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The old saying has it that the only certainties are death and taxes. Well, tax evasion is a universal sport, while super-wealthy and eccentric optimists occasionally demonstrate a taste for cryopreservation. 

A person looking into a mirror, with a skeleton relflected back at them (Illustration by Chris Johnston)

However, surely the subject of death, ‘so permanent and blank and true,’ as Philip Larkin wrote, preoccupies us more than taxes? We all have fears of ceasing to be, but recently English journalist Matt Rudd pondered why it is that mid-lifers are much more worried about death than old people are.

Yet my maternal grandmother, devout Christian though she was, sounded a note of rebellion that blended with one of yearning. She was past 90 when she told my mother: ‘Marjie, I don’t want to die.’ My mother floundered. ‘But you’re a believer.’ The reply was quick: ‘Oh, I’m not worried about all that; I just don’t want to say goodbye to you all.’

My other grandmother, more than twenty years younger when she died, not having reached 70, could not face a world without working in her garden. ‘If I can’t dig, I don’t want to live.’ But when she accepted the inevitable, she said, ‘I’m so disappointed.’

That’s it. People in mid-life fear death for many reasons, but disappointment must be one of them, for there are always so many things to do, so much in the world to see and to experience, a whole host of people to get to know, various ambitions to be realised, a great number of projects to be finished. Crime writer P.D. James, for example, worried every time she took a flight. ‘If this plane goes down, I won’t be able to finish my current book.’

And we are all aware of people who try new experiences at an advanced age. A friend of mine visited China when she was 87; a woman of the same age had her first ride on a Harley-Davidson, and yet another made a tandem parachute jump when she was 84.

Another octogenerian friend, an inveterate traveller, and also a mother and grandmother, once told me about flying into Heraklion in the teeth of a violent electrical storm. I was much younger than she, and certainly not as brave. ‘Weren’t you frightened?’ I asked, knowing that I would have been scared stiff. ‘Not really,’ she replied, ‘I have no responsibilities now, you see, and it does make a difference.’ All those years ago, I looked at my three young children milling around, and thought she might be right. Now I know she was.

 

'My blood has now settled down to a quiet simmer, and I ponder the subject of death every day, not with tranquillity, but with a kind of resignation.'

 

None of us likes to think of their way of life falling into the sere and yellow leaf, but life as we know it here on earth would surely become tedious if it went on forever. And the thought of death usually enhances the value of life, is ‘the dark backing that a mirror needs,’ as Saul Bellow put it. One man, knowing he was ill, told me that every day was now a present, while Clive James found that his creativity and literary output increased dramatically almost from the minute he knew his days were numbered.

Another wise man once told me that we fear death while our blood, as the Greeks say, is still boiling. ‘But,’ he said, ‘your blood will eventually stop boiling, and your fear will subside.’

My blood has now settled down to a quiet simmer, and I ponder the subject of death every day, not with tranquillity, but with a kind of resignation. But I wish my spiritualist great-grandfather, who was always going to report from the other side and tell us what death is really like, had been able to file his story.

Never mind. Perhaps those who are still in mid-life need to cultivate an attitude of acceptance, and concentrate on enjoying the here and now, which is what the old have to do. Mark Twain, satirist and sceptical Presbyterian, said he had not been bothered by the fact of being unborn for millions of years, and he didn’t think being dead for millions of years was going to bother him either.

Then there’s Catholic philosopher Pascal’s wager: those who bet on God existing have a great deal to gain in terms of present happiness and life beyond the grave. And can thus find peace at any age.

 

 

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: A person looking into a mirror with a skeleton relflected back at them (Illustration by Chris Johnston)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, death, mortality

 

 

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Existing comments

I've always been drawn to Dylan Thomas's rage against the dying of the light. As a constant pray-er of "I believe help my unbelief" there exists love of God alongside human frailty. Even as I am anxious about far too many things I do not ponder about death on a daily basis. I am more afraid of losing loved ones. After the death of his beloved Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning wrote: The simple truth is that she was the poet, and I the clever person by comparison.
Pam | 14 February 2020


The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have told his followers to live in the world as if it would never end and pray every one of their prayers as if they would die tomorrow. Many of our ancestors would've died 'on the job', collapsing mowing a field manually et sim. My gut feeling is that many people are able to intuit what life will be like after death. Many great, genuine Christian Mystics had experienced this and were not afraid of death. It is interesting that the late Dom Hubert van Zeller, once a very popular Catholic writer on spirituality, said it was not wrong for some people, who had experienced considerable suffering, to pray for death.
Edward Fido | 15 February 2020


It must be grace that kept Lazarus waking up every morning to go through another day of dogs licking his sores, and those like him today: grace in spite of unbelief as it can’t be that the millions of Lazaruses are all believers. Perhaps the grace was for a passivity which surpasses all understanding, a stumbling block to logic as great as witnessing the crucifixion before knowing of the resurrection. The original core of the Church in Jerusalem was intimately enmeshed with poverty as we know that Peter, upon being overwhelmed by the role of adjudicating material equity to the detriment of preparing his preaching, delegated the former to the first deacons. So, the Church’s voice of the prophet speaks in two tongues as the occasion requires, the tongue of the apostle or the tongue of the deacon, as conjoined as Scripture and Tradition as the tongue of the deacon cannot contradict the eye of the apostle or the tongue of the apostle the eye of the deacon.
roy chen yee | 15 February 2020


Thanks for a thought provoking article Gillian. Although I would prefer not to die, and particularly not just yet at 75 as I have a strong hankering to be around when humanity reaches Mars! Never the less, as I become older I am developing a quieter acceptance and resignation towards my own death and it’s unknown, and attempt to live each day in the present. There will always the great sadness of leaving family and friends. Interesting your mentioning of Clive Jame’s experience of flowering further prior to his death. I note the parallel in plant nature, with the vigorous growth that can occur after the spent flowers are picked.
John Whitehead | 17 February 2020


I once found the motto for my supposed heraldic family name: "Moriens cano" translated as "Dying I sing". This sent hackles up and down the back of my neck for it affirmed that in whom I believe and in whom I have grown to know and in whom I trust. To not believe leaves me thankful for this amazing grace which saves me from believing anything that brings so much angst to some I know. Experience shows there is so much life enjoyed for "those who bet on God existing have a great deal to gain in terms of present happiness and life beyond the grave. And can thus find peace at any age." After all, are we not enjoying eternal life..Now?
Terry Cobby | 17 February 2020


Gillian, What a thought provoking essay. My wife and I are in our early seventies .She is in great health, me , well not so good. Every now and again we talk about the hereafter . Years ago, I faced a serious operation. As I went into theater, she said to me as I dozed off; "Please don't leave me!" Our children were still at school at the time. I shall never forgot that plea.Now, as I face more health issues, I have to tell her; "No, I am not dying, I have too much to live for!!." and; "It's not time yet!" It is important that we discuss with our loved ones the reality that death faces all of us.
Gavin O'Brien | 17 February 2020


"We all have fears of ceasing to be". "mid-lifers are much more worried about dying than old people are". Where do these generalisations come from? What do they actually mean? I would prefer to read an article on the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre as expounded in his book, L'etre et le neant, (Being and non-Being), which has the exciting (?) sub-title An essay on phenomenological ontology. If we were to conduct a survey which asks the question - On a scale of 0 - 10 are you afraid of dying, where 0 = fearless and 10 = very very afraid? - I would have to answer 0. I am so content with the life I'm fortunate to enjoy the thought of my ceasing to be does not enter my consciousness. With regard to Mark Rudd's question I'd like to know how many mid-lifers and old people were surveyed to reach the conclusion that the former were more worried about death than the latter. Bah humbug! I say to such superficial sociology.
Uncle Pat | 17 February 2020


The parallel of ‘boiling blood’ & fear of death is so accurate; Plenty of food for thought!!
Stathis T | 18 February 2020


A polished jewel of an essay with many similar responses! My concern is with the plethora of reflection I experience on past events and actions - often in regret, with imagined alternative and better ways of re-living a lost life. If only I could have done it better and come out of it with greater dignity, deeper knowledge and more courage!
Michael Furtado | 18 February 2020


Recently on ES there was an article on Rumi, or, more precisely a Rumi quote in a dunny with a bit of intelligent graffiti appended. Rumi was a Sufi and Sufis have a saying 'Die before you die'. That echoes sayings in the New Testament.
Edward Fido | 18 February 2020


Having reached three-score-and-ten it is not unnatural that I might ponder on the ending at some stage hence of my life. My mother is nearly 90 - her father was in his 92nd year when he passed away - I am on no medication myself (touch wood, he thinks to himself - not wishing to arouse the ire of the tree-dwelling gods by such boasting) and assuming my ending not quite in sight. But no great anxiety about death. It is a part of existence. No one escapes it - and it is in its acceptance - with whatever vision one might hold for what comes after - that true grace can be understood. That's my take on it all. Grateful for so many years, so many friendships, so many places - so far come - so far! I think it natural to feel a kind of grief for those who will be left behind - as we term it - not to know more of their personal triumphs and joys or to be a comfort for them during darker days - but if we live to that certain age it is actually normal to understand our absence will or may lead to others finding different significant persons still living as their friends/mentors/supports. Or to become those themselves with the rising generations. The cycle of life itself. Again- thanks, Gillian.
Jim KABLE | 18 February 2020


Thought provoking as usual Gillian and a timely reminder that life is short. It is a reminder too that we should not let regrets and misunderstandings continue longer than necessary. My grandfather in his eighties said it was not the things you do that you regret but those you don’t do. Much wisdom has been written on the subject but my favourite is ‘ to everything there is a season ...’
Maggie | 19 February 2020


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