Call me Dr. Death.
At least, my students do.
Most people don’t like to talk about death. They don’t even want to think about it.
Financial advisors, of course, are often no stranger to mortality and the aversion to thinking about it. Many advisors help their clients put together estate plans and investments to ensure the clients’ financial priorities are honored when they’re alive and after they pass. But have you truly thought about your own mortality or discussed the non-financial aspects of mortality with clients?
Learning about death, dying, grief, and grieving has changed my life. In fact, I think about death all of the time. I relate to Maude’s love of going to funerals in the old classic movie “Harold and Maude.” There is so much to be learned about someone, and about life, by what others share in remembrance. I plan and revise my own funeral the way other people plan weddings or parties.
The truth is, death doesn’t have to be depressing or ghoulish. Quite the opposite. The way that I think about death has made me a better friend and, I think, a better person. Embracing death, I’d argue, can help people come alive.
If we are able to envision how we want to be remembered, then we don’t have to wait to start living our lives that way. And the earlier we understand this concept, the better.
The Latin phrase memento mori means “remember your death.” Thinking intentionally about death we will give us a greater appreciation for the present and the ability to focus more fully on the future.
In my latest book, “Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering,” I explore how we can leave the legacy we desire, one “breadcrumb” at a time. When we are aware of the trail of crumbs behind us, we can be more intentional with everything we say and do. This is our path toward becoming a good person, and this involves embracing the fact that we will die.
Near Death Experiences
In 2009, ABC News shared a story about the impact of near-death experiences (NDEs). Management consultant Grant Thornton surveyed 250 CEOs of companies with revenue of $50 million or more. “Twenty-two percent said they have had an experience when they believed they would die and, of those, 61% said it changed their long-term perspective on life or career. Forty-one percent said it made them more compassionate leaders; 16% said it made them more ambitious; 14% said it made them less ambitious.” We live differently when we gain the awareness that life can end at any moment.
In workshops and courses, I often share the commencement speech Steve Jobs delivered in 2005 at Stanford University. This was a year after a tumor was discovered on his pancreas and he feared he had just months to live. Jobs told the Stanford graduates: “Death is very likely the single-best invention of life. It is life’s change agent.”
Being More Open About Death Before You Have To
There is a broader movement to change the conversation around death. Two organizations are advocating to make death a normal conversation. End in Mind empowers people to “proactively prepare for their death, so they are inspired to live a more fearless, intentional life today.” Similarly, The Conversation Project helps people “share their wishes for care through the end of life.” According to its co-founder and director, Ellen Goodman, the goal is to “have a conversation on values — what matters to you, not what’s the matter with you.”
Rachael Freed of Life Legacies echoes the importance of speaking openly about death. She advises doing so through legacy letters and ethical wills. The practice of writing legacy letters becomes even more important as families disperse across the country, and even the world. When we are physically separated, it becomes more difficult to pass on what matters most to us.
An ethical will is a similar concept. It takes the form of a “last letter home” that a member of the military might write in case they don’t make it back home. An ethical will gives you one final chance to share yourself with your family. It can contain your wishes, thoughts, feelings, memories, life lessons— anything that you hold dear.
Embrace Your Mortality
You can start small. Think, for instance, about the picture of your life. What do you think you leave behind when you leave jobs, relationships, political affiliations, etc.? Are you happy with what you see? If you wish things were different, what can you do to change them? What small steps can you take to make your own future death less spooky and more legacy focused?
As the title of this article proclaims, death isn’t spooky. It’s an unavoidable part of life. We need to know that someday, perhaps sooner rather than later, we’re going to die, and we have to be OK with that. When we’re aware of our impending death without fearing it, we become paradoxically freer to live. Then we can live in the ways we want to be remembered.
Jann E. Freed, Ph.D., is a leadership development coach and speaker, and the author of “Breadcrumb Legacy: How Great Leaders Live a Life Worth Remembering” (Routledge). You can learn more about Jann here at and more about Breadcrumb Legacy here.