Thursday, November 20, 2008


At lunch today with some friends, I asked a character question that never fails to fascinate me: "If you were going to die precisely a year from today, and it was possible for you to know that fact beforehand -- would you want to know?"

Defining the terms here: You would die instantly -- a piano falling on your head or something -- with no suffering. It is not possible to avoid that death once you know about it (that is, you couldn't hide inside your apartment to avoid pianos), but at the same time, it will come to you whether you know about it or not. And you could still die earlier than that if you're stupid -- for instance, walking across the floor at a piano-throwing competition.

I would want to know, so I could travel around the world, take care of the Tasks I Must Complete Before I Die, have plenty of time to spend with my family and friends, and generally make that last year a great one, without all the constraints that come from having to plan for the long-term future. I would actually be really grateful to know it was my last year so I could enjoy it properly -- not that my life now is unsatisfactory; just that I can't take off to spend a month in the South Pacific, say, as I would if I had so little time or reason to save money left (relatively speaking).

But one of my friends said she would rather not know -- at least not a whole year in advance; maybe the last two months. She would prefer to live her life without the shade of imminent death hanging over her, and she likes living now as if everything already were the last time -- enjoying each moment for what it is, rather than worrying so much about the future. Which also seems like a wise way to live.

So I'm putting this up in the poll: To know the date of your death and its imminence? Or not to know? What think you?


  1. Talk about timing! Here I am up late tonight trying to work out the plot points for my book series and you go and post an article on dying of all things.

    Well, guess what? I think this could work as a subplot or recurring theme toward the end of my series! When my antagonist is really leaning on my protagonist, it will be like adding insult to injury.

    I actually spent several hours over the summer trying to imagine the worst circumstances I could for breaking a person. Think holocaust death camp but contemporary and not so melodramatic. So, I have a pretty good mental image of what this period in my series will be like, but this will be the proverbial twist to the knife!

    So, thank you for being a night owl and posting!

  2. My gut reaction is that I would rather not know. Though I suppose a full year would give one time to get used to the idea and actually make good use of the time--sort of Randy Paush-like, maybe? (I know he didn't know the exact date, but...)

  3. I immediately thought I wouldn't want to know, then read your reason and thought about it, and wondered if I would, just so I wouldn't waste my last year.

    But ultimately, I vote for not knowing. Kinda makes you think about how we should be living each day to its fullest anyway, and always telling our loved ones how much we love them.

  4. I already live as if I could lose my life at any time, but I think I'd still want to know. If I was sure I was done for, I'd concentrate more energy on preparing my daughter for life without me. To talk extensively about what her life will be like after I'm gone while no fixed expiration date looms would probably be too morbid a discussion for her to swallow.

  5. Those who are going to be executed (legally or illegally) have this knowledge, (except they also have the appeals process).

    How many of them have lived a meaningful life in the known time remaining? Some, I think, tho I haven't researched it.

  6. I would rather not know. If I didn't have children, my outlook would be different. But since I do, I know I would drive myself crazy with worrying about what would happen to my kids after I'm gone.

  7. Interesting question...

    My answer is no, I would not want to know. No doubt about it. But if I'd been asked this question before I had kids, my answer would have been yes - for all the reasons you gave.

    But now that I've got kids, things have changed. I'm living the life I want to live, I've seen the world, my kids are healthy, and I'm pursuing my dream of being a writer. There's nothing more, really, that I need.

    If I knew when I was going to die, I would just get angry about how much of my kids' lives I'll be missing. And then I won't be appreciating the real joys in life. :)

  8. After some thought, I've decided I'd want to know. A year would give me (and others) the chance to come to terms with it and make the most of our limited time together.

  9. Definitely not.

    I had a dear friend die of cancer a few years ago, and she was given a terminal diagnosis with about a year to live. I know it's a different situation than the one that you described, but one of her biggest complaints was that she didn't feel like she could deal with people on a normal level anymore (and people treated her so delicately that it drove her mad). She felt such a panic to tie up loose ends and pressured herself to make "real" connections with people, that her last few months ended up being stressful with lots of hurt feelings.

    I'd rather live in blissful ignorance.

  10. Heck, yeah, I'd want to know. I'd quit my job and get things done that needed getting done, and I'd write a book to my children about what I wanted them to know and remember.

    I'd also be better about my prayer life!

    Thing is, we're all terminal in this world. It's a good thing to remember. Never know when a piano might fall out of the sky.

  11. My younger brother died when he was sixteen so I have always lived my life with the knowledge that everybody dies.

    While I would LIKE to know if I was going to die in the next year, I figure that there is a reason why we humans don't know when the bell is going to toll.

    Anyway, if for some reason I did know my piano was coming for me I don't think my life would change that much. I'd still do just about the same thing every day.

    So what are your tasks?


  12. I wouldn't want to know. Like Tabitha, I like to think I live every day knowing it could be my last. I checked off a lot of my "bucket list" in my younger years, so there's not much I feel I've missed. Ironically, I think this obsessive drive I have to create is Because I know I'll run out of time someday, and it seems impossible I'll be able to get all these ideas out of me before I go. So, other than eating what I like and exercising less, I'm not sure I'd change anything.

  13. I'd rather NOT know, like your friend. I prefer to live every day as if it's my last--because one of these times, I'll be right. So I say just hang the sense of it and live how you want to live every single day. Though I certainly see the argument for knowing. I would like to be able to spend more time with my family and have them suffer a sudden tragedy. So you can tell my family I'm dying. Just don't bother telling me.

  14. I would want to know because, unlike those who know their approximate death, due to an illness, or the death row inmate, I would have the freedom and health to do all those things I want to do. If I want to dance naked under the moon, I could do it. I could sit and finish the scrapbooks and quilts for each child. I would go see the Northern Lights and maybe stow-a-way on a ship to Japan. And, yes, I would hug a lot of people; but I would not tell them, because then they would treat me differently.

  15. Greetings;

    It depends. If I were to die suddenly in an accident I don't think I would want to know, although I retain the option to change my mind. However if I was suffering from a terminal disease, I would want to know as much about the disease as possible and exactly how long I had to live. Depending on how much time I had it would give me time to decide what is important and what needs to be done and what can be ignored. It would also give me time to reflect, think, and write about death from what may appear to be a closer perspective, although since we don't know when we're going to die, it may already be close. Thanks for your blog. I like it.
    Leonard Nolt

  16. I know my faith is strong, but I'd still be a nervous wreck and bawling most of the time from the thought of leaving my family. No, I don't think I'd want to know.

  17. I would, I would. I would want to know. Let the last year of my life be the best.

  18. It would be terrifying at first, but I too would want to be able to prepare my kids and my husband for what would come after.

    And I might go skydiving. But that may be what ends up killing me.

    I do try to live like I could die at any moment--being true to myself, writing, volunteering, etc. It makes you think of your relationships and the way you treat the people that you love.

    Great question!

  19. If the date of my death were to precede any hypothetical publication date, I would definitely NOT want to know.

    (Just bemoaning the state of the economy and its dismal effect on publishing...)

  20. I would want to know it was coming, but not the exact date. Three close relatives have died from pancreatic (excuse my spelling) cancer. It isn't supposed to be genetic, but there is a test. My doctor refused to give it to me. He said what good would it do for me or my family?

    A dear friend died on January 2, 2007. She was almost 30. She shared her birthday with my daughter. She lived her life to the fullest. At her wake, people waited in line, in the cold for up to three hours to get in the building. She never met a stranger. She was an elementary school teacher, an athlete, committed to her religious beliefs, and a wonderful young lady. She was one of those people who could float between all kinds of different groups of people. Somehow, she must have known how short her life was to be. A few weeks before her death she had the most beautiful photographs made and gave them to her Mom and Dad. On her last Christmas, she had her Dad read The Night Before Christmas, as he had done all through her childhood...and then a few days later she was gone. As one of her mentors (in education) I learned so much form her. Live Fully, Love Deeply and Make Every Momment Count!