As much as we don’t like to think about it or talk about it, the fact is, we’re all going to die one day.
The reality of death is, of course, both obvious and daunting for most of us.
I used to wonder what it’s like to know you’re going to die – but then I realized that we’re all going to die. We just don’t act like it.
As simple as this thought is, it is extremely profound for me. I don’t live my life all that consciously aware of my own death. My own fears about death (mine and others) often force me to avoid thinking about it all together. I do catch myself worrying about dying; sometimes more often than I’d like to admit, especially when I think about Michelle and our daughters, Samantha and Rosie.
I sometimes worry that it’s too weird, intense, or scary to talk about death or that it’s somehow a bad omen to do so.
We have a lot of strange notions about death in our culture. The concept itself can be intimidating and goes against so much of what we obsess about (youth, productivity, vitality, results, beauty, improvement, the future, etc.).
But what if we embraced death, talked about it more, and shared our own vulnerable thoughts, feelings, and questions about it?
Why You Should Live Like You’re Going to Die
While for some of us this may seem uncomfortable, undesirable, or even scary – think how liberating it would be to face the reality of death. To live like you’re going to die.
Contemplating death in a conscious way doesn’t have to freak us out. Knowing that our human experience is limited and that at some mysterious point in the future our physical body will die, is both sobering and liberating.
I’ve always appreciated memorial services, even when I’ve been in deep pain and grief over the death of someone close to me. I enjoy them because there is a powerful consciousness which often surrounds death.
When someone passes away we often feel increased permission to get real, be vulnerable, and to focus on what’s most important (not the ego-based fear, comparison, and self-criticism that often runs our lives).
What if we tapped into this empowering awareness all the time – not just because someone close to us dies or because we have our own near-death experience, but because we choose to affirm life and appreciate the blessing, gift, and opportunity that it is?
How to Live Like You’re Going to Die
Here are some things we can think about, focus on, and do on a regular basis that will allow us to live like we’re going to die, in a positive way:
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
As my late friend and mentor Richard Carlson reminded millions of us through his bestselling series of books with this great title, life is not an emergency. Most of the stuff we worry about, get upset about, and obsess about is not that big of a deal.
If we lived as if we were dying, we probably wouldn’t let so many small things bother us.
Let Go of Grudges
One of my favorite sayings is, “holding a grudge is like drinking poison, and expecting the other person to die.”
Everyone loses when we hold a grudge, especially us. Consider this: if you were aware of your impending death, would you genuinely want to spend your precious time and energy holding onto anger and resentment towards those around you or people from your past (regardless of what they may have done)?
Forgiveness is powerful – it’s not about condoning anything, it’s about liberation and freedom.
Focus on What Truly Matters
What truly matters to you? Love? Family? Relationships? Service? Creativity? Spirituality?
Our authentic contemplation of death can help us answer this important question in a poignant way. If you found out you only had a limited time left to live, what would you stop doing right now? What would you want to focus on instead?
And while we all have certain responsibilities in life, asking ourselves what truly matters to us and challenging ourselves to focus on that, right now, is one of the most important things we can do.
Go For It
Fear of failure often stops us from going for what we truly want in life. From a certain perspective (the ego-based, physical, material world) death can be seen as the ultimate “failure” and is often related to that way in our culture, even though people don’t usually talk about it in these blunt terms. However, this perspective can actually liberate us.
If we know we’re ultimately going to “fail” in life (in terms of living forever), what have we really got to lose by taking big risks? We all know how things are going to turn out in the end. As I heard in a workshop many years ago, “Most of us are trying to survive life; we have to remember that no one ever has.”
Seize the Day
Carpe diem, the Latin phrase for “seize the day,” is all about being right here, right now. The more willing we are to surrender to the present moment, embrace it, and fully experience it – the more we can appreciate and enjoy life.
As John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
Embracing a mindset of living as if every moment were our last entails cherishing the present, expressing gratitude for its preciousness, and avoiding excessive preoccupation with the past or future. Imagine if today were your final day on Earth. How would you choose to embrace life?
Death can be difficult and scary for many of us to confront. There is a lot of fear, resistance, and taboo surrounding it in our culture and for many of us personally.
However, when we acknowledge death as a natural and inevitable part of life, we are reminded that each person’s existence, regardless of its duration, is inherently brief, invaluable, and awe-inspiring. This realization has the power to profoundly and positively transform our thoughts, emotions, and relationships with ourselves, others, and the world.
Embracing a mindset of living with the awareness of our mortality (and remembering that death is guaranteed) is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and the people who mean the most to us.
How can you start living your life more conscious of your own death, in a positive and empowering way? What can you do right now to let go of what’s not important, focus on what truly matters, and seize the day? Share your thoughts, ideas, insights, actions, and more below.
This article was published in 2011 and updated for 2023.