I realise that it’s kind of morbid to talk about death, but why is that? Ultimately, it’s the one guarantee in life for everyone, and, for me at least, it can be a really overwhelming topic. I mean I can talk about death and think about it, but then the thought of life without some people (family) stirs these really intense feelings and emotions. I think this might be because I’ve been relatively lucky in my life, in that I haven’t actually had to deal with the death of loved ones often or at a time when I’m old enough to comprehend what it actually means. I guess this makes me question whether this is a kind of irrational fear, not of death but of loss. I guess I should explain where the inspiration for this blog has come from…
While I was in Vietnam, more specifically Hanoi, I visited the Masoleum of Ho Chi Minh. I found this experience to be rather more profound than I’d have ever imagined, and not in the way you might think. I felt really quite overwhelmed – unexpectedly so – when I saw the body of Ho Chi Minh lying there in a specially air conditioned room, packed with tourists, shuffling around, while being surrounded by armed guards ensuring that no-one is trying to sneak a photo. Now I reflect upon it, I guess it’s quite a morbid thing in itself, to queue up to view a preserved dead body.
Ho Chi Minh was and still is important to the Vietnamese people but, alas, this is not why I was so unexpectedly overwhelmed when I saw his cold dead body lying there. I had this epiphany type moment of realisation and clarity. I’m not a spiritual person, however, since going travelling and reading books like Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Eat Pray Love, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying and since coming home, Wild and, of course, the countless travel blogs I’m now addicted to, I’ve become more aware of my very being and existence in life. These moments of clarity strike like a lightening bolt, completely unexpectedly and usually leave me taken aback, questioning my life – where I am (figuratively and literally), where I’m going, am I the person that I want to be? Amongst others, and of course, no personal crisis would be complete without asking ‘what is my life?!’
In this instance specifically, I was struck by was the realisation of the tiny margin between life and death.
I mean, I was literally witnessing it. There I was, alive, living, breathing, walking around this dead, cold, lifeless body.
I wasn’t sure how to quantify this moment into words for myself let alone for a blog post, however, I was once again reminded of this moment when I visited my Poppa (grandfather) in hospital and I was reminded about the notion of life and death, and more specifically, what it is to be alive.
I dread going to the hospital, even just walking through the corridors overwhelms me – I think it relates to my associations with hospitals, such as I remember visiting elderly relatives that then died. I know positive things happen, but I haven’t really experienced this. It’s funny because I thought that perhaps everyone felt this way about hospitals, but I asked my mum as we weaved through the maze of corridors for visiting hours, but she said no. This made me question my rationalisation – is it fear that I feel? Or is the dread relating to the fear of the unknown? Not knowing what I’m walking into, not knowing if it will be good news or bad.
During my trip, post-Vietnam, I read The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Okay first of all, I cannot highly recommend reading this book enough. Yes, it’s sad in parts, it is about death but ultimately, it’s written to share with us, some of the biggest regrets that people face while they’re dying. This book is really important to me, and is one of the most profound books I’ve read in my life to date. It gave so much perspective on my life at present and what I want to do in the future. The book offers advice and lessons that others learnt to enable us not to make the same mistakes.
This book helped me to fast forward my life, by 10, 20, 30 even 40 years, with me imagining myself this age and looking back over my as yet unlived life. What do I want to look back over? Where do I want to be? And this helps me to make the most of life, although I readily admit I still struggle to live in the moment. The reason this is so important to me now is because I realise that I don’t want to wake up when I’m 50 and realise that I never did all of the things that I want to do. This is more experience based (memories) than materialistic (possessions). I think, to some extent, this has now become a fear (slightly irrational?). I guess I’ve seen an insight into the future (regrets, shoulds, coulds and oughts), and it could be my future, and I don’t want it to be.
Being there in the hospital, and I guess also at the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh made me realise how important and yet temporary life is. Perhaps it is something that most of us take for granted. Some people would give anything absolutely anything to have more time, to do that thing they always wanted to, to say those words to that person. The book teaches you to say everything and I guess (my interpretation) to do everything before the end.
On the same day that I visited the hospital, I read this article which highlights another perspective on death. I guess we don’t often consider our own death. The assumption is that we will all live to a ripe old age, we’re constantly hearing about our ageing population and reading predictions about how long people will live to in 2050 and so on. Yet this article explores and explains what it is to prepare for death at the young age of 29. Is this enough time to do everything? I have no doubt that some, perhaps I, would be thrown into hysteria. Yet Gordon Aikman shows what it is to approach death with dignity and courage. Not so long ago, the actress and presenter Linda Bellingham passed away after a long battle with cancer. She very much approached death in the same manner, with dignity and courage. And again, here in this article – which I admit, had me hiding under the covers trying to wipe my eyes as quickly as tears poured out of them – reminded me how little sense life can make at times.
I listened to a podcast recently, a TED Radio Hour called ‘What We Fear’ (I highly recommend this too) where philosopher Stephen Cave talked about fears that people have, and the common thread between them is death. Death, the ultimate fear because it’s the ultimate end. And he questioned the point in fearing what happens to us after death, he suggests that what we should actually concentrate on, is our life. And imaging our lives as a book, with a beginning and an end, with a great story inbetween.
I guess ultimately, I want to live to the fullest, and when I’m dying (if i’m given the luxury of time to reflect) I’d like to know that I did it all. Maybe this is the ignorance of youth talking, maybe I’ll live to regret this approach one day, maybe it isn’t possible to ‘have it all’ or ‘do it all’, no-one can predict the future, but for now, I’m going to try to live my life regret free and to the fullest. After all, life is for living.
The phrase ‘you only live once’ is often used today, but what does that mean to you?