If you’re like me, you may find it nearly impossible to stop reading and thinking about COVID-19. I obsessively check Twitter. I’m in countless text and email chains on proper hand-washing, social distancing, how to entertain kiddos at home, and the business and economic implications of a pandemic.
But there’s a giant elephant in the room that people aren’t really addressing: how are we all coping with a heightened awareness of mortality and the fragility of life?
How are you dealing with the fact that everyone you know someday will die?
Although most of us will be fortunate enough to survive COVID-19, one lingering effect of this pandemic is the collective realization that we’re all interconnected, and that life is finite. It will end.
Facing mortality head-on can understandably cause anxiety and even fear—but these are not the only feelings that we experience when confronted with this reality.
At Cake, I’ve spent years helping people navigate death and end-of-life planning in a way that’s life-affirming and empowering. When people find out what I do, they sometimes say, “Wow, that must be so depressing!” While I can totally see why someone would think that, I can assure you that it’s actually the opposite. It sounds strange, but being reminded of mortality is a gift.
I’m not the only one who thinks that meditating on death can make you happier. Here are five things I’ve learned about how to harness my awareness of mortality and turn it into something positive.
1. Practice Gratitude
Losing something (or sometimes the mere threat of losing something) makes it much easier to remember to be grateful for that thing.
After my C-sections, I couldn’t walk or even sit up in bed unassisted for weeks. Now that I can walk again, I’m immensely grateful for this miraculous body that can not only walk, but jump, dance, and lift up my kids.
Life works the same way: when we’re reminded that we’ll die one day, we can feel all the more grateful for everything that happens in between.
Every time you feel fear or anxiety, you can try to refocus your thinking on gratitude instead. Even in the midst of this crisis, we can find things to appreciate.
Here are some other tangible ways to incorporate gratitude into your daily life:
- Choose a part of your daily routine to spend thinking about what you’re grateful for. It can be while you make coffee, while you shower, before bed—just make it a habit.
- Tell people what you’re grateful for and why you love and appreciate them. If you think it, why not just say it (or text it, or email it) in that moment. Actually, why don’t you pause reading this right now and go ahead and do it! Sharing your gratitude not only makes the feeling more enlivening for you, it also helps the people around you practice gratitude, too.
- Start a gratitude journal. This really works!
Eventually, gratitude practice will become second nature, and I promise that life is much better when we spend our days appreciating all the amazing things in our lives. After all, as Oprah reminds us, “what we dwell on is who we become.”
2. Let Things Go
Life is short. Do I really want to spend my limited time on Earth being mad at my partner for leaving beard hairs on the sink? Or would I rather focus on how darn happy I am that he’s alive, healthy, and that we get to hang out all the time—even more so now that we are both working from home?
If someone cuts me off in traffic or loses their temper with me, it’s easy to get annoyed, but I try to cultivate empathy and remember that they surely have their own stuff they’re dealing with.
In that moment, I think back to the many times when I have been under stress, and behaved in a way that came from a place of reactivity instead of love and kindness, and how I would have been so grateful for understanding instead of judgment. No one is bad or evil, we are all at times ignorant or afraid.
I also try to remember the Buddha’s advice: “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
3. Be Motivated
Steve Jobs once asked, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?”
It can be hard to step out of our day-to-day routines. As human beings, we so often operate on autopilot. Remembering our mortality can jolt us out of the monotony of our daily lives and give us the gift of perspective, and be more motivated to do what we want to do with our precious time.
One way to put this in practice is to try writing your own obituary—this is actually an activity that many business schools and life coaches employ because it can help you discover your purpose and what's most meaningful to you.
For me, I want to spend time with the people who are most important to me. I want to show the people I love how much I love them. I want to work on things that are important and have a positive impact on the world. I’ve written before that we have 90,000 working hours in our lifetime—that’s a finite amount of time to make the impact that we want to make.
Death is the ultimate deadline, and there’s nothing like a deadline to get motivated, amirite?
4. Be More Present
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that “the present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”
This is your one life, so try not to spend it distracted. Do one thing at a time. Dial-in to all your senses. Be mindful when you’re taking out the trash, when you’re listening to your co-worker talk on Zoom, when you’re cooking dinner, and when you’re brushing your teeth.
(OK, I admit that I sometimes still struggle to brush my teeth without my phone. But I’m really, really trying.)
Not every moment will capture your loving attention and awareness—and that’s okay. You’ll get a new opportunity every second of every day.
5. Remember That We are All Interconnected
As human beings, we are more similar than we are different. Facing a global pandemic, we see with increasing clarity that we are all inhabiting this earth together, and that our separateness is just an illusion.
Even with social distancing, we need each other—now more than ever. Feeling interconnected can encourage us to look for everyday opportunities to be kind. It does not have to be a grand gesture, it can be as small an action as smiling at someone from six feet away.
If I could pick just one piece of parenting wisdom to pass down to my kids, “be kind” would be it. I’m working on it every day for myself as well.
How to Manage This Time of Uncertainty
I get it. Right now, we all feel like we‘re facing so much uncertainty. And much is out of our control.
But, in reality, we face uncertainty every single day of our lives. The universe can deliver all sorts of life events that we must contend with—pandemics, natural disasters, illnesses, accidents, and more.
Here’s what we can control: how we react to these life events. How we plan for the fact that life will definitely end. How we approach life every single day in a way that is consistent with our values, and consistent with how we would like to be remembered.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Are there moments in my daily routine during which I can practice gratitude?
- Am I communicating my appreciation for the people in my life?
- What am I holding onto today that I can let go of?
- What impact am I making on the world?
- Will I have no regrets when I reflect back on my life someday?
- Is this what I would do with my day if it were my last?
- Am I proud of the way I show up in the world?
- Are there more moments where I can choose kindness?
If you need more support answering these questions and working on these tips, try our tools and resources (they’re free), reach out, and let us help you navigate this uncertainty in an effort to gain more clarity.
Let’s all endeavor to embrace our mortality as a teacher. It reminds us to practice gratitude, let things go, be motivated, be more present, and remember our interconnectedness. In living this way, when we do ultimately die, we will have no regrets.