There’s something about death that is comforting. The thought that you could die tomorrow frees you to appreciate your life now.
– Angelina Jolie
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things seemingly overnight. In the UK, as in many countries, this news coverage includes a daily death toll. For the first time in many people’s lives, they are having to face their own mortality and that of their loved ones.
Below are five positive things death can teach us about life.
Your life perspective changes
Shared distress can promote a spirit of community and connection with others that can be disguised in ordinary times. The challenge is to maintain this after distress ends. And just as personal encounters with death can change a person’s life, a societal encounter with death has the potential to change the life of society.
I recently had to visit a morgue, seeing all those dead bodies, people who were like me only weeks or months ago being piled up atop each other like clothes for the closet gave me shivers. That is an experience I won’t forget in a hurry.
It highlights the power of nature
Many people like to think that they own the world or aspects of it including their own bodies. The atrophy of the human body – whether through infirmity, disability, age or ultimately death – unveils the boundaries of this supposition.
On a wider scale, humans are devastating the natural world, causing the extinction of thousands of species at an ever-increasing rate. Now, nature, in the form of a tiny virus that particularly threatens humans, is giving us a taste of our own medicine. The virus-like earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters – is reminding us that humans are also part of the natural world.
And the power of connection
New forms of heroism are emerging among frontline health workers, cleaners, delivery drivers, cashiers, refuse collectors and volunteers. From the clapping for carers that neighbourhoods in some countries are doing to the resurgence of neighbourliness and volunteering, the pandemic has created webs of giving and receiving. Distant family members and friends from the past get back in touch. What people do now counts, and can provide a meaning to life sadly absent in many nine-to-five jobs.
Sociologist and thinker Michael Young (Lord Young of Dartington) spent his life documenting and fostering social solidarity in Britain – he helped found the welfare state in the 1940s and then wrote a sociological study of family and kinship in east London. In the 1990s, he wrote in a study of people dying of cancer that death, while sundering relationships, can also bring people together:
Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity.
My own research confirms this to be true.
The pandemic has highlighted the important things in life for many people.
This is an opportunity for review
Facing up to mortality prompts us to reevaluate our lives. There are key times in the life course when this is likely to happen. One is the mid-life crisis, another is when entering old age – people look at what they have done so far, and may find themselves content with this, or decide to change, or regret that it seems too late to change.
The pandemic may cause some to review their lives while they still have enough decades left to act on their review. Not only whole societies, but some individuals may decide to live in new ways.
Death needs to be talked about
Facing up to mortality also has some simple practical implications. However fit and youthful you are, you should write a will and talk frankly and openly to those closest to you about your thoughts, hopes and fears.
Talk about what treatment you would or would not want if you catch COVID-19 and deteriorate. But be aware that with both health services and families stretched, there is no guarantee your wishes will be carried out – though discussing them first certainly helps.
Death’s lesson here, perhaps, is about the limits to our control over our own life.
Rest In Peace to all souls who have and will depart from Covid-19.