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Death Becomes Them: How Our Failure to Live With Death Led to the Covid-19 Shutdown

We need to talk about death, spelled D-E-A-T-H. Death is so often discussed by using euphemisms that it has become part of the many taboos that govern modern speech. For example, the origin of the word “palliative”, comes from the word “palliate”, which actually means to conceal:

History and Etymology for palliate
Middle English, from Late Latin palliatus, past participle of palliare to cloak, conceal, from Latin pallium cloak

In previous generations, I imagine that people were surrounded by death all the time. Children used to frequently die during childbirth. Disease, war and famine were regular occurrences. It would have been impossible for almost all of human history to create a reality where death was simply not talked about or thought about. It is only because of advances in modern medicine and economic progress that have allowed us to not think about death at all, to conceal its reality and to go on living as if our time is unlimited.

The Covid-19 shutdown is the first time in my lifetime that I and the people around me have had to encounter a situation where we have to contend with death on a significant scale. We have avoided major wars thanks to our war veterans who confronted the Nazis in Europe. We have avoided the ravages of disease because of vaccinations and advancements in technology. We have never known an economic collapse like what occurred in the Great Depression. But here we are in 2020 confronting death for the first time probably since WWII and people have gone completely insane.

I started blogging mainly to engage with other law students and mainly because I believe I understand the psychology of law students and how many of them feel trapped by their psychology and the circumstances that are imposed on them. Their parents are often high achievers who set high expectations for them and they fear falling short of those expectations. Often their own competitive, type-A personalities make them fear falling short of their own expectations. In either case, the fear can be paralyzing and when their results turn out differently than what they were told or what they envisioned, they can feel overwhelmed, disillusioned, depressed, anxious or all of the above. Even when they do meet their expectations, many find out it is not all that was promised to them and experience the same things. 

The characteristics of many law students make the awareness of death and knowledge of the precious gift of time and how it interacts with circumstance more important than they otherwise would be because law students tend to be the type of people who end up living someone else´s life and/or being weighed down by expectations, either their own or someone else´s. If you find yourself in these situations, what is needed perhaps more than anything is an understanding of the gift of time and to think about the inevitability of death. Steve Jobs tried to make this point to a graduating class at Stanford in 2005 and his words are very important for every law student to hear:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don´t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, beacuse Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life´s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don´t waste it living someone else´s life. Don´t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people´s thinking. Don´t let the noise of others´ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Steve Jobs, Commencement Address at Stanford University, June 12, 2005.

Knowing that your time is limited is truly one of the greatest assets a person can have. It will focus your thinking and cause you to think about how you are using your time. If you are living someone else´s dreams or goals, it will help you recognize the folly of that and help you change course. If you achieve what you thought was your goal and realize that you are not in the place where your heart and intuition tell you that you should be, your awareness about death will give you the strength to change course.

And yet we pretend that death does not exist. We cloak it in euphemisms and coded language. When death emerges, as it has during the COVID-19 pandemic, we fall into a state of collective hysteria. Clearly our approach to this subject is not working.


In the article Why I Hope to Die at 75 by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, he outlined what he described as “the American immortal” and argued that the assumptions of the American immortal are wrong. His main contention is that after a certain age, there is an inevitable decline and that the advances in life expectancy over the past several decades ought to be thought of as lengthening the process of death rather than lengthening life itself:

In the early part of the 20th century, life expectancy increased as vaccines, antibiotics, and better medical care saved more children from premature death and effectively treated infections. Once cured, people who had been sick largely returned to their normal, healthy lives without residual disabilities. Since 1960, however, increases in longevity have been achieved mainly by extending the lives of people over 60. Rather than saving more young people, we are stretching out old age.

The American immortal desperately wants to believe in the ‘compression of morbidity.’ Developed in 1980 by James F. Fries, now a professor emeritus of medicine at Stanford, this theory postulates that as we extend our life spans into the 80s and 90s, we will be living healthier lives — more time before we have disabilities, and fewer disabilities overall. The claim is that with longer life, an ever smaller proportion of our lives will be spent in a state of decline.

But as life has gotten longer, has it gotten healthier? Is 70 the new 50?

Not quite. It is true that compared with their counterparts 50 years ago, seniors today are less disabled and more mobile. But over recent decades, increases in longevity seem to have been accompanied by increases in disability – not decreases...There was an “increase in the life expectancy with disease and a decrease in the years without disease. The same is true for functioning loss, an increase in expected years unable to function.

As Crimmins puts it, over the past 50 years, health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process...So American immortals may live longer than their parents, but they are likely to be more incapacitated. Does that sound very desirable? Not to me.

If you are a law student and are graduating law school, you are likely somewhere between 24 and 28 years old. Another way of describing that age group is to say that the main part of your life is 1/3 over. A critical phase of your life has ended where you had a substantial amount of independence for the first time in your life and virtually no responsibilities. For most people, a new phase is beginning where you will start working in your professional career (if you are lucky) where your level of responsibility will increase. Most of you will probably want to buy a home and have children of your own. These are good goals, but they should focus your mind to the fact that as time goes by, your circumstances change. Once one phase of life is gone, it is gone forever and what is done is done and what is not done is not done. If you are living your life based on dogma, to meet the expectations of someone else, to win a competition you don´t even want to win and have the negative feelings that come with it, maybe before running to the doctor to get a prescription for meds, you should think about death. Do not allow others to cloak it in euphemisms so you don´t have to think about it and think about your life and if you are where you want to be. Then remember the words of Steve Jobs to the graduating class of 2005 at Stanford University: all of your fear of failure or embarrassment will melt away in the face of death so don´t let the noise of others´ opinions drown out your inner voice. Somehow, it already knows what you truly want to become.

Our refusal to deal with death is also related to the Covid-19 shutdown. Maybe the reason we acquiesced to our freedom being taken away and allowed the government to dictate the most important aspect of our lives so quickly, allowed so many businesses, livelihoods and sectors of the economy to be decimated, allowed ourselves to be locked down in our homes and allowed so many young lives to be impeded is because we have forgotten how to think about and talk about death and in so doing, have forgotten how to live with it. How to live with it. This lockdown/shutdown is not a life. It is the slow death that Dr. Emanuel referred to when referring to the misconceptions of the American immortal. The only way to recover is to end the lockdown and learn to live with death again. It will be for the better.

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