Crabby Old Lady, Credit Scores and a John Oliver Treat

The Imperative to Live and to Die


Somewhere among the tiniest twists of our DNA, we are programmed to fear death, to avoid it at all costs and to live. To Live!

To live is, borrowing from Star Trek, the prime directive.

In addition to the practicality and pleasures of our five senses, each is designed to alert us to danger when there is a threat to our own life and, often, others' lives too.

In many cases, it is sub-verbal. We touch something too hot, our hand pulls back on its own. A kid runs in front of the car, we slam on the brakes – no thought necessary.

So fundamental is the human (and other animal) imperative to live that young people, against all evidence, believe they are immortal. I once felt that way and undoubtedly you did too.

Now I know better.

One of the ways that old age is dramatically different from youth and the middle years, and which society does not generally acknowledge, is the courage it requires to be old.

When dying becomes up close and personal, each old person, mostly in quiet times when we are alone, must bravely stand up to all that DNA self-preservation juice and make peace with, in time, letting go of life.

We must do that while keeping the prime directive - living our best possible old age. As Anatole Broyard wrote in The New York Times in 1990:

”If we face the reality, at 63 or 70, 75, 80, or 90, that we will indeed, sooner or later, die, then the only big question is how are we going to live the years we have left, however many or few they may be?

“What adventures can we now set out on to make sure we'll be alive when we die?”

I love that part: “...make sure we'll be alive when we die.” Lin Yutang said something similar in his book, The Importance of Living back in 1937:

”If man were to live this life like a poem he would be able to look upon the sunset of life as his happiest period, and instead of trying to postpone the much feared old age, be able to look forward to it, and gradually build up to it as the best and happiest period of his existence.”

I've been collecting quotations on old age and dying for 20 years and I could copy out dozens of inspiring thoughts for us all day. But I want to get back to the idea of courage.

As en-courage-ing as all the quotations of these wise people are, what many leave out is the loss, the pain - and the fear, too - that accompanies our journey in the final years.

Surveys repeatedly show that the most common regret of old people is not what they have done in their lives but what they have left undone – from travel to not telling someone how much they were loved. We live with those sorrows, especially the ones where we have failed others.

For some, there is physical pain that is often chronic and untreatable. Elders are mostly stoic about it, rarely mentioning how difficult it makes their lives.

The cumulative loss of loved ones and the different sorts of holes that creates in our lives. When my mother died, I remember feeling bereft that no one living now had known me when I was a child. I still haven't worked out, 25 years later, why that leaves an empty spot and still does.

And then, the fear of approaching death when we can no longer pretend it is far away. Like I said, it takes a lot of courage to get through old age and I am surprised how little this is noticed – by others maybe understandably but by elders themselves particularly.

Over these years of thinking about the meaning of old age, I have come to believe that it is part of our job in these last years to cultivate acceptance of the ending of our days and to weave the work of accomplishing that into the structure of our daily lives.

It does take work. You can't just decide one day that you are are comfortable with dying and be done with it. Particularly when, for me, I have never felt as closely connected to life and living, so attached to the shifts in light and weather and the changing seasons of our world as I do now.

Without any effort on our part, death will find us when it is time. But I want more. I seek to stop running from death and to make peace with it as the proper outcome of life.

My greatest encouragement and comfort in that so far is astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson's “We are all stardust” speech:

“The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago," he said.

“For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.

I'm not there yet but that knowledge gets me a whole lot closer to understanding death as the good and proper outcome of life.



It is all so mysterious. Neil DeGrasse Tyson reminds us of the common origin of our atomic ingredients, but long before him it was Joni Mitchell singing "We are stardust, we are golden," that got me started thinking about all this. I am not a scientist by training, but for much of my life I have pondered those origins and just what it is that flows through everything and everyone, making us what we are, with all our differences and similarities, due to the vast possibilities of combination and expression of those ingredients. Still contemplating the theories and still awed by the mystery and wonder of it all.

Marvellous post--thank you, Ronni! (And I liked Cathy's comment too.)

As for me, every now and then the thought of death -- my own death -- hits me as something that's really going to happen and it brings a wave of panic. Trying to find a way to embrace both life and death is not only a struggle, it's a struggle that changes in any given moment. So, yes, it takes courage, and also, I think, thoughtfulness. It's easier to push it aside.

I've been doing Advanced Care Planning about health care proxies and living wills for 20 years, but it's only been recently that doing it makes me uncomfortable. It's no longer about my parents, both gone; now it's about me.

"...we'll be alive when we die" - led me to be with my thoughts of what this means for me, my life. This needn't be in terms of grand achievements, or the security of wealth, nor the physical challenges to our bodies.

Maybe it's the simplest of everyday things, with the addition of attentiveness and feelings of connection and wholeness. No judgement needed. In fact, the juicy part is the feeling. Out for a walk/run in the early morning, the sun passes through trees and dances on the grass while clouds are ever-changing into new forms. It's awesome. To be alive with all this.

Thank you for this post, Ronni.

Thank you for this post, Ronni. It's sobering and comforting at the same time and I am feeling good after reading it. Will save it too for reading later at will. Good comments too.

This necessary acceptance of my individual departure seems to rise and fall in my consciousness. I try to watch it go by, simply a reality. Sometimes it seems a more urgent reality than other times -- but I have no choice about meeting it. If I am so lucky as to dwell in this truth long enough, might Death become, not a friend, but an accompanying presence?

I like Terry Prachett's Death.

And I am (I hope) still young at 69 in the process of meeting Death.

Thank you, Ronni, for your thoughts and for bringing the reality of death to me today. My mind approaches thinking of my death and then shuts down. It is overwhelming. I live in the Now these days, but I need to cultivate the courage to embrace the ultimate. You are a great help in this.

Great article today, thank you. The only thing I would add from my own experience of being 79 is to acknowledge the effort it takes to find a balance between what my mind, heart and spirit want and expect from past experience to be able to do, and the limitations my aging body puts on my ability to do these things. For example, I no longer can always climb to the top of a small mountain near my home, so coming to some peace with going up only half way is a constant effort.

I don't know if I've posted this on here before in another context but it seems apt to me now (?again).

Just finished reading Irvin Yalom's “Creatures of a Day” concerned with ageing and mortality. Here is what he says on the last page of the book:'

“As I approached my eighty-second birthday, full of life and passion and curiosity but saddened by the loss of so many people I had known and loved, at times mourning my lost youth, and distracted by my deteriorating scaffolding, my obstinate, creaking joints, my fading hearing and vision, and ever aware of the deepening dusk and relentless approach of the final darkness, I opened the Meditations*, scanned the pages, and found the message meant for me:

"Pass, then, through this little space of time in
harmony with nature and end thy journey in
contentment, just as an olive falls off
when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it,
and thanking the tree on which it grew. “

*Marcus Aurelius.

Such a wonderful description, I think, when thinking of my end of days. And, to me, strangely comforting.

Your column is absolutely beautiful! To me, it says it all. And if acknowledged, the facts about stardust can, I believe, lead many of us to feel closer to and more curious about the wonderful work of scientists who educate us, if we allow it.

Here's a small bit from a recent poem of mine called In Praise of Science:
. . . ."That we are all made of stardust--ah, what a leveler that is.
You, me, our friends, enemies, the president, some king, the jockey
who won the Kentucky Derby, the waiter in the restaurant,
the homeless--how good it can feel to know that we are all at least

I think our accepting the losses of old age is partly a matter of making room for the soul,
which eventually will be our all-in-all.

Q: Isn't it all a great COMFORT? To me, it is--and thanks again for your superb writing
and thinking. They help us in the journey we're all on.

What an inspiring post !
Thank You,

I first heard it from Carl Sagan: "We are star stuff." Tyson expressed the same thought in more poetic terms -- "stardust." As an atheist, I find stardust a desirable, appropriate, and beautiful "after life."

Great column and comments, Ronni ( and all responders) !
It deserves a special "flag".
Thank you . . . . ALL of you .

What a lovely read, thank you! I find a sense of urgency helps me to do things I was putting off like knitting my own designs for posterity gifts. Gentle urgency. I've lost so many friends now I have to fill in these gaps. There is no one around who remembers me as a small child. A unique form of loneliness in that, you are right.


Thanks to Ronni and all who commented. These conversations are so very important if we are ever to bring this very natural part of life out of the darkness. Does it scare me, oh yeah... But at times it also comforts.

The last great adventure...

So beautifully said, Ronni. This is one of your best posts and speaks to me. I also love Cathy's comment.

My late husband had a near death experience when he was in an explosion and he always commented on how peaceful he felt. After that he told me that he didn't know what happened after death, but that it was going to be a great adventure.

Great post as always, Ronni.
I've been aware for a while that for the past 150 years none of the men in my line has survived to their 70th birthday, and I try to live my life accordingly. If I really want to do something, I try to work it in instead of putting it off. If I'm still capable in 14 months, I'm sure I'll find something else to do in that moment.

Your post is very helpful, thank you, Ronni.

At 77, I'm finding it difficult to accept the reality that death could come sooner rather than later, or more to the point that it will inevitably arrive! My mother died at 79, but my dad was 93. I guess I could be lucky and leave this world some time in between those ages!

In the meantime, I'm trying to enjoy as many good experiences as I can while I am still able, including a wonderful trip to the U.S. last year!

Thank you for your wonderful blog.

Nice idea "to be alive when you die." Not available in an Alzheimer's death, since the actual person will have been gone long before their death, sometimes a decade or more before. Everything said here about death and approaching death is very well put as your comments acknowledge -- but the huge exception is a death after years and years of dementia. The person's body may be "alive" but the actual person is long gone. I wish speeches about death would at least have a parenthetical acknowledgment of this other reality, which remains for the most part hidden and unspeakable. No one wants to think about it, but when your 66 year old husband is diagnosed with AZ, there is not much such "soft" talk about death that seems relevant. Try to remember that for others like myself, still in my 60's, dealing with a non-lyrical and prolonged process of my husband's decline and death constitutes the rest of our lives. Cassandra

Wonderful post and somewhat I was watching "Cosmos" just the other day, and had the same exact thoughts. My dear sweet Grandmother used to say that all the stars looking down on us were the faces of people who have passed. Perhaps she was right. With just having turned 70, and saying the final good-bye to many in the past years, your post is especially meaningful...thank you!

Many people in my family have spent years "dying". Your tome reminds me of Bette Davis' well known comment about growing old, but with a twist. I never thought of myself as being eternal, like stardust. Interesting concept. I have done most of my bucket list, but you are right about not saying enough to others. Age and frailty prevent accomplishing everything desired, but I do sometimes think it would have been nice to say loving things to people in my past. Getting ready for the inevitable seems to be a full time occupation, not for myself, but to prepare the future for those I am going to eventually leave.


What an important point you make--thank you so much. Yes, dementia changes everything and makes it terribly hard for the relatives and friends of the demented one to participate in the happy thoughts of stardust and the meaning of death and so much more.

Thank you for reminding us of some important truths.


My mother died at 85 after a very long decline into dementia. There's something missing, I think, in how people talk about that.

No, she wasn't the sweet capable person she had been when she was raising me and my brother, nor the person who broke and then pieced herself together again, with help, after the childhood death of my youngest brother. But she was still a person, in the same way that a newborn is a person. She still had a self. An 'I'. Something that was quintessentially her.

Maybe there's a reason dementia has long been called second childhood. It's an oversimplification: childhood is a period of growth, flowering, exploration, one achievement after another, and we're hard-wired to like watching children grow. Dementia is different. Other people haven't experienced it, have no way to know what it's like from the inside. From watching my mother, though, I think there's plenty of courage needed, especially in the earlier stages. And there's room almost to the end for delighting, still, in little things.

So don't shudder with horrified pity if they can't quite recall your name. Save room to admire their courage, look for the small things that can please them -- and above all, give them even more love than ever. I believe they can tell, right up to the end.

Very, very lovely.

One of your very best posts!

One of the saddest losses I've had to face was the loss of my father's mind to Parkinson's when he was only 65. My mother felt a horrid sense of loss as his dementia advanced, saying, "We were supposed to be traveling the world together. Instead, I'm a caregiver and he's missing so much." Don't put off living until after you retire! Live NOW. My own retirement is years away, but I'm packing the weekends with adventures close to home so that when I'm older it won't be just the beginning of a life well-lived, but the fruition of a journey started early on.

The comments to this entry are closed.