By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.
This is Episode 92 and this week I’m talking about death and mortality.
NOTE: This week is a big topic because I’m talking about death and making your peace with your own mortality — I know this might be confronting for some of you but stick with me because this is one of the most important topics ever in terms of better mental health!
In this episode I’ll cover what death is, why understanding and accepting death and your own mortality is fundamental for good mental health, and how to make your peace with the idea of death. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.
Watch Episode 30 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m talking about how to deal with not feeling OK in terms of your mental and/or emotional health.
Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:
This podcast episode was originally released on 15 August, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 92, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week I’m talking about death, and I want to say right up-front that I know this one might be a bit confronting for some of you, but I’m asking you to trust me and stick with it because it’s a pretty major subject to discuss when it comes to better mental health. Death has become an almost-taboo topic that doesn’t get spoken about very often (especially in Western countries like Australia) and I think that has led us down a path where it’s like this great big mystery that looms over each of us, and since we’re not actually talking about it we’re not processing the idea of it fully — which can have a really detrimental effect on your mental health and wellbeing. Now just to clarify before I continue, the topic today is about death in terms of understanding and accepting your own mortality (and why doing that actually serves to improve your mental health) — if you are dealing with the loss of a loved one, check out Episode 26 for specific advice on managing grief.
So today’s discussion is going to be a big one and I want to challenge you to listen with an open heart and an open mind in terms of being willing to confront a topic that is very uncomfortable for so many people. If you’re a regular listener then hopefully you’ll know that I am quite direct but I also do that with kindness, and so my commitment to you today is that I’m going to guide you through this topic in a caring and supportive way, even if it is an uncomfortable subject to discuss for many people.
Before I begin with today’s content, two quick things to cover. First, have you signed up to my free weekly newsletter? Every Thursday I send out a round-up of a few mental health things I’ve found interesting during the week, and it’s designed to be read in just two or three minutes at most. Subscribe at the Let’s Talk About Mental Health website by heading to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe or just find it on the front page of the website.
And secondly, have you started watching my weekly show Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV over on YouTube yet? Because every Wednesday I’m releasing a brand new video covering content that is totally different to this podcast, and so if you’re not watching then you’re missing out on more practical advice for better mental health! Find the latest video linked in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on, or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au and you’ll find it on the front page. Oh, and if you’re interested I’ve also posted a couple of vlogs over on my other YouTube channel all about being a content creator, living in the countryside and having a serious addiction to coffee — find it at jeremygodwin.com.au (the link is also in the episode description).
So, with all that covered, on with this week’s episode about death…
I hate to break it to you, but one day you are going to die. No amount of trying to fight that fact is ever going to change the reality that every single one of us is mortal and so that means we will not live forever. Many have tried to cheat death over the years but have inevitably failed; some have even gone so far as to have their heads frozen in the hope of being reanimated someday — I’m looking at you, Walt Disney! — but thankfully we haven’t reached a point of re-headed zombies wandering around amongst us, just yet.
Now I often share a quote of some sort or the lyric from a song as a means of starting these episodes, and today I’m going to do something slightly different in the sense of sharing a piece from an article about death anxiety published by the Australian Psychological Society in 2018. And I’m doing that as a means of explaining what my focus is with this episode (because I promise you, it’s not just going to be full of tasteless jokes about frozen heads). The quote is:
“For as long as humans have been recording their history, death anxiety has been a pervasive theme. […] Themes of mortality and the dread of death have appeared throughout art, literature, myth, ritual and philosophy across the ages. William James famously referred to our knowledge of our own mortality as “the worm at the core” of human existence, and, more recently, Yalom (2008) proposed that death anxiety may underlie much of human distress, casting a shadow over our daily life.”(Source: https://www.psychology.org.au/for-members/publications/inpsych/2018/December-Issue-6/Death-anxiety-The-worm-at-the-core-of-mental-heal)
And you’ll find the link for that article in the transcript.
So I’m sharing that piece up-front because feeling anxious about the notion of death is almost part of the human condition at this point, and it’s not as though we here in 2021 are any different from our ancestors two, three, four thousand years ago and more — we’re all, in some way, shape or form, trying to get our heads around the fact that someday we will die (and spoiler alert: all of those ancient people who were anxious about death did die eventually, so… you know — it is what it is). I mean let’s be real here: the reason why we’re all terrified of death to some degree is that we have no clue what to expect when we eventually go bye-bye. Since the dawn of time, religions and spiritual beliefs have sprung up in every corner of the world as a means of trying to explain the two greatest mysteries of life: why are we here, and what happens afterwards. And there are about as many answers to those two questions as there are grains of sand on this planet.
So why don’t I take a moment to go through some definitions before I go any further, and let’s talk about…
What is death?
And this is where you’ve got to love the way the dictionary defines things sometimes, because the Oxford Dictionary labels it as “the action or fact of dying” and “the state of being dead” — which is probably about as literal as you can get! So, look, as problematic as it is when we define things with the word it’s supposed to be defining, that kind-of gives you a clue that the concept of death is considered to be so universal that we’re all just expected to know what it is. Go a bit further into the definitions and it’s listed as “the end of life” — which is great, but what does that mean? And therein lies the problem: nobody knows.
You might have been raised with a set of philosophical or spiritual beliefs that explain what is supposed to happen after death, or perhaps you’ve come to build your own beliefs over the course of your life, but the uncomfortable truth is that nobody actually knows so we’re all just guessing. I’m well aware that statement is going to be a bit triggering for some of you, especially if you have deeply-held religious beliefs, and if that’s the case then I refer you to last week’s podcast, Episode 91, which, in a happy coincidence, was all about dealing with triggers (and it really was a coincidence, but a lucky one because now I have something to suggest people refer to if they come for me!).
Look, I wish I didn’t have to be the one to sit here and say this stuff but since we’re all avoiding the topic, somebody has to and apparently it’s me! Because the greatest truth of life is that it is finite — it is limited in its duration and it has a beginning, a middle and an end. All things do. Trees that have stood for hundreds, even thousands, of years will eventually be nothing more than dust. Even our Sun, the thing that makes life on this planet possible — well that and water… oh, and Netflix — even the Sun will burn out and die, although it’s still got another 5 billion years or so to go so, you know, don’t panic. Nothing lasts forever, and that is a both a fundamental truth of life and one of the greatest opportunities that we each have to make the most out of the time that we do have.
Which leads me to the next part of today’s discussion…
Why understanding and accepting death is fundamental for good mental health
And it matters because the opposite is fear, and fear serves no purpose other than to suck the joy out of life. I talked about fear back in Episode 10 of the podcast and I made this comment:
“…our fears and insecurities can make us feel anxious or depressed, and when we give into our fears it can create a downward spiral for our overall health.”Jeremy Godwin (Source: https://letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/2019/12/09/lets-talk-about-fear/)
And so the thing here is that fear of death, or avoidance of the subject entirely, is like the ultimate fear: it’s like playing a video game and trying to defeat the final boss, although in this case your game is eventually going to come to an end — no matter how hard you fight.
The thing about the anxiety we feel about the idea of death is that death is completely out of our control; no amount of effort on our part will change our inbuilt mortality. And that terrifies the shit out of most people — either that, or it sends them into total denial.
Denial and resistance go hand in hand, and I talked about resistance at length back in Episode 65, where I highlighted that what we resist persists, in the sense that the things we avoid or even fight against have a way of coming up time and time again until we finally make our peace with it and come to a place of acceptance. I mean… you’re going to die, I’m going to die, so what are we resisting the truth for? Because the resistance doesn’t change the outcome, and you’re inevitably going to be reminded of it each time you lose a loved one anyway, so why not make your peace with it so that you can live a life that is happier and more free? Because that’s what happens when you reach a place of understanding and acceptance with anything that is beyond your control: you find freedom. That doesn’t mean the fear isn’t still there, but it means that you learn to integrate it into your life because all of life is about balance: good and bad, day and night, light and dark, life and death.
But, hey, don’t just take my word for it in terms of the positive effects of learning to make your peace with death — in a recent article published by Scientific American (and I quote):
“Recent research shows that… when given the opportunity to reflect more deeply and personally about their mortality over a sustained period of time, people tend to show a shift toward growth-oriented values — self-acceptance, intimacy, and community feeling — and away from extrinsic, status-oriented values such as money, image, and popularity.”(Source: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/embracing-the-ultimate-unknown/)
And you’ll find the link for that in the transcript. So, in general, understanding death and learning how to embrace it as a natural part of life holds the key to greater personal growth and self acceptance, which in turn has a positive flow-on effect into all areas of your life.
So how do you do that? How do you come to grips with your own mortality? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode and let’s talk about…
How to make your peace with the idea of death
And I’m going to do something a bit out of the ordinary here and start this section off with another quote, which might seem random but bear with me because there’s a clear point, I promise! As part of researching this episode I came across a link to a BBC Travel article about the attitudes towards death in Bhutan, a small mainly-Buddhist nation in the Eastern Himalayas where death is openly discussed and accepted in society and individuals are encouraged to contemplate death several times a day. A couple of sentences really jumped out at me and I’m going to share them here:
“[The Bhutanese] know that death is a part of life, whether we like it or not, and ignoring this essential truth comes with a heavy psychological cost. […] In the West [we] flee from [negative] emotions… [we] want to fix it if we’re sad [because we] fear sadness. It’s something to get over, [to] medicate. In Bhutan there’s an acceptance. It’s a part of life.”(Source: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20150408-bhutans-dark-secret-to-happiness)
You’ll find the link for that article in the transcript, and it makes a good quick read about how one specific culture approaches the topic of death.
And so I started the how-to section with that because the biggest point I want to make is acknowledge that death is a natural part of life — because it is. I said earlier that what you resist persists, and the thing about resisting the reality when it comes to death is that fear and anxiety relating to it has a way of sticking with you and even potentially becoming worse until it’s either dealt with or you die. And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather live my life with a sense of calm and peace of mind instead of constantly being afraid of something that’s going to happen anyway.
Next, put time and your life into context — time is a weird construct that we human beings came up with to try and explain life, and yet we have the past that no longer exists and the future that doesn’t exist yet, and so therefore the only moment that ever actually exists is the one that you’re in right now; although now I’ve said that, that moment has gone and it’s been replaced by a new one, and so has that one and… oh well, you get my point. I mean, I know this is some quantum mechanics type of stuff so I hope your head hasn’t exploded, but when you think about it it makes perfect sense that we need to choose to constantly bring our focus back to the present moment since this is the only one that we have for certain. When you put that into context of the bigger picture, it can help to ground you in the here and now which, in turn, serves to encourage you to make the most out of life in the present moment. For more on this topic, check out Episode 83 of the podcast which was all about being present.
Next, choose to seize the day — or carpe diem as the old Latin saying goes. This is about taking that last point and super-sizing it. The thing about getting your head around your own mortality and accepting it is that it actually helps you to focus more on the present and let go of worry about the future; since all we have for certain is this moment, why not choose to make the most of it? And since all we have for certain is this moment, why not choose to reframe the past as something that cannot be changed, only learned from, and the future as something that is both unknown and unknowable, and so rather than worrying about either do the work here in the present moment to set yourself up for the best possible tomorrow. Read the books, do the courses, connect with people you care about, make healthy decisions for your mind, body and spirit, walk away from drama and toxic situations (and people), let go of fear and worry and all that stuff that robs you of your happiness, and instead make the most of this moment, right now. Close your eyes and think about what would make today the greatest day ever, regardless of what commitments you have (because we’ve all got to do what we’ve got to do!) and choose to do something positive for yourself today. If that means that once you finish this podcast, maybe you choose to spend just five minutes knocking a couple of outstanding tasks off your to-do list so you give yourself some breathing space later, or you choose to read an article that gives you some positive ideas to try out, or whatever… make the most of this moment, no matter how small or mundane that may be. When you live more consciously in the present, it helps you to make the most out of life regardless of your current circumstances. Which leads me to…
Start your day with gratitude — and it’s no real surprise that I said that, since I do most episodes (plus I talked about gratitude at length back in Episode 46) and I do so because it helps you to create a positive mindset that is very much focused on the present. In the words of the Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, “When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love…” You may also find Episode 90, all about positivity, to be helpful as well.
Next, confront any fears you might have and work through them — fear left unaddressed tends to fester and multiply, and the only place that festering is good is in the Addams Family (and yes I’m aware I’ve made that joke in a previous episode and I don’t care). So, identify your fears, confront them, process them and let them go — doing so helps to free your mind and gives you space to focus more on the positive. I talked about fear in Episode 10 and letting go back in Episode 32, so I encourage you to check those out for more on the topics.
So, for my next point, I want to make a broad point which is almost a bit of social commentary but one that is fairly timely; understand that fear of death makes people do, say and think some crazy stuff — OK, so you may be wondering what the hell I’m talking about so let me explain. First, I’ve said in past episodes that we need to bear in mind that mental health is about both our internal world (in other words, our thoughts and feelings) as well as our external world (such as our relationships and the world immediately around us, as well as society as a whole). We are a product of both our internal and our external worlds, because it’s impossible not to be affected by either, and so knowing that can make us a bit more aware of how external events and other people’s actions might affect us even if we don’t realise it. Let me briefly quote from an article in Time magazine to explain what I mean:
“Death is typically on the fringes of our awareness… [when] reminded of their mortality, people cling to their worldviews more and react more warmly to people and ideas that comfort them.”(Source: https://time.com/5159892/how-to-become-less-afraid-of-death/)
And the link for that is in the transcript [see above]. Why am I sharing this quote? Because it’s a timely reminder when you look at the amount of nonsense going on in the world at the moment, which I know is taking a toll on many of you. Want to know why so many people are behaving like lunatics during this pandemic? That’s why. Being reminded of death and mortality makes some people double-down on their beliefs and go so far in the opposite direction of reality that it makes everyone else just stand there and shake their heads in disbelief. So here’s my point: remember that a little understanding towards others (and, of course, towards yourself!) will go a long way. You don’t have to engage with people that are displaying extreme reactions in order to simply understand that their response is grounded in deep-seated fear. Keep your distance, especially if you find that kind of behaviour triggering, and leave them to sort their own shit out.
And so then my final point (before I wrap up) is get support — which is pretty much the last point I give every week, so… surprise! Do you know why I say it so often? Because it makes a monumental difference. When we’re just dealing with uncomfortable stuff in our heads we have a tendency to blow it out of proportion and make things seem way worse than they actually are, which is why talking to a counsellor or therapist can have an enormously positive impact on your wellbeing because you have an opportunity to share your deepest, darkest fears in a safe and non-judgemental environment in order to work through them in a more rational and objective way… which is, in my opinion, the single most effective thing you can ever do to improve your mental health and wellbeing.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to death and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: When you have feelings towards death that are fearful, it takes away from your ability to make the most of the moments that you do have. Death is not to be feared, but rather understood and even embraced as a constant presence; much of the progress we have made as a human race has been due to the awareness of our own mortality pushing us forward and driving us to find meaning in our lives. Fear is wasted energy when it comes to death, since it is inevitable for all of us; you might fear the storm, but that doesn’t stop it from coming. Instead of fear, choose to approach the subject with wonder and curiosity, and choose to let it be a driving force to help you make the most out of life every single day.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Albert Schweitzer, and it is:
“When we are familiar with death, we accept each week, each day, as a gift. Only if we are able thus to accept life — bit by bit — does it become precious.”Albert Schweitzer
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about joy. I thought it might be best to follow this week’s heavy topic with a lighter and happier one… and what could be lighter than talking about joy?! Joy is one of the loveliest of all human emotions in terms of how good it makes us feel about ourselves and about life in general, and so I’m going to explore how that influences your mental health and wellbeing and how to get more joy into your life! So next time I’ll be talking about what joy is, why joy matters and how to embrace joy for the sake of your mental health.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 22nd of August. And on Wednesday, catch the latest episode Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube or IGTV.
You’ll find all podcast episodes and videos at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au along with free transcripts, and if you join my mailing list you’ll have the transcript plus my weekly newsletter full of simple ideas for better mental health land in your inbox every Thursday, completely free. You’ll also find the link in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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