I was not, I was, I am not, I care not. – Epicurus
Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist. – Epicurus
Sadly, all of us one day will die. The hour of our death is uncertain, but it pays to be ready. The advantage of being prepared to die is that it will enable you to live a more satisfying and meaningful life. You will die well if you emotionally prepare yourself for death in advance of the hour of death. It also means living a full life with few regrets and the least number of unfinished pleasurable deeds possible when death arrives. In my view, dying well rests on
- unconditional self-acceptance
- unconditional other-acceptance
- and unconditional life-acceptance.
By achieving these three forms of acceptance, you will have no self-downing, no bitterness towards others, and an acceptance of the conditions occurring. You will acknowledge that although you may wish death was not close at hand or that some aspects of your life had been different, you are not experiencing emotional disturbance about any of it. Hopefully, you are smiling, savoring, and dying with gratitude for the good times you experienced over the course of your life. Perhaps you may even die with curiosity as to what the process is going to entail.
Getting ready to die means reflecting on your mortality and overcoming any associated unhealthy emotions which may occur. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) encourages you to feel healthy negative feelings as they help you acknowledge reality and motivate you to do what you can to influence the outcome of events in a good way.
From the REBT perspective, concern, disappointment, sadness, and sorrow are healthy negative emotions that will enable you to die well and live well as you prepare for death. Some people may feel anxiety or despair when they contemplate their mortality. REBT teaches that these feelings are not the inevitable result of having to die. These unhealthy negative feelings result from our attitudes towards death, dying, and having lived an imperfect life.
Below are some attitudes which will produce emotional disturbance which will make coping with death and dying more difficult than these challenges actually need to be. Each is followed by a philosophical view rooted in REBT and if adopted would produce a healthy alternative reaction.
Take each set of opposing attitudes one at a time. Reflect on each. Subject each to critical thinking. Which attitude will serve you well as you prepare for death? Identify any doubts, reservations, or objections you may have towards the one rooted in REBT. Work to resolve these doubts, reservations, or objections.
In so doing you will prepare yourself for death and free yourself to live more comfortably and happily now regardless of how much time you have left to live. Even if you have only days left. Why not live those last days to the fullest?
Unhealthy and Healthy Attitudes on Death and Dying
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I must not die.
Healthy, flexible attitude: I wish I did not have to die, but sadly I do. It is false to the facts of life that I must not die regardless of how badly I want to go on living. It is natural to die and unnatural to live forever.
Unhealthy, extreme attitude: The fact that I will die is unbearable.
Healthy, non-extreme attitude: The fact I will die is uncomfortable to acknowledge but not unbearable. I can stand to acknowledge I will die. I am willing to accept this unfortunate fact of life and commit to doing so. Tolerating that I will die will free me from emotional disturbance, undermining my living well and dying well.
Unhealthy, extreme attitude: Death is awful.
Healthy, non-extreme attitude: Death is bad but not awful. Death is a mix of good and bad. Death will bring with it the end of physical suffering for you and the emotional suffering of those who care for you and who are suffering because you are in the process of dying. Some good comes from the fact that we die. Without death, we would squander time even more than we tend to and yield to inertia because we could reassure ourselves that we could get around to doing things in the future. Death forces us to decide to do or not to do, to act or not to act, while time and fate permits. Without the healthy feeling of concern death helps us to feel, we would be certain that the future will always be there for us to be able to put off doing things that we believe will bring us pleasure and meaning. Death motivates and focuses our attention, helps us resist our natural human tendency to avoid the expenditure of energy and avoid discomfort. We would be well advised to use death and the healthy feeling of concern to our advantage to act sooner rather than later.
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I must not die young.
Healthy, flexible attitude: I hope to have many years, but there is no natural law of the universe that makes dying young an inviolable occurrence. Life is not fair, and some will live a longer life than others. It is best to accept my allocation of years and make the most of what I do have. Make the goal be the quality of how you live your years, not the number of years you have to live. Seneca taught that it is not that life is too short but that most of us squander too much of it. Perhaps I can work to use the time I do have to live in a better and more efficient way.
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I must not die a painful death.
Healthy, flexible attitude: Dying a painful death is something no one wants to do, but unfortunately, occasionally, this may occur. It is false to think dying a painful death must not happen. Good end-of-life care usually helps prevent this outcome, but it is not guaranteed. Take solace in the indisputable fact that all pain ceases when death occurs. Perhaps you can distract yourself from pain by remembering the best moments of your life. Remind yourself also that all forms of pain eventually end when death finally arrives.
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I must not be alone when I die.
Healthy, flexible attitude: I certainly would like to die in the presence of family or a dear friend, but it is always possible I will die alone. Dying with family or a friend close at hand does not have to occur. It might be more challenging to die alone, but I could strive to rise to the challenge and accept it. I will work to control what is under my control which is my attitude towards this undesirable exit from life. I will work to be my own best company as I transition from this existence into a state of nonexistence.
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I must not die with regrets.
Healthy, flexible attitude: I hope not to die with regrets, but sadly that is unlikely. I do not have to die without some regrets. Given that I am a fallible human, I will likely regret some of my decisions and actions. I will do my best in life to use good judgment. I will also strive to cultivate unconditional self-acceptance. Unconditional self-acceptance will help me exit this life, acknowledging what I could have done better while not condemning myself for the life I did lead.
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I must not die with unfinished pleasures left on my bucket list.
Healthy, flexible attitude: Before I die, I would like to complete all the activities on my bucket list, but this good fortune does not have to occur. No matter how many bucket list items I am able to enjoy, it is human nature to keep adding to the list. Throughout my life, I lived in a world where deprivation of pleasure was part of life. All people have their deprivations, and there is no logical reason to conclude I, too, must face my death without being deprived of one pleasure or another. Unlike a child who died and lived a relatively short life and experienced far fewer pleasures, I was lucky to have lived a relatively long life and experienced many more joys. I will end my days savoring the pleasures I did enjoy rather than emphasizing the unfulfilled goals I was unable to achieve for one reason or another.
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I must die with a good reputation.
Healthy, flexible attitude: The Stoics emphasized that our actions are under our control. They point out that the judgments of others of what we did and our reputation are not under our control. Our reputation is in the hands of other fallible humans. I want to leave this life with a good reputation, but this is far from a necessity. The people who remember me in a favorable light and those who remember me in an unfavorable light will die one day, and those who remember them will also die. It might be nice to die with the love and approval of adoring fans, but in the end, it does not change a great deal. It is my unconditional self-acceptance that matters most not the opinion of others.
Unhealthy, extreme attitude: I will be unable to bear the process of dying.
Healthy, nonextreme attitude: The process of dying will be a challenging, if not a downright painful, struggle but I will be able to bear it until I perish. I will handle it better if I acknowledge that I have tolerated other significant challenges in life. The unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional life-acceptance I have cultivated in preparation for death will enable me not to add to my burden by demanding that the process of dying be easier than it is. I will change what I can and accept what I cannot, as I have done throughout my life. The bigger the challenge, the greater the reward, and this will be my final challenge. I will prepare myself to be able to meet the challenge by cultivating unconditional life-acceptance.
Unhealthy extreme attitude: I cannot bear bidding farewell to loved ones.
Healthy non-extreme attitude: Perhaps bidding farewell to friends and loved ones may be the most painful part of dying, but it is also bearable. The pain is proportional to the quality of the relationship I had with these significant people over the years. I will savor the close and loving relationships I have enjoyed with these people and acknowledge that they come to an end in death. I will accept this as this will give me leverage to enjoy these relationships to the end. As for the problematic relationships I had with certain people, I will call to mind we were both fallible humans, and the conditions were right for the interpersonal conflicts and misdeeds to occur. I wish things had happened differently between us, but in the end, this is life. I will strive to unconditionally accept myself and unconditionally accept these other people and move towards my final breathe with an acceptance that allows me to savor what was good and live well with what was not good.
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I must not cease to exist.
Healthy, flexible attitude: Epicurus said, “I was not, I was, I am not, I care not. (Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo)” Perhaps he went too far. I can feel sorrow that I will soon cease to exist without demanding that this condition not come about and upsetting myself as it approaches. Yes, it is bad that I will cease to exist but not awful. I would be well advised to see I could have never been born, which would have been worse. I can be grateful that I did exist and savor the good times I did have. If I lived forever, I would have more good times but the bad times and problems I faced throughout my life could very well go on to be my burden indefinitely, like Sisyphus, who struggled for eternity. Furthermore, I might have never been motivated to do much of those things I found to be good to do because I would know my existence would go on forever, and therefore there was no urgency to do these things. There is good that comes from bad. I will unconditionally accept that life comes to an end and choose not to disturb myself about this fact. I commit to enjoying life until the very last moment of life. That is my goal!
Unhealthy, extreme attitude: It is unbearable to think I will not continue to exist for eternity.
Healthy, nonextreme attitude: It may be challenging to acknowledge that I will not exist for eternity, but it is not unbearable. I can tolerate the fact I will cease to exist forever. I am willing to tolerate and accept that my time is limited and strive to focus on the time I have, not that I will not exist for eternity. Rest assured, no one’s death has stopped the world from continuing to spin long after they were gone. Nobody’s life is that significant. Life goes on with or without my presence. I can accept this.
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I (absolutely) should have lived a better life.
Healthy, flexible attitude: Although I could have lived a better life and that would have been far better to do, it does not follow that I had to live a better life. All of the conditions were in place for me to live the life I did live. It is important to note that I was born a fallible human and my error proneness likely factored into the life I did live. I can choose to unconditionally accept myself and live the best life I can in the short time that remains of it rather than disturbing myself that I failed to live a better life.
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I (absolutely) should not have hurt my loved ones as I did.
Healthy, flexible attitude: I wish I did not hurt my loved ones, but sadly I did. It is not true this must not have occurred as it did. I can sincerely apologize for my misdeeds and choose to unconditionally accept myself for the actions I am responsible for having done. Had I been an ideal human, I would not have hurt them, but sadly it was my nature as a fallible human to do misdeeds that I could have avoided doing.
Unhealthy, rigid attitude: I (absolutely) should not have wasted my time and talents as I did.
Healthy, flexible attitude: I wish I had better utilized my time and talents, but it is false that I should not have wasted my time and talents as I did. Humans cannot live a perfect life and often squander resources. Fallible humans often do this sort of thing. Unfortunately, I did not use my resources better, but I had better unconditionally accept myself with the squandering I did do. I commit to making the best of the days and moments I still have to live. I can do a great deal of living in the remaining moments I have to live.
Unhealthy, extreme attitude: It is awful to be at the end of my life.
Healthy, non-extreme attitude: Because I have used REBT to enjoy myself, not prove myself, it will help me to see that it is bad to be at the end of my life but not awful. First of all, I lived and can savor those moments till the moment I cease to exist. I am dying knowing I can accept the process of dying and the future state of nonexistence. It would be worse if I had not learned unconditional life acceptance and could not accept that I am at the end of my life. These final moments are the ones I have been training for throughout my life. Good can come from bad as these are unique moments that may hold hidden joys as well. Look for them. Let me celebrate the life I have lived rather than lamenting the life I did live or the end of my life. I have played my role, and I will accept the transition without disturbing myself. The experience to nonexistence will be interesting.
Unhealthy, extreme attitude: I am a bad person for having lived the life I lived.
Healthy, non-extreme attitude: I am a person who did bad things and good things. Yes, I did those bad things and lived the life I did live, but I can still choose unconditional self-acceptance. I am not completely bad. Stay with good reasoning till the end. If I had to do it all over again, perhaps, I would have made many different choices. Life is an art, and maybe I did not do it as well as I might have, but that is largely because I am a fallible human. I will choose to exit with unconditional self-acceptance.
Final thoughts on death and dying: REBT is an amalgamation of ancient and modern philosophy. It has great utility when applied to death and the process of dying. You are well-advised to relinquish your rigid and extreme attitudes towards death and dying as these will not permit you to cultivate unconditional self-acceptance, unconditional other-acceptance, and unconditional life-acceptance. It is through acceptance you can gain leverage over death and savor life until the moment of your final breath.
Note: On Saturdays, I hold a free Zoom conversation hour where I take a volunteer and discuss one of their problems. If you have an emotional problem you would like to discuss with me, perhaps you will volunteer and I will show you how to think in a more effective way about your problem. I will show you the rigid and extreme attitudes that are leading to your self-defeating emotions and holding you back from achieving your goals.
Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk is a clinical psychologist and practitioner of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He both practices and trains psychologists in REBT at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and teaches Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) at New York University. He has been an expert consultant on a project with the US Navy aimed at teaching CBT related coping skills in a classroom setting to sailors. He is co-author on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide. He disseminates information on REBT through his website, REBTDoctor.com.