they’re still here now, so what will you do about that?” What a magnificent question this is! I can’t emphasize it enough.

I think I’ve slowly come to the answer. I want to bring mindful presence to each moment. Not merely “Hi, how are you” interactions. But real, soulful connection. True intimacy. To this effect, I have become more disciplined with my thoughts. When I’m meeting with someone I love and my mind drifts to unfinished tasks, I tell myself, “stop. I will think about this later.” In this way, “…death [and loss] keeps us – paradoxically – aware of whether or not we are fully embracing our lives” (Francis Keller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow).

This paradox of embracing death keeps us humble and raw. Most importantly, it keeps us grateful. Recently, I shared a long hug with a dear friend, and when we pulled away, I couldn’t stop smiling. When asked why I was smiling like an idiot, I said, “Because I’m happy. And very, very grateful.” 

Though there will always be pain in any endings – certainly death – embracing this can be oh so transformative, if we let it.

Embracing Death is Not Defeatist: It’s a Call to Action

At this point, you might be suspiciously squinting your eyes at me. Maybe you’re thinking, “this all sounds a little goofy. Are you saying to roll over and wallow in pain and grief?”

Thankfully, that’s not the case. It’s quite the opposite. “Wallowing” in grief is not the same as gently leaning into it. One is reactive and one is productive. (There’s certainly an argument to be made about grieving – yes, even wallowing – but that’s the subject of another article entirely).

See, I know now that when I bring my entire heart to a visit with a friend with whom I inevitably must part, I have two choices. I could “numb out” and only be partially present. My mind could be occupied with my to-do list. (This is of course, largely subconscious.) Or instead, I could consciously decide to be fully there, even though I know it will hurt more when we eventually must say goodbye. 

In this way, embracing death is not an act of being passive, of being some weird “woo-woo hippie” who denies the pain of death. Not so! In fact, embracing the sharpness of life sometimes (oftentimes) can ache worse than numbing out to it! In removing the protective barriers, we can only then love and be present fully. 

By leaning into sadness, we simultaneously allow the pain of parting to hurt worse. Yet in doing so, we open ourselves to experience the full spectrum of life. Numbing out is not the answer.

Would you rather be shielded from this ache and passively observe your life? Or would you rather open to it – the hurt, the grief, the loss, the endings – and in so doing, live a full life worthy of your precious and limited days? You decide.

Whoa, This is Some Really Heavy Stuff: A Few Exercises to Consider

If all this sounds too difficult, that’s okay. This whole landscape is vastly unfamiliar, uncomfortably territory at first. So start small. Embrace your endings. 

Consider the next time you’re going to see someone special. When you see them, focus on your time with that person. Dwell on how much you care for them and what they mean to you. Then, contemplate what it might be like if this was the last time you saw them. Like, everDoes this bring a little more clarity to your hurried coffee meetup? 

Here’s another exercise you can try if all this sounds intriguing to you. You’d probably want to do this one in the comfort and privacy of your home, though. Don’t try doing this in front of people!

This exercise was taken from Virginia Morris’ “Talking About Death.” I’ve often done this myself for years, before I even encountered Virginia’s book. In the past, I felt too morbid and embarrassed to admit that I often thought about my friends and family dying. But I can confirm that this works.

“I vividly imagine their deaths. As I do so, I sob pitifully into my pillow. …Then I snuggle close to my husband, feel his warmth, love him enormously, and fall asleep. [This] …forces us to imagine the unthinkable…it starts us on an interesting grieving process that is sad but also wonderful. Wonderful because then we can seek out the beloved person we’ve imagined losing, spend time together, hug, laugh, and play. Hallelujah. We still have time together.”

Allowing the Transformation

In the end, I’ve come to believe that this is truly the other half of death work. If the first half is working with the dying and the bereaved (a serving role) then the other side is for us (a receivership role). It is a gift for those open to learning from and receiving it.

Working in and/or studying death teaches us how contemplating it can transform us. That is, if we let it. When we so embrace death and loss in this way, it changes everything. We learn to meet each and every moment with an astonishing presence. We may choose to take a drive around town just to appreciate the changing leaves, the beautiful colors, and sharp scents of autumn. Or when we’re spending time in another’s presence, we consciously decide to fully love and be present with them. 

And gradually, marvelously, the words, “someday” and “one of these days” begin to lose their grip on our vocabularies. What a beautiful miracle this is. What a beautiful life we have been gifted. 


This article was originally published as a guest post at the After Cloud blog in 2021.


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I unpack existential topics and ask the questions people are too afraid to ask: What does it mean to Live? Why am I unsatisfied with my life? What is happiness, really? What the fuck is the point?

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