‘Memento Mori’

Sunday Signal

My daughter’s friend recently lost his mother to cancer three weeks after her diagnosis. She was only 68.

It was painful to witness the grief that her friend faced in losing his mother so unexpectedly. Although it’s unimaginable for a parent to lose a child, it’s also heart-rending for a child, even an adult child, to lose a parent.

As my daughter considered that his mother was only two years older than I, she was overwhelmed by the thought of what this would have meant for her.

So much cut short—years, memories, experiences. She felt the urgency to hurry up, get married and have children so they would know their grandparents before we die.

I reassured my daughter that there is no need to rush life and scramble to get it all in before we kick the bucket. We can’t forecast life or outrun death. 

It occurred to me that an important but often neglected part of parenting is preparing our children to live without us. And preparing them also means preparing ourselves.

There is no good time to die, but the fear of dying before we accomplish what we want to or see our children grow up can be troubling for them and us. Although it’s futile to worry about how much time we have left, it’s difficult to embrace the transitory nature of life. 

What if reflecting on the transience of life and the inevitability of death were the secret to living fully? What if thinking about death made us happier and more contented?

Buddhist teachers advise their students to be mindful of life’s impermanence to help them realize its preciousness.

Citizens of the tiny country of Bhutan, touted as the happiest people on earth, adhere to the principle that to live a happy life, one must meditate on one’s own death five times a day. 

Crazy as it sounds, there is actually an app for that. You can now download We Croak, an app that notifies you five times a day at unpredictable times that you could die at any moment. Its goal is not to evoke apprehension but appreciation for the fleeting, bittersweet gift of life.

It’s a Memento Mori on your mobile. Memento Mori is a Latin phrase that means “remember death.” This ancient practice of reflection on mortality goes back to the time of Socrates. Greek Stoic philosophers said that death is what gives life meaning. A Memento Mori is an object that reminds us to live in gratitude. 

I’ve always said that I want to give my children roots and wings—a rooted, stable foundation and wings to soar courageously into life. That includes preparing them for the inevitable loss and reminding them that they will be fine.

It’s not a bad idea to walk with mortality as a daily companion. Not a morbid grim reaper but a gentle presence that reminds us to prioritize values and put life into perspective, that inspires us to cherish our relationships, savor the here and now, stop grasping and clinging to what we can’t control, and be truly in awe of the miracle of life.

Mary Petersen is a retired COC English instructor, 30-year SCV resident, and two-time breast cancer survivor.

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