Reflections on Death

A few weeks ago, a friend included me on email she spontaneously composed and sent to people in her network. At first, I was almost alarmed – why would she send an email about Death (ominously capitalised)? What terrible, saddening things had occurred for her that this was her top-of-mind issue one Wednesday afternoon? But by the time I finished reading, I think I understood. I still don’t know the exact factors that brought her to this reflection, at this time in her life, but I came to appreciate the purpose and she has kindly allowed me to share her reflections here. Through reading her reflections and following the links she provides, I pondered, I cried, and I spent time thinking about what death means for me and for others. What about you?

Reflections on Death – June 2011
In the last 5 months, the topic of Death has popped up quite a few times in my life. Death is one of those interesting things – it is inevitable, but it seems to be a taboo topic in society, which is ironic, because for every day that you are living, you are also dying. No-one talks about Death openly; when the time comes where a friend or a colleague is experiencing the loss of a loved one, no-one knows what to say, what to write in the card and there is an awkwardness in interacting with people who have experienced the Death of someone in their lives.

Why is this the case? Why is it, when every single person we know will die themselves, are we so afraid to talk about Death, to talk about our wishes, to talk about what we want our legacies on this Earth to be?

There are a few ways that I’m going to share Death with you today, in the hope that you’ll make the effort to not consider Death a taboo topic, to view it differently and to openly discuss it with friends and family. Maybe you’ll consider writing a will. Maybe you’ll think differently about your own demise and discuss with your partner and family what you want – consider an organ donation, how you want to be buried, how you want to be remembered. And most of all, maybe you’ll take control of your Legacy while you have the chance and perhaps you’ll fear the inevitable a little less.

The Last Words, The Last Goodbye.
A few days ago, I was updating my LinkedIn profile and I noticed on the side, a message from LinkedIn: “People You May Know” and the profile of Kate Ellingburg was underneath. I clicked on Kate’s profile and a lovely profile picture appeared – a woman radiating warmth through her smile, a highly educated and accomplished woman who, according to the LinkedIn profile, was working at Atlassian, the software company

I’ve never met Kate Ellingburg and she doesn’t know who I am. But she made an impact on me. For 8 days in March this year, I worked day and night to put together a memorial plaque for her. She died last year from cancer, in her early 30s, leaving behind a very young son who may not remember her. To honour her life, Atlassian donated 100 years of girls’ education to Room to Read, in memory of Kate. That’s how Kate was introduced to me. And as I worked on perfecting the colour scheme of the plaque, getting the words right, choosing the appropriate photos, picking out a beautiful frame, I learned about Kate’s life and her legacy. She was an highly regarded employee of Atlassian, a bubbly, kind, generous woman and left a lasting impression on all those in her life. Because of the energy and spirit she gave to her life, in her Death, girls in the developing world were now being given the opportunity of education and the opportunity to live a better life. Because of the inspiration and love she gave to everyone in her life, I was given the responsibility of putting together a memorial to present to her family.

Yet, here she is, still living through her LinkedIn profile. The digital age has changed ways and modes of communication: blogs, Facebook pages, company profiles, email trails to the point that your mark is left on the world, for millions of people to learn from your life, to remember you long after you have gone. Derek Miller died on the 3rd May 2011, aged 41 years old when cancer took him away from his wife, 2 children and those in the world who read his blog. The digital age, allowed him to leave a final post, he had the last say from his grave. Have a look at his final words, and in particular, read the last paragraph “A wondrous place” of his final post, a tribute to life, his children and his wife. Derek doesn’t know this, but his last post had a phenomenal effect. It spread across the world, millions of people who never knew him, never read about him, were accessing his site, to read his last words. Why? Because they were inspired by his reflections, touched by his final virtual words, and these people whom he did not know, went back to their lives and acknowledged their loved ones, expressed gratitude for their own lives.

Randy Pausch, an exceptionally talented man who lectured at Carnegie Mellon university, wrote a book called “The Last Lecture” (which was also turned into a TED talk). He presented it as his final lecture in life. It was really a message to his children – the message that they could look back on and learn from after he was gone.

I am of course, not suggesting that everyone compile a message that they want posted when they die! My advice is not to fear what digital mark you will leave behind, but instead, while you are alive and here, take control of your digital mark. Make sure that whatever is posted up about you, or whatever you post about yourself, is positive, has a lasting impact and something that you are proud of. Chances are, down the track, alive or gone, someone in this world will come across your words, or the story of your life and what you did and be inspired. To be able to inspire, even when you are gone, is a wonderful thing.

This is also linked with your Legacy. Putting the digital aspect aside, think about how you are making a difference on a day-to-day basis. People aren’t going to remember what software you created, what system you tested and fixed, which accounts you dealt with, what business deals you closed. They are going to remember the other things – how you made them feel, what impact you had on them – your contribution to their lives, how you used your skills to help them achieve their dreams. They are going to remember and be encouraged by the risks that you took in your own life, the risks that you took to achieve your own dreams. So take control of your Legacy and actively build it.

Regrets
Bronnie Ware has worked in palliative care for many years and she has written about the top 5 regrets that people have had on their deathbed. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. The full article is here but to summarise, here are the top 5 regrets that people had:

  1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier

I think it’s worthwhile reading the full article and having a think about your own life. You can spend (waste) years of your life, being too scared to do what you want to do, to say what you feel, to pursue your goals. Fear eventually turns into regret. Pick 2 days of the year, spread them 6 months apart and use both days to reflect on your life in the 6 months gone by. Check to see if you are really, intrinsically happy, if you are fulfilled, if you feel that you are contributing to the lives of others in a positive way and if you are living the life that you want to be living. Write down all the things you want to change, and use the 6 months ahead to implement those changes. A self-reflective review-and-action every 6 months of your life, will ensure that your regrets in life are kept to a minimum, and more so than that, ensure that they are very minor regrets, rather than the huge 5 regrets that are listed above.

One more thing…
I attended TEDxSydney a few weekends ago. Kerrie Noonan was one of the 3 min speakers, and is the founder and director of the GroundSwell project. Kerrie used the 3 minutes to talk about why it is important to address Death, to talk about it and to take control. If this reflection I have written has made you think about Death differently, or made you think about Life differently, it’s worthwhile having a look at her TEDxSydney talk.

Life and Death go hand in hand – for every day that you live, it is also a day that you are closer to your Death. Don’t fear Death. Instead, use it to empower your Life. Spend more time with those you care about. Take the risks that you have been thinking about. Take the plunge and live your dreams – don’t let society or inhibitions hold you back. Actively think about what you want your Legacy to be and build that Legacy now. The best way to prepare for Death is to really appreciate and enjoy Life. And the best way to appreciate and enjoy Life is to share it with others.

And to leave you with the words of Kerrie Noonan: “Talk about Death. After all, it won’t kill you”

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