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Death as a Guide Towards Good Living

By Harriet Cabelly April 25, 2023 Lifestyle

“I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning…to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.”

There is more to this poem, The Dash, but I will stop here.

How Are You Living Your Dash?

Does knowing there’s an end point guide you towards living well? As a society, we don’t talk much about death. Yet if we did, perhaps we’d live better. Many feel it is morbid to think about let alone talk about. I have a friend who upon her birthday always says, “One year closer to death.” We laugh. The brazenness of the statement is almost funny as it is so stark and true.

When my middle daughter went through a medical crisis, in a drug-induced coma and hooked up to a ventilator and many life-saving tubes for four months, I witnessed the fragility of life and came to fully comprehend how all of our lives hang by the thinnest of threads; and that the end will be upon us all at some point.

With every beep and bleep of machines, I hoped and prayed hers wasn’t at its end at the age of 19. Miraculously, she lived and fully recovered, and I went on to live with a greater appreciation and zest for life and a great sense of urgency in living life to its fullest, opening up to possibilities and opportunities. The world became my oyster.

Dr. Irwin Yalom, a renowned existential psychiatrist, quoted a patient in one of his books: “What a pity it is that I had to wait till now, till my body was riddled with cancer, to learn how to live.”

Do we really need to wait until that near catastrophe happens to begin to really live? The fully conscious acknowledgement of the finiteness of our lives could be the brightest light in illuminating our path towards living that rich life.

The Awareness of Death Can Help Us Savor Our Lives

Death can sit upon our shoulder as a compass, accompanying us on our journey, always pointing us towards living with fervor, intention, vivre and full engagement.

Otto Rank, an Austrian psychoanalyst said this very powerful statement, “Some refuse the loan of life to avoid the debt of death.”

We’re all on loan here so why wait, put off, procrastinate. Why sit back; this is it, our one chance at life. Death is happening anyway so why take the passive route and simply hang on till the end. Might as well make the journey as meaningful and enjoyable as possible.

We all have regrets and those can be very painful. We obviously can’t go back and redo them, but we can go on with new possibilities, new growth.

Make a New Beginning

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”

—Maria Robinson

Though the impermanence of life can be anxiety-provoking and sometimes melancholy, let’s open up the conversation around the reality of our death and live better.

And by the way, there are death cafes all over that meet once-a-month. Sounds strange? Maybe not. The conversations can be very enlivening.

“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”

— Norman Cousins

Let’s Have a Conversation:

How do you view death? Is it something you talk / think about? Does the awareness of it make you live differently?

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That old saying you cant avoid death and taxes springs to mind.
Having worked in Elderly services for 27 years l am fully aware of what can lie around the corner.l am in my 64th year now and retired.
I made a concious effort to live each day and enjoy it whatever l was up too. l always looked forward and never backwards and l live in the moment.l except every opportunity that comes my way.
I am grateful for my husband, family and friends and while l am healthy and able l will enjoy my life each and every day.
Live is not a rehearsal you get one crack at it.

Harriet Cabelly

Hi Lisa,
Love that – life is not a dress rehearsal. We need to show up and learn from all our experiences; and of course bring in loads of joy. We know how life dishes out the tough stuff of course; it’s all a rich palette of living.


Witnessing firsthand the lifestyle stresses created by decisions made long before by my parents, their demise and individual transitions, was probably the first time I seriously confronted the reality of death.

And now, it’s often in the back of my mind since I’ve retired. Every day, I see my husband who’s almost 80 – and has already had two minor strokes – cope with the issues of advancing age. And I wonder how long we still have to be together.

Does my awareness of death make me live life differently? Definitely!!
Based on our perspective of my parents’ experiences, when I retired three years ago, we decided to move abroad to a country that offered a Lifestyle better suited to our needs and desires.And we’re loving it!

Every day, I give thanks for our blessings.We focus on enjoying and savoring the little pleasures the day brings … the simple joy of being in each other’s company, lovely conversations, silly jokes, coffee together, pursuing our separate interests or simply… just being. It’s not always easy to stay positive, but we try to make it a commitment because doing otherwise serves no purpose.


I’m mere days away from 60, and have a 17 year old son. The saying “one year closer to death”?? I’ve been saying a variation of theater for the past year “one day closer to death”. I love my life – I’m very fortunate to have been blessed with fabulous experiences and adventures, a loving life partner, and loving family. Yet, having a son when older really brings into focus how far from birth, and close to death, I am. I find myself counting “When Maximilian is 20, I’ll be 62… when he’s 32, I’ll be 74…” Yikes! I can remember turning 35, and my sister declaring “You’re middle-aged!”….. (I was in shock) 4 years ago, after years of decline, I watched my mother pass away – that was really my ‘death’ wake up call.
Do I live differently? I don’t know – It’s hard to tell… I live…laugh, love, explore, experience. Really the only thing I know I do differently is get ready for big travel… other countries I’ve never been to and want to experience. We were ready to begin these explorations when Covid-19 emerged (literally a few weeks before we were to leave). We have waited for everything to open up, and after our upcoming move across country, we will be off on our explorations!


I also had my son at 42, my only. I’ll be 68 this year and he, 26. It’s been wonderful but I also think more about death, in terms of my son though. As an only child who will he turn to? Getting my things in order so it’s not such a burden on him. We older moms do have our own distinct set of challenges and worries.


Amen to both of you. All you both say hit home. I had my daughter at 40 and didn’t think too much of it as my mother had me at 42. And now at almost 66, I am fortunate to have 2 grandchildren. Had I thought of that way back when, I may have not been so nonchalant about having a child later in life. I’m glad my daughter didn’t follow suit and wait to have children. Meanwhile, feeling blessed to see them almost daily and have more reason to take better care of myself. Death must wait !


love this article. there is a quote in ‘Man of La Mancha’ — he’d been in war and seen men die; they all asked ‘why???’ – not asking why they were dying, but why they had ever lived — i think death gets a bad rap in our society. we all know it’s coming, but people get so busy trying to stave off the inevitable with Botox and bionic parts, they seem to forget they’re using the time meant for LIFE. Thank you.

Last edited 1 year ago by Beth

The Author

Harriet Cabelly is a clinical social worker and positive psychology coach. She is passionate about helping people cope and grow through their critical life-changing circumstances, guiding them towards rebuilding their lives with renewed meaning and purpose. Visit her website, and sign up to get free chapters from her book, Living Well Despite Adversity.

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