For a long time, I have been preparing to die. Buying your own plot in a cemetery and burying your 33-year-old husband on one side – after they asked you at the cemetery office, “Did he sleep on the right side or the left side?” People often do it this way. – go do this to you.
Having to navigate the years following my husband’s sudden and disorderly death made me feel like it was urgent to prepare my own life in case something suddenly happened to me – especially since I was now the sole parent of our one-year-old. -old girl, who I knew would have no memory of her father.
First, there were what I called “memorial projects,” and they were of the utmost importance in those early days of loss. They involved collecting letters from his friends about him and putting them in a scrapbook for her to read one day and printing out a blog he kept about her after she was born so she could know a bit his voice and how he spoke. about her: “Isn’t she great?”
But after the safety of the cocoon of grief, of “the worst has already happened,” was over, a new anxiety about something so sudden happening to me set in. The thought of leaving my daughter an orphan caused the first panic attacks I have ever experienced in my life. If I died too, who would tell him my stories, or let her know how I talked about her, or remind her of memories we shared once childhood amnesia stole them from her?
So there were more to-do lists for me – getting life insurance, making a will, choosing guardians wisely – all important things. Exercise, take my vitamins, never miss a mammogram. And every year I’d write her a long letter about all the special things we did that year, but I’d also write about simpler things, like the make-believe games she loved back when I was writing and the particular language we were using at that time. It was the kind of words and inside jokes that would be forgotten in a year or so if not recorded.
While everyone was KonMari’ing at home, I was reading “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”. I minimized and labeled so that in an emergency people could step in and find information that I, even as a wife, had to seek out when my husband died.
As a quote writer and collector, I even started marking an “f” for “funeral” next to quotes I read and wanted at my own memorial. Burying your spouse on the left side (he slept on the left side of our bed) is the closest thing to attending your own funeral as it’s also your family and friends present, your photos on display, your memories shared.
Turns out, it takes a lot of time and energy to practically prepare for your death. For me, it took 11 years. My daughter officially became a teenager around this time. She asks me one day about my dreams for the future because she always tries to restrict her own vision. “I’ll be a classical pianist, have an Etsy shop with my art, and write novels for young teens,” she says. “I will live on a farm with an art studio in the barn,” she continues. It is then that I realize that I have thought a lot and prepared the “What if I’m not there?” » and very little in the « What if I am?
“It turns out it takes a lot of time and energy to practically prepare for your death.”
I’m somehow amazed after all these years of surviving to find out that I’m 45 (is that past middle age?) and in four years she’ll be in college.
Maybe in some ways it was easier to plan my death than my life. Funeral homes are clean and sterile. The delivery rooms are messy. Preparation for death is limited in its tasks. Life opens in all directions. Death, ultimately, is certain. Facing an uncertain future where catastrophic things can happen, hearts can break and life can change in an instant takes courage.
So, last New Year’s Eve, I considered a vision board, but I wasn’t sure if it was up to the task. In the end, it wasn’t the New Year with its champagne, confetti and resolutions, but the darker season of Lent that surprisingly showed me the way forward.
On Ash Wednesday, the priest puts ashes on our foreheads and says: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return”. The Latin phrase “memento mori” – “remember that you must die” – is commonly heard in the first week of Lent.
It is said that ancient Roman generals had a servant nearby who whispered, “Memento mori”, to keep them humble after victories. Today, life coaches often recommend writing your own eulogy in order to prioritize life goals. There has even been a trend in some Asian countries to spend time in a coffin as a means of getting a new lease of life. I had the real thing: a headstone waiting for my name to be engraved on the right side. It’s become wisdom for me all these years to remember that – memento mori – to know how close I was to death at all times. Instead of giving me motivation, it was quite debilitating.
What I learned this year during Lent is that memento mori comes with a corresponding and balanced Latin phrase: “memento vivere” – “remember that you must live”.
Memento mori served me well immediately after my husband died. It helped me do important things like my will and choosing guardians for my daughter. But I needed to let go. Yes, loss helps us measure the value of things, but maybe life has no meaning only because it’s inherently ephemeral, but because it’s beautiful to be alive.
“We sanctify life, not death,” Holocaust survivor and professor Elie Wiesel wrote in a memoir of his death during emergency heart surgery. He continued, “Death is not supposed to guide us; it is life that will show us the way.
“Yes, loss helps us measure the value of things, but perhaps life has meaning not just because it’s inherently fleeting, but because it’s beautiful to be alive.”
Letting life guide me means giving up my diligent filing for a future I’m not in, and being here now. That means I might forget some phrases I laughed at with my daughter a year ago, and that’s okay. Life is fleeting and cannot be mastered by words. This year, I didn’t get my annual letter, but my daughter and I enjoy an outing together every Saturday, and every night at dinner she “debriefs” on the latest college drama – which happened. spent at lunch, who broke up with whom, the latest weird sub. Sometimes we laugh so hard we cry.
Someone once told me that planning is a form of hope, so maybe living means making plans despite how vulnerable those plans are in the end. To quote “The Shawshank Redemption”, one of my late husband’s favorite movies, “Busy living or busy dying.”
When you’ve been caught off guard once, it’s scary to imagine the future. But I began to humbly imagine that I could have a whole new chapter in a new city, fall in love again, and maybe one day in years I could even hold my grandson.
Writer Walker Percy offers a reflective exercise where he suggests that simply realizing that you have the very real possibility of do not to be here, but Choose being here can set you free. “Why not live instead of die? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the cell door is ajar and the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.”
At the other end of the 40 days of Lent, Easter awaits. I still don’t have an answer for my daughter on exactly what I want to do for years to come, but I’m starting to think about it for the first time. I start making plans. I remember living. Memento vivere. The sun is shining.
Julia Cho is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among others. She writes on the topics of loss, parenthood and technology. She is currently working on a dissertation. Follow her on Twitter at @studiesinhope and on Instagram at @studiesinhope.juliacho.
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