Death changes everything

Life changes in an instant. Joan Didion.You make plans. I make plans. People make plans. That’s what we do. Arguably planning is pretty central to human life.

In a paper of mine called, “Feminist Philosophers Turn Their Thoughts to Death” I discuss the impact of certain ways of living on the matter of death’s badness. Do certain ways of life fare worse in terms of death’s badness for the person whose death it is? There I worry a bit about the emphasis on planning and on control in the contemporary Western lives we lead.

I draw on the ideas of Margaret Walker who in her paper, “Getting Out of Line: Alternatives to Life as a Career” discusses the career self. A career self, she writes, sees his life as a unified field in which particular enterprises, values, and relationships are coordinated in the form of a “rational life plan.” This conception of a human life puts a great deal of emphasis on agency,  narrative unity, and planning.

Walker is concerned with the image of life as a career as a normative ideal.  She writes:“The image of the fit, energetic, and productive individual who sets himself a course of progressive achievement within the boundaries of society’s rules and institutions, and whose orderly life testifies to his self-discipline and individual effort, remains an icon of our culture.”

I’m a feminist and a philosopher but I also can’t resist the lure of the plan. I’m a big time plan maker.

I made plans to celebrate my 50th birthday with a big kick ass party. I planned to focus on fitness, to give fifty a swift kick in the pants, to run away really fast from fifty, to lift fifty up over head a dozen times, and keep on moving. Bring on life after the big 5-0!

Instead, 2014 had other plans. It’s been a really rough year. Truth be told if this year were be defined by a singular focus it’s been Family, not Fitness. And by Death, rather than Athletic Achievement.

When my mother in law, was diagnosed with ALS and moved here so we could care for her in final months, I wrote a blog post called Rough Times, Tough Choices.

The focus of that post was my decision to sit out rowing. In light of her illness, I couldn’t be a reliable team member.

I’ve turned down a lot of research travel, cancelling plans when I’m able. And I’m making athletic choices too. That’s the “tough choices” part of the title. But to be absolutely clear, these are choices that I’m making. Given the lot we’ve collectively been dealt I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know lots of women who take on martyrdom for their family but that’s never been me. I’m part of a large, active family of contributing adults now but even when the kids were little, I never parented alone. If any family is prepared to take on a crisis, we are, and for the most part, I manage to feel very lucky with the people with whom I’m surrounded. (Chatting recently about this and I thought that this is a good, light way to put it, “In the event of a zombie apocalypse, I’m really grateful that this is my team.”)

Now just months after that death, my father in law died. His death was the opposite sort of death. It was sudden and peaceful, and came out of the blue. He died of a stroke. You can read his obituary here.

Again, we’re making plans to travel, thinking about memorial services, sorting through belongings, making calls, crying, hugging, looking at old photos, telling stories. I’ll miss him. I’m still shocked.

What I don’t want this blog post to sound is whiny or like I’m trivializing death by focusing on its impact on my plans. I’m not complaining that death was an inconvenience. That’s not the point I’m trying to make.

There are no truly convenient deaths. Death reminds us how fruitless plans are really. Everything changes, and nothing stays the same.

“Death is real, it comes without warning, and it cannot be escaped,” begins narrator Leonard Cohen, in the documentary, Tibetan book of the dead Part 1.


I’m comfortable talking about death. With my philosopher’s hat on, I’ve edited a book about death. I’m teaching a course on philosophy and death this fall, on Monday evenings. It’s a night class. Of course. The course has its own blog and a Facebook page.

So I’m saying goodbye to my 200 km ride on Sunday, I’m canceling my registration in the August duathlon with my daughter. We’re cancelling camping reservations, cancelling conference travel, and saying no to some research and writing commitments where previously I’d said yes. Sorry everyone. But plans change.

(I’m keeping the Friends for Life Bike Rally but that’s it.)

Luckily, for me, and the “fittest by fifty” project, fifty isn’t an end. My fitness story is about the journey.

I’ve tried to avoid making my fitness plans “bucket list” like. I don’t like bucket lists. And I don’t think they help us deal with death.

The psychologist Linda Blair, interviewed in the Guardian, says she thinks they are a bad way to approach human mortality.

“It’s a way of denying the idea of death, not coping with it at all … People usually do this to ensure that there are things to look forward to, which means there are things that are still going to happen … My experience warns me that it’s probably done in order to prevent thinking about death.” Perry sees it as a way of dealing “with how to pass the time. I think it’s a way of trying to generate some excitement.”What we should be doing in our bucket lists,” Perry says, “is learning how to be open with our own vulnerabilities so that we can form connections with other human beings … I think, for me, what’s wrong with the bucket list is that it’s individualistic – the idea of the isolated self goes very deep in Western society – and I think it’s a red herring … It’s a distraction from the business of being human. We don’t all like swimming with dolphins but we are all made to connect to each other. That’s the really fun thing to do before you die.”

So fittest in my fifties, rather than fittest by fifty, perhaps. We’ll see. What’s clear is that my journey includes friends and family. It’s not an individual thing.

For now, I’m grieving and caring for the people I love and hoping the rest of 2014 is rather dull and ordinary. Ordinary sounds awfully good right about now.

12 thoughts on “Death changes everything

  1. dear Samantha, please accept my condolences on your loss. Jeff posted about this on facebook the other day and I offered my condolences to him. My father died in December; so I have a good idea of what he, you, and the rest of your family are going through at this time and will go through over the next months. My thoughts are with all of you.

    Sincerely yours, Shelley

  2. Sam, Sorry to hear of your loss. My 50th year wasn’t the best either. These Big-0 birthdays do make us reassess our lives. I wrote a short 9-pg booklet about options to the Bucket list… just ‘Chuck-it’! It is on my FB for all to access at no charge. Here is the link: http://kathrynwilking.com/free-booklet.html
    The sun will shine another day. Sending good vibes your way…

  3. Sam, Sorry to hear of your loss. My 50th year wasn’t that great either. Those Big-0 birthdays really do make us reassess our lives. I’ve written a small 9-pg booklet regarding options to the Bucket List: Chuck-it! It is FREE on my website so you may enjoy this perspective. Here is the link for all to enjoy:

    The sun will shine another day. Sending warm vibes your way….

  4. I’m sorry to hear of your losses. It’s good hear of others that don’t feel compelled we have to hold up to the image of a constantly positive, planned and productive life.

    My 85-yr. old father is dying of cancer and it’s getting worse now. I lost my sister to suicide a few yrs. ago and so cycling much distance was difficult for first few months.

    In fact, cycling just cycling alone is good enough. Doesn’t have to be far nor fast. Just being independently mobile.

  5. I am sorry for your losses. It’s sobering to be reminded that while we may have plans for ourselves, like (and death) often has other plans and those ones always win out.

    Take care. Much love to you and your family.

  6. Your post has really stayed with me. It’s hard to remember the point of all this working & working out, to have time & resources to be with each other. Thank you for sharing. Also I feel compelled to bring food. If something shows up on your doorstep it will be vegan.

  7. Well said. I like your focus on family, friends and connections and agree with your take on death. I hope the rest of your year goes more smoothly. Your family has dealt with enough sadness. Take care Sam.

  8. I am sorry you’ve had such a difficult year, Sam. I think your views on the Western capitalist model of the isolated yet perfectly ordered and goal-oriented self, and on true human connections, are very thoughtful.

  9. This was a very timely post for me to read today. There is a lot of loss going on in my life these days. I have been busy this summer and bad at keeping in contact with my friends. In the last two weeks I have found that one friend’s sister has stage 4 breast cancer. One friend was in a car accident. Another friend lost her dog due to a dog attack. And just yesterday a close friend found out that her 13 week pregnancy ended at 12 weeks. She had a miscarriage at 5 weeks earlier this year. These are all very strong women who celebrate life and are adaptable to change. I am sorry too for your losses.

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