What Death Can Teach Us About Life

I was sitting at the dining room table of a man of almost 100 years of age. He was joyful and laughed as he told stories about his life.

Then he said, “I feel like I’m ready to go; I just hope it happens when I’m sleeping at night. That’s the way I want to go.” He was speaking about his death.

For weeks I have been reflecting on life with this man and seeing him wrestle with moments of regret, remembering great joys, feeling stuck in his now frail sick body that is slowly declining and just wanting to die peacefully. I am 70 years younger than this man, and every time I meet with him I am humbled by the years of his life, what he has done, reflections on how he would have done some things differently and how he now is able to express peace with his life and with God.

The last act a person takes in this life is to die. This isn’t to be morbid or fear-causing information. It is a truth which we should call to mind often throughout our lives. The Church calls us to this as well. The common Latin phrase memento mori means “remember your death.” Some saints reflected on this phrase often, and I know some friends who keep a picture of a skull or the phrase in their office to continually remind them. Our time in this life will end. What does that mean for how a person is to live?

When I was serving on campus as a missionary, the thought of death never grasped hold in reality very often. There were some tragic moments of young people from campus who passed away suddenly, but those were few and far between. In the day-to-day, I was speaking with young people who had a whole life and decades of planning and hoping ahead of them. Plans and hopes to enter their vocation, excel in the career they were studying for, serve the Church through their life and future family and grow their personal relationships with Jesus in the midst of our ever-changing world.

Now, as a hospice social worker, I don’t have many conversations about the future or decades to come. Mostly, I have conversations with people looking back on decades of life already lived, family relationships already formed and sometimes broken or strained, careers that have moved into retirement, and so on. There are a few people I have encountered with regrets and desires that things would have gone differently. Others are at peace and so grateful for their lives. Some are ready and thinking about eternal life with the Father, while others don’t have a faith or have fallen away from a faith life. In all of these experiences, one thing remains true – at their last act of life, to die, they will meet Christ and see the truth of what He had desired for their lives all along. And I pray for each of them to be wrapped in His mercy in that moment.

Being surrounded with the reality of death within my work has shown me a more urgent need to run after Christ every day with more fervor and expectant hope than ever before in my life. Perfection is still far off most days. I am often indifferent and lazy when Christ asks me to change habits of sin into habits of holiness or to sit with Him in prayer. However, the thought of my death and what I want to reflect on in my last days of life now motivates me to use my life to become fully alive. I will die someday, and I have no control over when; so why am I wasting days, weeks, months sitting in moments of indifference or despair? Why do I let the material things of this world preoccupy my time when I cannot take them with me at the end of this life?

There is a greater reality to what our time on earth is for. We are in our training ground and mission field. That means that every day I have the choice to strive for sainthood and walk with others to become saints as well. Nothing is more important than that, because at the hour of my death, I won’t be able to take anything with me. My grades, reputation, awards, possessions – all will fade away, and it will only be me and my heart shown bare before Christ.

We cannot always rely on our plans and those temptations to hold off on making changes for Christ for when “I’m older” or “when I’m ready” or “after I have (insert desire here) figured out.” Our life as humans is fragile; we could become sick with little notice or develop a disability which renders our intellect unable to consciously make those changes. So much of people’s thinking teaches us to put everything we have into our life here on earth, but that cannot be the most important part of our existence when it only lasts 20, 40, 60, or 100 years before we experience death. Eternity lasts forever, and who you become in this life determines who you are and how you’ll exist for the rest of eternity.

At the end of your life, how do you want to experience death, and who do you want to be?

Then, in the present, ask yourself, “How, today, can I become a little more the person I want to be when I will die and meet Christ?” And you will see Jesus take care of you and experience what He desires for you in eternal life even here and now as we await our moment of death – which is really our first day of welcome into His Heavenly Kingdom.

Colleen Dills
Colleen served on staff with FOCUS from 2015-2019 where she served at Winona State University, Michigan Technological University, and Grand Valley State University. After her time on staff, Colleen started graduate school online at Sacred Heart University for her Master of Social Work Degree. She looks forward to serving her future clients and continuing to integrate her Catholic faith into the mental health field.

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