The main challenge in reflecting on one’s own death is the way the various aspects of death and dying are intertwined which make it difficult to discern personal mortality.
First there is the prospect of me dying; of me entering whatever is in store at the end of my life. How long will it last? Will there be pain? What will I leave behind? How do I say goodbye? Next there is the prospect of other people dying, particularly the death of loved-ones and the painful absence their loss leaves behind. How would I cope with the death of a close friend, a partner, a child? But thinking about my dying and other people’s deaths are different. Dying is an event in life, admittedly an important event, but still one that happens within the course of life. Similarly, coming to terms with the loss of a loved-one is an important process, but it belongs to a different domain than my death.
Another temptation is to think of my death as though it is like the death of others. I imagine myself in the shoes of someone as they approach their death. Maybe it would be my soul that is absorbed into a zone of endless tranquility. Maybe it would be my body lying motionless in the coffin. I conjure up images of love-ones with shocked expressions as they are told about my death, I visualize their forlorn looks as they watch my coffin descending into the grave and I picture their reactions to constantly interacting with the spaces I now no longer occupy.
But thinking about my death in terms of what happens when others die does not fully capture what happens when I think about my own death. When I die, looking at myself from the outside, my brain will stop working, my senses will cease to operate, I will no longer have any voluntary control of my muscles, and my body will lie limp and lifeless. This is undeniably what will happen.
Looking at this from the inside is more complicated. If my brain and my body cease to function, then it makes sense to consider my emotions, my consciousness and all those aspects that make up my subjective world, as ceasing to operate as well. My consciousness surely relies on input from my senses plus the processing power of my brain, so without them it is hard to think of how consciousness might persist. I might reassure myself that my consciousness will continue in some form in another realm, but I can’t be sure. It makes more sense to say that when all the conditions for consciousness are no longer present then my consciousness will no longer be able to function.
But this is a terrible thought; a horrifying realization with alarming consequences. My consciousness is always present whenever I look out at anything in the world. I never experience anything around me without being conscious. When I am unconscious, such as when I am asleep or knocked out, I assume the world continues under its own steam, but this is an assumption which I can never fully trust. What I can be surer about is that the world and my consciousness are always paired; they are always together, each interacting with and enabling the other, and participating together in allowing what is going on around me to continue to take place.
What this throws up is the possibility that without my mind the world, and all that it contains—objects, animals, people, loved ones—will cease to exist. In other words, from the standpoint of how I experience things, when I die the conditions that enable the existence of both my consciousness and the world around me will, most likely, no longer be present. In this way, the prospect of my own death highlights the possibility of the end of everything.
The unthinkable and unspeakable nature of my death forces me to walk repeatedly down a conceptual dead-end; a dead-end which discourages any further attempts to think along the same track. Even if we were to consider it important to form some sort of relationship to my death, there is no identifiable object to connect with, there is nothing to cling on to; it stands there as a conceptual black-hole; an emptiness which we can only approach with insecurity and foreboding.
Here lies the true challenge of reflecting on my death; the idea of it as an unthinkable, unspeakable nothingness. But, despite this, thinkers, poets, and artists have, over the centuries, still had a lot to say about personal mortality. It is just too big a part of the rhythm and structure of life to be ignored.
It is, similarly, important for each of us not to turn our backs on death and, despite its unintelligibility, to seek out ways of engaging with it. What is needed is some sort of provisional handhold that allows each of us to reach out and grasp onto something that can enable us to pursue a lifelong relationship with personal mortality.
Read more on this in Reflecting on the Inevitable: Mortality at the Crossroads of Psychology, Philosophy and Health
Text and Photo by Peter J. Adams