From Goodbye to Hello: How Confronting Death Gives Us Life

Old headstone in field“Owning up to the ‘good-bye’ that is built into our finite human existing makes possible the saying of an authentic ‘Hello!’ ” —Robert D. Stolorow

For most people, death is something that will happen to us someday. Not today. Not tomorrow. But sometime in the future, distant enough that we need not concern ourselves at the moment. In other words, we ignore it and forget about it. Yet in doing so, we forget who we are. Death is not just something that happens at the end of life. It is a part of us throughout, whether we confront it or not. In facing death, traumatic as it may be, we cannot help but change, grow, and clarify what it is that we love and care about most. The preciousness of time comes to the fore.

It’s true that people understand death in different ways. Does the soul continue on or does it die with the body? Is there life after death, or does it end with this one? Whatever one’s beliefs about the hereafter, death is the end of life as we know it. When a loved one dies, he or she departs from us in a way that is undeniable. We are forced to notice their importance to us, as well as everything we value. In romantic relationships, as often depicted in romantic comedies, each partner’s love becomes inestimable often only after it has been tested with the threat of loss.

Confronting death as an ever-present reality means mourning the loss of all we hold dear. It is no mystery that death is not a favored topic for cocktail conversation. It’s often depressing and lacks a joy and levity that is so much a part of life. When a loved one dies, we often say that he or she “passed on,” avoiding the harsh word of death, attempting to soften the painful reality for the sake of our loved ones. Few people choose to spend their lives isolating themselves with thoughts of death. It is isolating because it forces us to depart from ordinary social values.

David Fincher’s film Fight Club (1999) is a dark and violent satire that exposes the superficialities of commercial life and hints at the meaninglessness of life altogether. And yet the film holds great potential to discover meaning. The antihero Tyler Durden recruits a large number of young men into his “fight club,” and insists they shun the values associated with ordinary social life, particularly advertising. “You’re not your job,” he preaches. “You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.” Durden pulls these young men away from their ordinary day-to-day living into a profound confrontation with themselves. He prescribes to his followers that they let “what truly doesn’t matter slide.” Fincher’s film hints at the sort of existential confrontation I’m trying to describe. Durden insists to his pupils, “You have to know, not fear, that someday you are going to die.”

It would be a mistake, however, to conflate the commentary on death in Fincher’s fight club with my own. Fincher’s Durden develops a following, a cult of sorts. He removes people from the social conformity of ordinary life only to foster a new conformity to the cult of fight club. Confrontation with death, whether through the loss of a loved one, escaping the threat of physical harm, or simply philosophical contemplation, is always traumatic. It leaves one disoriented, forcing us to abandon the thoughts and beliefs that root us in everyday life. Fincher’s fight club finds its way toward destruction and a certain kind of meaninglessness, where there’s little, if any, light at the end of a dark tunnel. The commentary on death in Fight Club treats life recklessly, not carefully. In coming to terms with death, life needs to be respected in order to preserve the opportunity for growth. It is then that from darkness may come great illumination.

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  • Dr. Brosh

    Dr. Brosh

    November 29th, 2012 at 11:13 AM

    Very beautiful message and well written. Thank you for your insights, they are very valuable and important.

  • ben

    ben

    November 29th, 2012 at 12:03 PM

    if there was no bitterness,we wouldn’t acknowledge or enjoy sweetness as much.if there was no sorrow,we wouldn’t enjoy and value joy as much.if there were no death,we wouldn’t know the value of life.knowing death is certain is a good thing.not to be lost in its thoughts,but to be thankful for the time we have before we meet death.only when something is limited do we value it.life is no different.

  • Genevieve

    Genevieve

    November 29th, 2012 at 12:14 PM

    I have never heard that quote before that you placed at the beginning of your article, but it is so eye opening and inspirational that I hope it can help those readers who are struggling with some sort of grief in their lives to know that there can be peace in death too.

  • eric

    eric

    November 29th, 2012 at 3:26 PM

    one of the things my grandma taught us as as teens was to remember death,to remember that we will meet death one day.it could be today or tomorrow.so live life to the fullest and take one day at a time,use each day to the fullest.

    I will never forget those teachings and discussion we had with her.extremely valuable advice and I already look forward to giving the same to my children in the future.

  • Marrett

    Marrett

    November 30th, 2012 at 4:00 AM

    I am always baffled by those people who think that if they can ignore it then it will go away. I just want to look at them and say that death is simply a reality of life, right? I have known for a long time now that from the day that we are born, we are on a journey toward our death. I don’t think that this is a morbid thought, I think that it is a very realistic thought. And there are actually many societies where death is preferred over life on earth. I wouldn’t go that far, because I know that I have been put here for a reason and I want to achieve those things that I have been put here to do, but I am not afraid of death, nor do I mourn it when it comes to others. It should be a time of celebration and not sadness.

  • w parnell

    w parnell

    November 30th, 2012 at 6:33 AM

    having barely escaped death in a road accident about two years ago,I am thoroughly thankful for every minute that I have. the event made me look at things different and more importantly look at life differently. it taught me that we did not have an unlimited time here,that our time here was restricted, the end could come anytime and hence we should try and make use of every single minute that we are blessed with.death coming so close certainly taught me the value of life.

  • beth m

    beth m

    November 30th, 2012 at 7:28 AM

    Remembering that we will die one day helps us to embrace the life we have today. We can appreciate life much more fully when we realize that it does have an end. It is not finite and must be treasured every day in every way.

  • Cassandra

    Cassandra

    November 30th, 2012 at 7:29 AM

    have a good friend whose 2 y.o. son died last night he was such a sweet kid. hard to see how death is good or necessary right now

  • Stephen L Salter Psy. D.

    Stephen L Salter Psy. D.

    November 30th, 2012 at 11:16 AM

    Thank you all for your insightful and valuable posts. Please feel free to continue.

    Cassandra,

    I think what you’re saying is right on. There is no silver lining right now. You’re facing the painful reality head on. And that makes you a very rare friend. I’m sure many people offer your friend cliches, ‘Everything is going to work out for the best, etc., etc.’ But nothing will make this less painful, except that you are holding onto that painful space in an authentic way. And given that, your friend might feel not so isolated in their sorrow. There is no wishing away something like this. I am very sorry for you, your friend, and their son.

    Steve

  • konrad mills

    konrad mills

    November 30th, 2012 at 5:44 PM

    knowing that u are moving closer to death may not be pleasant but it does help you value the time you have better.bcoz things n people are usually valued more when absent,I think jus realizing that life as we know it is not gonna last forever is a good start to actually start appreciating life n everythin’ we have!

  • Wilbert

    Wilbert

    December 1st, 2012 at 2:08 AM

    Death and any talk about it is something we always want to avoid and run way from.We try to do that until it actually catches up with us.

    But a fact cannot be denied and death is a fact of our lives,for each one of us.Yes it is not an easy fact to face but if it is something that makes us better then i think its time we embrace the fact and be aware and try to make out time before death worthwhile.

  • David

    David

    December 1st, 2012 at 3:17 PM

    Staring at the Sun by Irvin Yalom is a must read for those seeking an in depth examination of relating to ones own death.

  • Halvy

    Halvy

    June 11th, 2013 at 12:06 PM

    From a biological standpoint, the moment we are born into this world, we begin dieing. We can learn more about life by studying death and the afterlife; than most other resources. Physical death does not bother me, it is the spiritual death I am concerned with.
    As ALWAYS, Great article! Dr Salter is very intellectually talented.

  • Halvy

    Halvy

    June 11th, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    Life is short, life is challenging. Knowledge and Higher paradigms are one thing that makes it easier to traverse. I wonder, is the easy road usually the best road to take in life? Resistance builds strength. When we work out our physical bodies, we get stronger and healthier. What about our intellectual, emotional and spiritual faculties? Most often avoid difficult situations, death, illness etc. I wonder how much stronger they would be, If people faced these challenges with an elevated paradigm and embraced these obstacles as learning, growing experiences?
    GREAT ARTICLE!

  • Joe Cavallaro

    Joe Cavallaro

    June 11th, 2013 at 9:04 PM

    I’m 23 years old and was forced to confront my mortality at the age of 12 when the doctors discovered a brain tumor on my MRI scan. Leaving my parents to head to the surgery room was the hardest, most painful experience I’ve ever had.

    Losing my best friend Jenny to brain cancer was the second. She was the most kind-hearted, sweet, and gentle person I’ve ever met. And even though she was terminally ill, she never once brought it up and always had a smile on her face.

    Facing death, and losing more friends and family to cancer than anyone my age, or anyone at all, should, it’s been incredibly difficult. But in dealing with them, and most of them stick with you for the rest of your life, it really does enhance life. Everything’s brighter, you notice and your breath is taken away by the littlest of things, like seeing a hummingbird fly right in front of your face, and hover there for just a moment, or the way the light shines through thick clouds, creating a spot light below. I often give hugs to people like the women at the cafeteria whom I share the details of my day with, I have deep, philosophical conversations with cab drivers, and I’ll be damned if I’ll work a 9 to 5 job for the next 30+ years so I can have a surplus of money. I’d much rather work independently doing something I love, live modestly, and enjoy life, rather than wasting it away at a desk.

    Jenny’s Dad told a great story at Jenny’s funeral about their trip to Hawaii. Jenny wanted to “chase” the rainbow, not caring that they couldn’t ever really reach it. They took a car up one particularly large hill, and Jenny got out to see the spectacular view below. She climbed onto the roof of the car, stood up, and smiled. She stood there nearly an hour before she got down (and took off to have another adventure, I’m sure!). She never once complained, or even told me she was terminally ill (part of me always knew, though the rest of me starkly rejected the thought). I cherish my short time with her more than anything else. The last time I saw her, she wasn’t doing well, and it was getting late, so we sat on the couch and turned on a movie. I rested my head on her shoulder, and she leaned her head onto mine. I experienced something at that moment that’s hard to describe. Peace of mind. Contentment. If I could go back to that moment and stay there forever, I would. I’d never had a friend like Jenny. I’d never had someone who understood me, genuinely cared about me and how I felt. That loss is the hardest to bare. Someone who accepts you completely, as you are…I’d give anything for her to be here today

  • Trisha Cappello

    Trisha Cappello

    January 16th, 2014 at 2:46 PM

    Stephen, I find your articles to be truly inspiring, full of wisdom, compassion, very insightful, empathetic, filled with LOve and quite moving. This one touches home for me. I have experienced much loss in my life. A best friend in 20’s, my partner Julia of 14 years and a child (18) just recently. While also losing someone (a break up) I was and am still in love with. It’s loss and it hurts. Each experience has taught me a great deal about death and how loss is a part of our journey through life. No matter how many times you experience it, it never makes it any easier, but my heart is at peace knowing that we will one day be together again. I have learned that there is nothing to fear. I believe the more you can openly talk about death and loss, the more comforting it is, the more at peace your heart will be and the healing process puts back on your path to live the life we are meant to live. We each have a purpose here and when God/Universe believes our work is done, it’s time to go home. Death is end of our journey but we must live in the present moment appreciating all we have, living NOW, not taking anything or anyone for granted. Helping each other on this journey of life and Loving deeply and openly. Loss sucks, but it doesn’t define who we are or where we are going, it teaches us many things and helps us grow. Thank you for sharing your beautiful words.

  • Candice

    Candice

    September 14th, 2016 at 6:53 PM

    Trisha,
    I am saddened to hear about the news of your son’s passing. Your outlook on life is inspiring. Wishing you the best always, in all you do and that surrounds you.
    -C

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