We’re too afraid of dying

The latest contribution from Gemma Milne, Science & Technology Writer; Co-Founder of Science: Disrupt

It doesn’t take long, scrolling down Instagram or looking at London Underground Tube adverts, to know that the obsession with our health is ubiquitous. From side-by-side transformation photos to this month’s diet craze (all fat, or no fat; 5:2 or juicing?), it’s clear that — as a society — we are obsessed with one-upping our bodies.

Of course, eating better and exercising more improves the broader circumstance in which you live — it’s not just about how you look, but about how you feel after all — but sometimes the messaging is less about living better now, and instead focuses on extending your existence into the future.

We’ve all read the Daily Mail’s flip-flop between one glass of wine a day killing you early, and then the same remedy preventing premature death. And according to The Mirror, Hello!, Metro, TIME, and CNBC, the secret to a longer life is coffee. There are many questions that are lacking in these kind of pieces (namely, ‘what did the science actually say?’), but one which is rarely voiced asks why we are talking about our health in terms of extending the end of our life, as opposed to improving the here and the now?

Lately, the conversation around extending one’s life has indeed moved beyond clickbait fluff pieces to a concerted focus on ‘transhumanism’. It’s not a new movement, but it seems to be being taken much more seriously — from new funds dedicated to life lengthening research, to legacy conferences on the topic which used to have a ‘cyberpunk teenager’ tone, maturing to a more serious, middle-aged public-intellectual feel. In May this year, Theresa May launched the Ageing Society Grand Challenge, promising that the British government “will ensure that people can enjoy five extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035.”

Compare that to how we talk about dying and you find something quite different. If you want to broach the idea of death and how to meaningfully prepare for it, you’ll more than likely need to find a self-help book focused on the ‘live like there’s no tomorrow’ sentiment. Or maybe read some kind of spiritual text. Or wait until someone close to you passes away, and, amongst the grieving, let the idea of your own death take hold.

It tends only to be when we’re grief-stricken — or looking to improve our life through the world of self-help — that we consider the idea that we don’t actually live forever. Yes, we’re focusing our positivity, funding, and some of our brightest minds on working out how to extend life, but what about talking more openly and constructively about how best we can alleviate fear and come to terms with life’s only certainty: death. Ironically, surely we’re spending more time working out how to lengthen our existence, than any realised and implemented behaviour change could actually afford us.

The conversation around our fear of death needs to change. It shouldn’t be something for publications to use as an emotional magnet for pseudo ‘science’. You shouldn’t be considering taking up drinking coffee — all eight cups of it a day, according to TIME — just to lengthen your life by a few weeks.

Of course, people want to live longer. There are so many things to do, people to see, places to visit — it’s only natural that our instinct is to yearn for more time. But the positive hype around the work being done to extend life is distracting from discussions that need to be had, and actions that need to be taken to address how we positively face up to our mortality.

In a recent UK study, it was found that nearly 60% of adults haven’t written a will. Of people most likely to have children — those between the ages of 35 and 54 — only 32% have outlined how their death will impact their dependents. The issues of dying intestate range from huge lawyer fees to severe stress for family members left behind to ‘pick up the pieces’, especially if the family structure is complex.

And when it comes to making decisions with respect to continuation of life if you are in a coma — or if you are diagnosed with a terminal illness which will progressively lower your quality of life — unless you’ve filled in a living will (carefully and fully), hands become tied. With euthanasia still illegal in the UK, even if you wanted help to actively shorten your life, you are not permitted to.

Work has to be done to improve how we talk about — and perceive — death and preparation for it. There’s community groups like Death Café that realise the importance of shifting the conversation, but they’re still only in their infancy, potentially viewed by many as morbid and rarely given the attention, media space or consideration they are due.

If we want to ensure we all live better lives — including those who continue living after we die — we must be much more candid and much less afraid of facing up to the inevitability of dying. Our fear is preventing us from being frank with ourselves; our desire to live longer is preventing us from planning better; and our resistance to accepting a finite existence is potentially making that existence slightly less fulfilling.

If we’re going to talk about extending life, let’s also talk about what happens near the end.

If we’re going to talk about extending life, let’s also take responsibility for the reality of our situations. We won’t live forever — no matter how many coffees we drink per day, or how much money we invest in future technologies. We are spending so much time refining our lives for the good of ourselves, let’s start better refining our deaths, for the good of those left behind.