We Control Our Lives, Not Our Deaths

My brother-in-law’s father died recently. He was clear about how he wanted his death: cremation and no shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning for the dead.

Death rituals are not for the dead. They are for the living. When we eulogize someone, we remember them for the ages. We pass on their memories so other people can learn from them. We remember their choices so we can learn from their lives.

I find funerals difficult. In addition to the shoe and chocolate genes, I have the crying gene. I cry at weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and most definitely at funerals. If it’s a lifecycle event, I cry. But that doesn’t mean I don’t go. If I can manage it, I go.

I also find shiva calls difficult. I’m always concerned: will I say the wrong thing? Will I say something stupid—something I feel is much more likely? But they are an obligation, and an action that provides comfort to the living. Just because I find them uncomfortable does not mean I get to stop attending them.

I’m much better at condolence notes. I write them in email and in longhand. I still cry when I write them, but I get them written and then wonder why I put them off for so long. I hate writing them, but I write them.

All these rituals around death are for the living, not the dead person. The dead person is dead, right? The dead person can’t read my note, can’t tell if I’m at the funeral or at the the shiva call. So, why do people want to control their funerals and death rituals, aside from making sure there is sufficient money available for whatever?

You can’t control how other people remember you. You can’t control how other people grieve. You can control your legacy by living your best life.

When this craziness happened to me, I decided I wanted people to think of me as someone who laughed, who had a sense of humor. So, I laugh a lot.

I decided I wanted people (and myself) to think of me as someone with a keen sense of what is happening in organizations. So I keep writing and consulting and working and publishing.

I decided I wanted people (and myself) to think of me as someone who is adaptable. So I have been thinking about multiple ways to create adaptability in my life, in my clients’ project and programs, in everything.

I have had more opportunities in the past three years than I could have imagined. And, that is because I have created these opportunities, with help from colleagues.

Trying to control our deaths and the circumstances around them is nuts. Better that we should live our lives to the fullest. Let people grieve the way they want to, the way they need to.

As for my death, I hope it’s not for a very long time. I’ve told Mark to give away the pieces of my body to whomever will take them. I’ve said I do want the autopsy to discover what went on in my head. He will learn the mystery of my inner ear. He can then have a traditional funeral and shiva.

I hope they tell good stories, like the time I turned left on red. That’s good for a laugh. Yes, I meant to, but I got confused. I thought I was turning right on red. Or, how I made four quiche for four people for a dinner party once. Okay, that might have been too much food. Maybe. I wanted to make sure we had enough!

You can’t control how other people grieve. When we mark someone’s passing, it helps us grieve. It brings us together as a community.

We don’t need to control anything beyond our own lives. Forget trying to control anything else. It’s how we live our own lives that’s important. Let’s practice creating our own adaptable lives.


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6 thoughts on “We Control Our Lives, Not Our Deaths

  1. Joseph


    Wonderful blog as always!

    Are you able to drive due to your vertigo, oscillopsia, and balance?

    Are you currently using a mobility device such as a power chair or scooter outside the house?

    I always look forward to you insight and posts, vestibular disorders can be terrifying, disabling and always life altering.

    You give hope and inspiration.

    1. johanna Post author

      Hi Joseph, Yes, I drive. Driving is easier than riding, because I get feedback through the steering wheel. I have not tried to drive for more than 3 or so hours in a day. I was pretty tired at the end of that day. When I am a passenger and have to ride for three hours, my oscillopsia is quite bad. I sleep through much of the ride.

      I use a cane outside of the house, always. I never leave the house without it. I am thinking of getting a walker for week-long workshops/conferences, because I get so tired when I teach that long. (What am I thinking so hard for? I should just do it!) I am thinking of the inconvenience of the transporting everything, that’s what I am thinking of :-)

      I have a two-day conference next week, so we will see. I have some news to report soon. I’m behind on blogging. Maybe this weekend I can catch up. Hah!

      Thank you for your kind words.

  2. Edith

    I think, when the dead person left some instructions or wishes for the living, it makes it easier for them. Everybody anyway is going to say “what would he have wanted?” – so, if this problem is taken care of, you have more time left to care for the people.

    The same with wills – if you leave a sorted will, it might ease squabbles between the heirs.

    1. johanna Post author

      Yes, it’s definitely easier for the people who are living, to know what the dead wanted. Wills make everything much easier.

      My mother-in-law had her children go around with a notebook and stickies to put their names on artwork that they wanted. A great idea!

      Mark and I going to try to die broke: spend it all by spending it or giving it away. We don’t have enough yet to do that, but that’s the idea. We still have kid-art on the refrigerator.

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