Memento Mori: The life-giving practice of remembering that you have to die

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Last year, we laid a dear friend to rest. He was 46 years old, with a best-friend-wife of 23 years, two blooming teenagers, family, friends, co-workers, and a community who loved him. He had worked his entire career in IT and had finally made it to the consulting side of professional life. Things were all going well, and then he died in his sleep.

The day before his funeral, I sat in the hotel lobby contemplating what the weekend held for us all. I typed a question into my Instagram post. “What are you doing with your love today?” I was spending my love caring for my friend and her two children, honoring their pain and my own, while we said goodbye. I was bearing witness to the bookend of this life that we all judge as ending far too soon. I was showing up to offer a song during the service, even though I wasn’t sure any sound would leave my mouth. 

Love calls us to show up in the paradox.

After all of the services were over, after the food filled our hollow insides, and the wine numbed our pain, we stood around the kitchen table, in our sock feet, laughing. We were searching through old photos, reliving as many moments with our friend as we could remember. I was struck by one photo from his 28th birthday. I stared at the life in his beautiful blue eyes and the joy in his smile, and I thought; “What if he had known that this moment was over his half-way mark? I wonder if he would have done anything differently?”.

The paradox experienced when someone close to your heart dies, is almost incomprehensible. On one end there is this enormous weight of grief. Sadness so thick that you find it hard to breathe, hard to move, hard to think. On the other end there is a deep and rich gratitude for having known and loved this beautiful soul. Love fuels the grief, and grief recalls the love. In between grief and love, we are forced to exist in a fog of confusion, of adjusting reality, of changing present tense to past, saying “He was”, when just a few days prior we said “He is”.

I may never understand how and why souls come in and out of our lives. I do wonder in times of loss, “Why was I ever given this person to love and why do I have to now live without them?” Eventually, I remember that I actually don’t think it’s very useful to question the reasons why these things happen. Maybe they just happen. Our attempts to understand and bring certainty to mystery are futile. Maybe this is where acceptance of the things we can’t control comes in. It’s part of the human condition, to know that we are alive and we are going to die, and we can’t do a damn thing about it.

This is the wisdom of Memento Mori: Remember Death.

Some people default to a particular religious view only when contemplating death, defining death as being only a passage into another life in which all meaning will be revealed. While I personally embrace the mystery of what happens with our souls or spirits when our bodies no longer work, I’m focusing this contemplation on connecting to the life opportunity I have right now. I have this breath, and I may have many more after this one, or I may not. I may have this whole day, this whole year, maybe even another decade or longer, on this earth, with all of these other souls in their human bodies. 

We have only one precious death to work toward in these human bodies. 

How are we honoring this incredible opportunity?

Understanding the relationship that one’s death has with one’s life is vital. Without embracing the deadline of physical death, we behave as if our lives can stretch on forever, in a scenario that never requires contemplation, clarity, urgency, and powerful choices. Without physical death, actual life risks never getting to the point.

All we have to spend is time and love. 

How you approach your own mortality impacts what you do with your time. How you approach the mortality of others impacts what you do with love. 

I don’t want to risk turning this into one of those “Three easy steps to making a meaningful life” posts. It’s not. It’s not easy at all. Are there practices that can help us hold this paradox of having a life? Yes. There are many. What works for some will not work for others. Find your own way. Practice often.

Here are just a few prompts for further contemplation on your own:

How often do you notice your breath? Each. Individual. Precious. One.

How often do you think about your eulogy? Is it in line with your to-do list?

How often do you look at your life’s timeline? What’s worth doing next?

My birthday is coming up next week. Hopefully I’ll make it there to start my 44th trip around the sun. (side note — Have you ever noticed that we only claim the years we’ve fully completed? I kind of like acknowledging the year I’m stepping into instead. Onward, either way.) With the time I have, with the love I give, I will renew my annual subscription to making meaning. 

Here’s to being present and noticing life in the tiniest of moments. Here’s to gathering enough courage to tackle work worth doing. Here’s to spending my love on change that will never be complete in my lifetime. Here’s to showing up in the paradox. Here’s to embracing the whole human condition anyway. 

Memento Mori my friends, Memento Mori. 

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Thank you John, for loving so many people so well. Your joy, humor, hospitality, and generosity will never leave this earth. It will be handed down over and over again. It was a pleasure to spend parts of this precious life being your friend.