Death and the Meaning of Life


“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”      ~  John Updike

“To the wise advice that we live every day as though it will be our last, we do well to add the admonition to live every day as though we will be on this earth forever.”  ~ Sherwin Nuland


the meaning of deathAs I delve more and more into the medical and ethical issues of aging, I find repeated references to the tendency in modern society—and particularly America—to avoid the subject of death. I plan, over the next few months, to explore some of the social and cultural reasons for this pattern, but today’s blog is a personal muse on why death—the very fact of death—gives added and richer meaning to life and to the opportunities that await us.

Long-time readers of my blog (or readers of Sailing Down the Moonbeam) will know that a watershed event in my life occurred on a 35-foot sailboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After a week of sunny days with calm seas and a cloudless sky, a companion sailboat, aptly named Pacific, missed the scheduled meet-up on ham radio. Initially, no one seemed worried, as the yacht’s absence was easily explained by battery troubles or a broken radio antenna, either of which might take a day to fix.  No one saw any reason to call for help.

I did not view their absence with such equanimity.  What if it wasn’t a mechanical problem? What if Pacific had collided with a whale or a submerged container that fallen off a freighter, and the crew was drifting in a lifeboat? We were well outside the shipping lanes.  The odds of finding a small lifeboat floating in an unknown direction from an unknown starting point were almost nil.

When Pacific did not reappear on the second day—and still no one suggested calling for help—panic struck. From the beginning of our sailing voyage, I assumed that if we had a major problem, someone would come to our rescue, much as I had always assumed that an ambulance would appear if I had an accident on a New York highway.  Suddenly, I came face to face with the imminence of death, with the very real possibility that my life could come to an abrupt end on sunny day in a calm sea.

The watershed moment did not occur that day. Rather it came several days later, when I realized that imminent death had always been a possibility—that my faith in the appearance of the ambulance on the highway was as illusory as my belief in help at sea.

Once I accepted that the fact that my being was out of my control, I wanted to use my time and energy for things that mattered to me … to seize every opportunity …. to make sure I used every moment of my existence as if it were my last.

I wish I could say that I have always been true to this philosophy. What I can say is that the awareness of the fragility of life has been a constant reminder that I should not fall prey to what society thinks is important.  Since every moment could be my last—I could die before I even finish this sentence—every new moment is a new opportunity to live my life better and more wisely.

This muse was prompted, in part, by my interest in the subject of aging and death.  It was also prompted by a recent philosophy class in which we studied the often-controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger.  At the risk of oversimplification, Heidegger sees much of our everyday existence as “falling prey” to the social, religious and cultural mores imposed by those around us, as well as the generations that have lived before us. Even those who see themselves as rebels or revolutionaries or free-thinkers are doing little more than re-arranging the ideas and concepts handed out by others.

For Heidegger, the only escape from this “inauthentic” existence is death … not the actual death that terminates human life, but the possibility of imminent death. For Heidegger, the ever-present possibility that this moment will be my last also offers a perpetually renewing opportunity to live in a way that is meaningful to me.

Does the possibility of death add meaning—and opportunity—to your life?


  1. Yours is probably the most philosophically astute blog I follow. I appreciate all the research you do in preparation.

    To answer your question, I quote from Emily Dickinson: “This world is not conclusion / A sequel stands beyond.” My belief in this truth motivates me to draw meaning (and opportunity) in the life I’m living now. Thank you, Mary.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Marian … thanks for those kind words about my blogging efforts. I am agnostic on the subject of a “sequel” beyond this life, but I do understand how that belief influences one’s sense of the meaning of life.

  2. Mary,
    Like you, I count on frequent wake up calls to keep reminding me that we are here now. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is only a possibility. Living fully in every waking moment is what I aspire to.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Hi Joan … I count on wake-up calls as well … I think I would do a better job of living an “authentic” life if those wake-up calls came more often.

  3. I think about death everyday, but it doesn’t make me sad. It’s an energizer. I don’t believe in sequels after death, only sequels in my joy of life. More, please. Not sure about Americans avoiding the subject of death . .. too many Facebook posts wishing Happy Birthday to dead people. Makes no sense to me. Religion also seems to glorify death, a “better place” and all that. Rather, I think Americans avoid the subject of taking one’s own death into one’s own hands, which in reverse can also be interpreted as taking one’s own life. I take my life seriously and joyfully and hope to do the same in death.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sandra … many of the kids in my philosophy class thought Heidegger was a “downer” … like you, I find his notion exhilarating … an encouragement to let go of the past (about which we can do nothing) and devote our time and energy and emotion to making tomorrow a better day and a better place. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Very astute, as usual, Mary. Thanks for your insight. The possibility of death during our eight-year sailing circumnavigation was always there. My husband and I made sure to update our wills before we set out on each of the seven voyages. But there was only one time when I actually feared for my life. That was during a Force 10 storm off the coast of Venezuela headed for Colombia. I knew if the storm increased to a Force 12 (hurricane strength) we would be goners. A small 43-foot catamaran does not survive a hurricane. After that, we sat in port (Cartegena) for over a week gaining the courage to go on. I learned that living on the edge is not a bad way to live. It makes one thankful for each and every day.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Lois … what’s remarkable to me about the sailing experience was not that that the risk of death was greater — in fact, I think the risk is smaller — but that death is “on the doorstep” every single day. It was the sailing trip that made me realize how much time and energy I wasted on things that (a) I had absolutely no control over and (b) I didn’t really care about anyway. In fact, I think we are living “on the edge” almost all the time … we just don’t look at it that way!

  5. Mary, I’m with you that death gives richer meaning to life. For me, death is tremendous motivation to make what’s left of my life a rich and fulfilling experience. However, we live in a society that fears death (and old age) and tends to both venerate and ignore it. I grew up in a Latino society where death is not only accepted but celebrated – the Day of the Dead – and with the fatalistic attitude “Si te toca, te toca” – “If it’s your turn, it’s your turn.” Nothing you can do about it so just accept it. Your example of the Pacific being a watershed moment for you made me think about my own such moment many years ago when I had a near death experience and “saw the light” so to speak. It showed me the greatness of death, and I’m sort of looking forward to that next step when my turn comes.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Penny .. I would love to touch base to get more insight into your experience from the Latino perspective … I want to look at how different cultures deal with death. I’ll contact you by email.

      …. Interesting that, even with the “que sera sera” influence, it still took a near death experience to bring the point home.

  6. Mary, I read this a few days ago, and it has stuck with me. Now I’m clinging to it in some ways. I find your writing to be refreshing and the subject matter, compelling. Thank you for helping me move beyond the nearly hermetically sealed taboos of our culture(s). Paul

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Paul … how lovely of you to come back and let me know it resonated with you … I find this whole topic fascinating, and am glad to hear it piques other’s interest. Regards to you and Ann.