Friend of death, placing hand on skull

Make a Friend of Death

Recognizing mortality gives your life impetus unlike anything else. An awareness of your mortality urges you to use your time constructively and to keep your priorities in order.

From the perspective of your deathbed, things that are troubling you now might seem trivial and non-problematical. Death is a fact of life; make death a friend. The Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama, started on his path to understanding and enlightenment when he first saw a dead body. It plunged him into deep reflection on the meaning of life.

Love the life you have; live sensuously and intensely. With death as your friend, you might live more consciously, caring for your health and well-being, honoring your body as the only one you’ve got. You might live more playfully, taking more risks and not taking yourself so seriously, playing life as a game!

It is paradoxical that befriending death can increase your joy in life. You might live with more ecological awareness, realizing that your life and health, and that of your children, depends upon the life and health of this planetary body, Earth.

When you think about it, you are always “dying” in small ways every day, because you are always in the process of change. Change means saying good-bye to something in order to say hello to something else. Each good-bye is a little death. Baby teeth fall out, adult teeth move in. Skin cells die and are sloughed off as new skin replaces it. A new job means death to the previous one. Growing means death of old belief patterns.

Every moment you are being born to something new, as something old dies. Nothing lasts forever. As you become more aware of the death and rebirth in each moment, you reevaluate priorities. Treasure the transformative quality and possibility of each death and each birth. Celebrate the process of life instead of wasting valuable energy resisting change.

In some North American tribes, young men and women learn a death chant early in life. The chant is a particular repetition of words that reminds them of their destiny and helps them prepare for it throughout their lives. Whenever they are in danger, or ill, or frightened, they recall the death chant. It becomes a source of reassurance, something that builds personal strength.

There is an old story that Plato, on his deathbed, was asked by a friend if he would summarize his great life’s work, the Dialogues, in one statement. Plato, coming out of a reverie, looked at his friend and said, “Practice dying.”

– Stanley Keleman,

Living Your Dying

Where to Begin

Look around you. Imagine that this is going to be the last day of your life. Don’t just skim over the thought, let it sink in, as if you were an actor who had to face death in an important part.

Think about how you would like to reorient your attitudes and your tasks to accommodate what you know is going to happen. Would you work differently? Would you relate to people differently? How do your big problems look from this perspective? Is there a person you want to contact to make peace with? Is there a letter that needs to be written? Have you made a will? Well, what are you waiting for? Do one thing to support your new view of your life.

Make a list of the things you fear about death. It might include the possibility of pain, being a burden to others, the hardship and sorrow that your death will be to your family, a sense of incompleteness, the feeling that you didn’t do everything you intended to do with your life, or a sense of meaninglessness or that you never found your purpose.

Now ask yourself: How do these fears reflect upon the ways in which I live, or fail to live, my life now? What do my fears of death tell me about my real fears of life?

This is a valuable exercise to do with family members or friends. Talking about death allows people to share some of their deepest feelings. It is healthier to face your fears rather than to spend your precious life trying to hide from them.

Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.

The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at ( The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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Written by John W Travis MD MPH

Explore Wellness in 2021