How to Start a Conversation about Mortality

“How old will I be when I die?” I once asked a Quija board that my parents had stored in the basement when I was in junior high. This followed by, “How will I die?”

I watched my fingers involuntarily shift a pointer amongst the numbers and letters on the board until I got my answer. The answer, though disturbing, didn’t faze me much because the end seemed an eternity away. I was to die of brain damage at the age of 53.

A few years later, when I placed my trust in the Creator instead of the Quija board, I “renounced” my former “supernatural” activities which included Kresgin’s ESP, following my daily Horoscope, playing “Light as a Feather” during grade school sleepovers, telling ghost stories, and participating in child-invented séances. So far, so good.

Though I repented of my “evil” doings, the Quija board number that supposedly marked the end of my mortality remained a tiny voice in my head. As ridiculous as it sounds, I wasn't totally at peace until the clock struck midnight, and I entered year 54 of my life.. Be that as it may, I have no interest in seeing the movie, Quija: Origin of Evil, even though Rotten Tomatoes gives it an 84% which is rare for a horror movie.

In the meantime, I think there is value in “living like you were dying,” as Tim McGraw’s song suggests. Love deeper, speak sweeter, forgive, become the friend a friend would like to have, read the “Good Book,” go sky-diving and Rocky-Mountain climbing, etc., etc.  But many people don’t think that way until they face their mortality. And some never think that way.

I recall a moment while assisting at meal-time in a long-term care community.  I noticed a teary-eyed woman seated at a table with three friends. I sat down beside her and asked what was wrong.

“Everything,” she replied.

“Do you not feel well? Are you lonely?” I probed, putting my arm around her.

“I’m always lonely,” she cried.

I then noticed the loving efforts made by her three table-mates to console and cheer her. I began asking her about her life.

“I remember everything,” she declared.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” I probed.

“None of it will ever happen again,” she lamented.

In an effort to provide a more helpful framework for her to review her life, I informed her about Dr. Seuss’s wisdom, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I suggested she think of her mind as a sanctuary, reliving the memories with gratitude. It seemed logical to me that one could draw comfort from drawing from such a well of beauty and meaning whenever one saw fit.

“You’re preparing me for death,” she chided, resisting my efforts to coach her through this important chapter in her process of life resolution.

Though I hadn’t thought of it that way initially, she was right. I was preparing her for death, albeit an exercise in futility. I am learning much by watching others face or avoid their mortality. Perhaps she felt I was patronizing her in my efforts to encourage her. She is one of multitudes who struggle toward mastering what developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson calls the Ego Integrity vs. Integrity “Wisdom” stage of older adulthood.

Gerontocrats are those who face aging with grace, who make peace with the past, who continue to be grateful for what they have and to embrace life. They have ego integrity. Gerontophobes are those who dread and despise the aging process and fear facing the end of life. Their lives are filled with more regret than gratitude. When they don’t resolve the past, they live with despair.

My oldest daughter Joanna once shared with her family and closest friends, a memoir of her college years in Oregon. Though only 23 at the time, she had the emotional tools to deal with loss. She worked through resolution in short order as she chose the difficult task of saying good-bye to her Kansas family and friends before she moved to Germany to be with the love of her life.

“It is all beginning to hit me – that my life is no longer as I once knew it and that I can never go back to the past and relive anything. It’s moments like tonight that remind me that I need to sort out all that has happened in this time and to feel it all,” were the poignant words my daughter poured out in the height of her emotions.

So, how do we open the door of conversation with our elders about this elephant in the room called mortality? My boss recently blurted out the following question to me and a former colleague: “If the good Lord were to call you home today, would you be ready?” Though it appeared out of nowhere, it led to a very helpful conversation, as I had been struggling with a disturbing dream about the afterlife that I hadn’t yet worked through.

That question was recently used in an assignment with some of my coworkers who work at the two retirement communities I serve. One of my coworkers felt the assignment slightly awkward, wondering if it might be more natural for the opportunity to just present itself as what happened with me and the weeping woman. I share her sentiment, but I also discovered that I welcomed the question, random as it was when handed to me by my boss. We never know who is waiting for us to make the first move in starting what might otherwise be an uncomfortable topic to tackle.

And why not? Our mortality is one thing we all have in common.

So, how do we start a conversation about our mortality? Start from a place of love, take the plunge, and let the chips fall where they may. Though your words may get all scrambled up, love will take care of the rest.