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We should not avoid thinking about death

Dana Alexandra Scherle / DW Share:
A man walks through a sanitizing tunnel installed outside a subway station in Escobedo, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, on March 29, 2020 as a preventive measure against the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19. AFP

I was 7 years old when I first realised that any one of us could meet our deaths at any moment.

What I heard from outside did not seem threatening at first. It could have been the sound of our neighbours beating their carpets particularly loudly and energetically on the metal frame in front of our apartment building.

But it was, in fact, the sound of gunfire. At the end of December 1989 my home town of Sibiu was one of the cities where shots continued to be fired after the execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. My mother explained to me in a loving but, at the same time, extremely grave tone that I should stay away from the window at all costs — and I realised immediately that this was not a game, but for real.

 

Advice from Frankl

I was also made aware of the fragility of life as a teenager when I ended up in an intensive-care unit with a serious illness. Back then, it seemed just as naive to me to repress thoughts of death just because I was very young as it did to believe in Santa Claus and his flying reindeer at the age of 15. But what happens when death becomes part of our everyday thoughts? How does it affect our lives. Does it make us feel depressed?

On the contrary! Life’s fragility is closely intertwined with its beauty. The awareness of how quickly everything can come to an end stops us from stumbling through life indifferently and without reflection. It shows us that every day can be a gift, a new beginning and an adventure. Expressions like “killing time” make me furious. Our time on Earth is so short and precious — why should we intentionally want to “kill it”? Quite the opposite is the case. Time will “kill” us all at some point. What is important is what we do before that.

People who do not repress thoughts of death cannot avoid asking themselves about the purpose of their own lives. There is so much that can give our lives meaning, such as our love for our partners, children, families, professional or social engagement, religious belief, works of research or art.

The meaning of life was at the heart of the books written by the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl and of the years he spent working with patients. He wrote that everyone had to define the meaning of life themselves.

Frankl wrote that to ask as if there were one universal answer for everybody would be like asking a chess champion what was the best chess move in the world. But he stressed that the meaning of life was to be discovered in the world rather than within individuals or their own psyches.

During a pandemic, the last thing we should do is to repress thoughts about death. Part of that awareness involves wearing a mask, following social distancing and hygiene rules and not making the lives of medical staff even more difficult through ignorance or exaggerated fears about vaccination. Across the world, health workers are the people fighting to keep their patients alive, just as my brother is doing now, and my father did back then during the Romanian revolution in December 1989, treating the injured while the hospital was under fire.

 

Positive thinking’ cliches

In difficult times the thought of death can help make the meaning of our lives clearer and more concrete. When we grasp that we have a purpose, a reason to live, we also realise that this is a source of strength and resilience.

Platitudes about “positive thinking” and cliches about finding seeds of opportunity in a crisis never did much for me. When my husband was seriously ill 18 months ago, it really got on my nerves when people cheerfully told me that everything would be fine if I only I “thought positively.” It’s impossible to talk up an illness, and that applies all the more to a pandemic.

The people dying from COVID-19 are not just statistics or numbers. They are unique, irreplaceable individuals. Each and every one of them had their own thoughts, feelings and dreams. Let us not repress those deaths, but speak about the departed.

Let us show our loved ones who are still living how much they mean to us. And, yes, we can also give them courage and confidence even when we are far away in geographical terms. Loneliness is, above all, a lack of genuine emotional connectedness — but emotional bonds also continue to exist when we are apart and can also be maintained with telephone and video calls during lockdown.

Let’s skip the cookie-cutter phrases about getting through this together and instead talk openly about our fears and anxieties — about death, yes, but also about the fragility and beauty of life. Life can be dark, but it is never devoid of meaning. DW

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