David Malham on dying: “Let’s not save our affection”

Yesterday there was an essay on the New York Times opinion page by a retired grief therapist, David Malham, who has been diagnosed with A.L.S. and is facing his imminent death.

It’s a thoughtful and light-hearted reflection by someone well acquainted with the grief of others. It’s a worthwhile read in whole. He highlights the absurdity of coming to grips with your own mortality:

But it’s not that we forget that we will die; it’s that we work hard to not remember it. Yes, we accept the plural “we will die,” but it’s the particular, the “I” that we have trouble with. It’s easier to accept “we” because the “I” believes it can hide when the others in the “we” are taken. When it comes to the particular, we are, each of us, facing death new and uncomprehending. 

Woody Allen wryly said: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

But it’s coming for each of us. My life is terminal. Yours is, too.

Thinking about your death too obsessively can send you into an existential funk and shadow the light from the life you’re living. But living in denial of your ultimate fate will make meaningfulness elusive.

Malham suggests, though, that it’s the prospect of the deaths of those we love that is more troubling even than accepting our own demise.

My mom would have turned 73 today. (Happy birthday, mom!) She died almost ten years ago. Her absence from our lives still stings, a decade later. Our family has not recovered, and likely will not recover, the bond we once had when she was alive. She was such a joyful, dynamic presence and was the heart of not just our immediate family but even, somewhat, of both extended families. Life goes on, though. Or, the living keep living. For now.

Stoic sages advise periodically envisioning the loss of those you love. Sounds like an unappealing practice, right? It’s meant to be. The point is to face that kind of momentary pain often enough to make you better appreciate your loved ones while they’re with you.

Malham’s closing exhortation is tinged with just such a Stoic perspective:

We want to be (lightly, only lightly) aware of death not because our story will end, but because the stories of those we hold dear will end, perhaps before ours. The awareness of premature or unexpected endings can motivate us to routinely demonstrate our love to those important to us. Let’s not save our affection, as if a rare wine, for special occasions. Give and receive it as essential nourishment.

“Grief, after all, is the price we pay for love.” –David Malham

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