Christelle McKillen writes about the time mortality came to the fore of her mind…
On mortality, Joan Didion aptly wrote, “when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. as we were. as we are no longer. as we will one day not be at all.”
Didion examined mortality and ageing in her 2011 memoir Blue Nights, with the literary imagery she was known for, she said the title represented “the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.”
When we reach our thirties, most of us will encounter an event or be adjacent to such an event that permanently alters how we think about life and specifically our mortality. It’s a little too young to call it a mid-life crisis but it’s enough to either spur you on or paralyse you in indecisiveness.
If your twenties is the ‘selfish decade’ the only acceptable period of life to think about yourself solely as an individual, your thirties is when things that happened to other people are now happening in your immediate circles or to you directly.
You begin to realise that every act is laced with significant repercussions; moving for work, moving closer to loved ones, changing career paths, ending a relationship, beginning a relationship, the list goes on. It’s as if suddenly someone put an alarm clock in your room, you’re vaguely aware that it’s there but not yet absolutely steadfast on obeying it.
There isn’t much in this life guaranteed to everyone regardless of wealth or status, our mortality is one of our few uniting attributes – yet many of us are oblivious to it until somehow it comes to bear a direct influence on us, like we never seen it coming.
After a decade of living abroad, I gradually did ease into my thirties, moving back to Ireland blissfully unaware that one week later a global pandemic would begin. Two years later when the world opened up again, mines closed – shut tight.
Research shows that stressful life events do fundamentally change us, in my case, for better or for worse I can’t tell yet. Chartered psychologist, coach and Irish Celtic shaman Leisha McGrath explains that such events are important because of ‘growth edge’ which pushes us firmly out of our comfort zones “where real change, (often) pain, great insights and development happens”.
The blanket term ‘stressful life event’ comes in various forms, the death of a loved one, severe illness, divorce, the loss of a job, the loss of a pet, the end of a friendship, an inability to conceive being among the most common.
By the time the thirties roll around many of us have experienced one or several of the above. In my case it was the second, and for a long time, the teetering cliff-edge possibility of the first. When the phone rang with the impenetrable “it would be good to come down [to the hospital] as soon as possible” it’s almost vaguely familiar, something from television, startling how fast it goes from abstract to reality.
The stressful life event came in the sudden prospect of losing a parent. Anyone who has been summoned to a hospital, and brought into a windowless family room can relate to the roundabout of ups and downs – something akin to being on that fairground ride that violently swirls you up and down at extreme speeds, all the while hoping that it will stop long enough to get off and feel stable ground underneath. Suddenly significant questions like “What is the meaning of life?”, “Why doesn’t anyone else care about the implications of life and death?” entered my mind and they stayed.
The ICU update would arrive between 2-4pm each day, the hours before that were still, lost hours that turned into weeks and months. Mortality was what I thought about in the morning and last thing at night – don’t get me wrong there were plenty of other thoughts in between, but the certainty of death was a constant and pervasive new arrival. It’s fair to say it rarely reared its head in the ‘selfish decade’ but it had now permanently moved in, settled with its own room in the recesses of my mind.
For several months, death lingered at the doorstep, it hadn’t crossed the final threshold into our home, not yet, I became fixated on wondering when it would. Months later, when the status of highly critical was downgraded, it took a long time to trust that it was slowly edging away. It was a chance to shrug off the grip of fear that took hold each day, but the thoughts of mortality persisted even when the worst of the danger had passed.
It’s a tricky tightrope to navigate, think about mortality too much and everything seems frivolous and pointless, too little and life can lack structure and meaning.We all want people to say ours was a ‘life well lived’ but the pursuit of that confounds most of us.
From her experience in transformational coaching, Leisha suggests that if we “understand the fleeting nature of life, how all time is now, then actually it allows us to really step up and enjoy our lives. Funnily enough the seemingly insignificant things are where the real joy in life can occur.”
When I suggested (perhaps ridiculously for a 30-something) that the past year had felt like growing up overnight, Leisha explained that as children we look to adults for normalcy and security, “our brains will make links and patterns to give us a feeling of control, but that of course is an illusion.” As we get older that illusion is challenged and at times shattered, I realised my fixation wasn’t necessarily on mortality but a complete lack of control. A carefree twenties where I seemed like the captain of my own life gave way to my thirties where I suddenly felt like a spectator watching things unravel.
I increasingly found myself only focusing on the ‘big picture’, and a nagging worry that I was running out of time – time for what I didn’t exactly know, only a feeling that I didn’t have enough. I’ve found that a healthy dose of perspective helps when I slip into an existential funk, when feeling overwhelmed Leisha advises clients to “understand that we are equivalent to flecks of sand spinning around on a blue ball in space, being “in story” too much can feel overpowering.”
Stressful life events while largely negative can also come with some silver linings in the form of learnings, as Leisha explains, it plays a role in selecting who we surround ourselves with, “our relationships strengthen, or wane” which explains why a fundamental event in life can act as a trigger to other big decisions or changes.
At the risk of sounding like a self-help cliché, I’m learning to lean into gratitude. The fact that the worst didn’t happen is something I’m incredibly thankful for, but it doesn’t mean I should be constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.
In her work as a shaman, Leisha approaches death without fear, she explained that a common motto of shamanism is “today is a good day to die” meaning that you are living in a way that is true and happy. My automatic thought was, don’t we always want more time? My lofty ambitions of reframing time as something we have right now remains a work in progress.
As Didion put it we may grieve ‘who we were’, the twenties version of me had all the time in the world, she’d tell me to remember that I do too