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Making Sense of Death

February 11, 2015

Consumption in our lives goes in a very rapid pace. There are moments when we feel bliss, sorrow, and anxiety. Time passes very quickly in the alterable world of things; what we are left with in the end is our fulfilled lives that get their shape according to the velocity of our experiences and the lessons we derive from them. The beginning and end of everything manifest itself in life, instead of making sense of death with the aid of thoughts and experience, we ruin our psychological health due to the fear and anxiety we associate with it. We are afraid of an unknown experience, and we escape from it as much as we can. Death, which is loathed with all types of negativities in our consciousness, will unfortunately appear in life. Whether we like or not, it is the reality of life that will necessarily be faced as the end. The length of our life, long or short, does not put it away from us. Independent of how lengthy his life is, everybody will face it. As the important thinker Marcus Aurelius suggested; “the end is reached both in the long and short life. Because now is the same, everything that passes through it is the same. Death cannot take away from one the thing which he does not possess.”

What we have in life is no different than our experiences and interactions with others. We possess the now; we possess the life. There is no death in life as long as we live. How is it possible to be dead while alive? And logically, there is no life after death. Death is the point where life ends.

The effort to enhance our lives, the fast and instantaneous living, the will to live a fulfilled and long life, and the endeavour to embrace life as tight as possible appear in life through the fear of death. In the end we will all face it. The clamour of life and the rush to live the instant, first of all, are for evaluating our lives in the best possible way. If life were presented us as eternal, and if we did not have a problem called death, we would not strive to vitalize it as much as we strive to embellish our allotted time on earth. To illustrate, when we are traveling abroad for ten days, we would try to compress as many experiences as we can to those ten days. We would like to see everything in the city. Because my mind would be full with questions such as what if I cannot come here again, what if I cannot find the time to travel here again, I would rush to places to spend best my very limited time. In contrast, because I have plenty of time, I would not endeavour to see and evaluate the city in which I have grown up and worked as much as a city that I visit. It is same when people of Istanbul do not go to museums and historical places; in the end they live in Istanbul and they always postpone seeing the landmarks of the city with the relief that they have plenty of time in the city and they would certainly behold the important sights later.

Tourists who come to Istanbul from various different countries for a very limited time, after sightseeing and traveling a lot, may end up with more knowledge on the city than we, the residents, have. Or suppose that we have just twenty minutes left from our life, and in front of us, there is a magnificent painting that we endeavour to appreciate in its entirety. The intensity of emotion in twenty minutes in front of the painting would dwarf the entire feelings that we had in our lives. We may have the most exquisite feelings of our lives in the twenty minutes; because, the approaching death pushes us to evaluate the last remaining minutes in the best possible way. Therefore, the shortness of time appears as a quality which creates the value and meaning in any given moment.

As it could be understood from the aforementioned examples, the mortal life, which inhabits death within, prevents us from postponing our dreams eternally and thereby renders life worthwhile. Probably if we had immortal lives, our observations and experiences could have become meaningless, and we could have got bored after resigning from pursuing a meaning in life. Although knowing the mortality of life is frightening, as the only creature that knows death we are striving to give meaning to our lives. Sometimes the thought of death becomes very terrifying; nevertheless, instead of being drawn in the chaos that we created from this thought, we should learn to live with it, and more than that, we should try to understand its meaning order to render our lives more valuable and joyful. We should not permit death to overshadow our lives by corroding its joy and value. Despite of death, despite of its existence, without fear we should live our lives to the fullest. As the significant Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet Ran puts:

“You must take living so seriously that,

Even when you are seventy, you must plant olive trees,

Not because you think they will be left to your children,

Because you don’t believe in death although you are afraid of it

Because, I mean, life weighs heavier.”

As the great poem suggests, life should always weigh heavier. There is no such thing as dying while living. It is correct that death is the unchangeable end; but the important thing is how we accepted it in our lives, how we digested the idea of dying, and how unchanged we emerged from these profound thoughts. In regard to death, intensity of emotions can vary from one to other. Although one could deny its reality, nobody can achieve not to die. What can be achieved in the face of death is not to prevent our life from being joyful by fearing it. The fear of death should be translated into life energy. It appears both in long and short lives. It is painful only for those who outlive the beloved ones. While we have healthy and beautiful lives, why should we not enjoy living and experiencing the wonders of life because of the mere reality of death? Why should we imprison ourselves to anxieties? Why is that instead of rendering every instant of their lives meaningful and valuable, many choose to darken their lives with the depressive thoughts of death?

The unexpected death, which comes like a bolt out of the blue, is a great source of sorrow. Lamenting an unexpectedly gone person is an inexplicable grief. The grief is experienced by those whom the dead leaves behind. The dead’s life ended, he neither feels pain nor grieves; he is gone. But the ones who outlived him are exposed to these emotions in the greatest degree. Therefore, death hurts not the dead but the living who are left behind.

The death of the young causes the worst possible sorrow, as they did not have the chance to taste the life in its fullest and grow older. In contrast, the death of a person who has lived to age with the accumulation of experiences could seem to be a natural process, and sorrow associated to it could be alleviated.

The significant philosopher Cicero compares the death of a youngster to a sudden extinguishment of blazing fire with water. “The death of an elderly, on the other hand, is the gradual and natural fading of already frail fire.”

There is both a fire ablaze in the youth and in the elderly; however, the radiance and degree of fires are different. One is a new flame that is freshly lit, and sparkles with enthusiasm. The fresh fire is quenched by the power of a bucket of water, its natural process is altered; and nobody waits for it to die away. It is forced to die. Hence, here, the death of youth is compared to the sudden extinguishment of blazing fire. Ahead of the youth, there are long years to be enjoyed, and the early death causes a deep and inexplicable anguish and sorrow; because the early gone does not have the chance to realize their dreams, the greatness of which is not fit to a short life.

In fact death is the same both for the elderly and the youth, but different is the complexity of situations in which it is experienced. The elderly had the chance to enhance their lives with experience; this is why the sorrow associated with their end could be alleviated. The ones who survive the beloved elderly can consolidate themselves by thinking how fully the beloved elderly has lived.

Happiness and sadness are experienced as a result of our doings. We name the life as good life or bad life. In reality we are the ones who success goodness, or involve evil. As Montaigne tells, “If you have lived a day, you have seen all: one day is equal and like to all other days. There is no other light, no other shade; this very sun, this moon, these very stars, this very order and disposition of things, is the same your ancestors enjoyed, and that shall also entertain your posterity.”

The wise who have enhanced their lives with experience and knowledge would neither give up living nor fear death. Because life is neither a burden for them nor an evil… They would not eat the most plenty of food but the most delicious, and they do not benefit from the longest time but the best. Because they are experienced enough to live their lives to the fullest and not to waste their times…

The value of life is not about longitude but worthwhile living. There are such long-lived persons, whom I think lived very little, as in their long lives, they did not leave any marks to be remembered. Without thinking, criticizing, and reading, there are plenty of long lives that are wasted in anxieties. Living to the fullest does not depend on the numbers of years but on our capacity. Culture, social activities, and education endow life a different light and value.

Due to our fears and apprehensions, which prevent us from enjoying the moment, we are beclouding each new day with meaningless worries. If life did not do any good, if it only tired and saddened me, why would I be afraid to lose it? If I have lived my life to the fullest, if I had a meaningful life, why would I fear death? I would go with a smile on my face.

It should not be forgotten, as Montaigne put, “Death should not concern us. When alive, it cannot harm, because we are alive. When dead, it cannot harm, because we are no longer alive.”


  1. Harlem

    Death is the necessary end. There is no escape from it. I loved the essay that it reminded us of this truth. I am looking forward to reading more from the author. Ms Arslan is a brilliant author, I wish there were translation of her books. I would love to read the one on the elderly.

  2. Gaby

    Death is a daunting phenomenon that haunts me when I think of it. I never had an attitude towards death as the author. Actually when I think after reading this brilliant essay, I come to the conclusion that fearing from death won’t change anything. I find the relief in my belief of an after-world. But it is not for certain that there is a heaven. Accepting the reality of death and understanding the value it contributes to our lives is the most reasonable thing. But very difficult to achieve. Especially for me. This essay was encouraging though!

    • Taodenkyem

      I used to fear death and the thought of one day not existing used to nearly drive me mad. But since delving into stoic philosophy and certain tenets of buddhism, I’ve come to have a certain calmness about my mortality. Not that one should welcome it or look forward to it, but it helps to at least prepare for the impending event–in terms of those you may leave behind and not compounding loss with logistical annoyances. The stoic practice of ‘practicing hardship’ and contemplating (not obsessing about) death–your own, and those you care about, has markedly improved my outlook on life.

  3. Johnny

    The essay was thought-provoking! I will most certainly re-read Montaigne after this essay. Death is our ultimate end, and fearing from it doesn’t have a use! I liked the style of the author very much and would like to read more.

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