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The Importance of Reflecting on Death, Especially After Boston

First Bomb Blast on Boyleston Street
Top photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Last Monday afternoon, author Erica Brown had some time on her hands in Boston. She was there to address a cultural arts gathering, and, with a few hours before the appearance, she decided to check out the Boston Marathon.

Brown had lived in Boston for a number of years, so she knew the importance of the event. She also knew how to read the expression of elation on the faces of the runners as they crossed the finish line. Twenty-six miles is a long way to go even if you are an experienced long-distance athlete.

Then came two ground-shaking blasts. Chaos. Panic.

And there she was, smack-dab in the middle of what could have been the last day of her life. She even thought to herself, “Today is the day I could die.”

Death is something Erica Brown has thought quite a bit about. As the author of the new book “Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death,” she embraces the end that will someday come and makes a plea for people to do a better job of planning for it.

Yet last week, Brown found herself going through the same emotional trauma as everyone else. She was scared. She was confused. And she was numb.

I spoke with her about those emotions — and how they were impacted by the ideas in her recent book about death — late last week.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Erica Brown, thank you so much for joining us. We had originally planned this book conversation for 2 p.m. last Monday but we had to postpone it, which left you with some free time mid-afternoon before your event. Since you were in Boston that day, you decided to go check out the marathon. Tell us about your experience.

ERICA BROWN: Well, my hotel was right near the finish line, so I decided to head down there. I was walking around and taking pictures, texting them to my kids. And then the explosions went off. Nobody knew what was going on, and then, all of a sudden, there was this rush of human beings running down stairs, running down the block, eyes wide open, mouths wide open. People not understanding what was going on, but screaming. A lot of screaming, a lot of sirens.

Everything changed so quickly. The atmosphere had been so liberating. It’s this real sense of the human triumph of spirit at the finish line and people are high-fiving each other and hugging each other and strangers are giving people flowers. And then when this happened, it’s as if it all got erased in a few moments.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So you were about a block from the finish line and you heard these two explosions. And having just written this book, what in the world went through your mind?

ERICA BROWN: Well I also lived in Israel during the first two intifadas, so those sounds and that screaming and the explosion and the sirens was unfortunately not so foreign to me. And of course, you go through in your mind and you say, ‘Gosh, I could die today.’ I wasn’t at the site of the explosion. But I think the sense of not really knowing if this was it or if this was just the beginning was very paralyzing. And certainly, the whole image of Sept. 11 went racing through my head.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So this thought: “I could die today.” You’re processing that thought. Were you processing it about yourself, about other people? How were you trying to work through that?

ERICA BROWN: I would say I’m still working through it because obviously it was just a very shattering experience that takes a while to process. I look at the pictures that I took on my phone of the finish line and it’s hard to imagine that I was there and a short time later, there was going to be blood there and all these reports of people dying.

I think I was thinking about my own death and how that would affect my family. In the process of writing the book, I took my own advice. And part of that, in the process of preparing for your demise, is creating an ethical will, making sure your finances are in order, buying burial plots. So those basic pieces were done. And so I think I actually took comfort in the fact that my last wishes would be respected and they were known. No one had to second-guess them.

Money is not unique. It’s in many ways the least distinctive aspect of you that you can pass on. The most distinctive thing is your wisdom and life experience, so why should you keep that for yourself?
— Author Erica Brown

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But these are things that generally people do toward the end of their lives, when they’re in their 60s, 70s, 80s. In the case of Monday, the three people who died were under the age of 30. How could anyone have thought to plan for something like that?

ERICA BROWN: I think most people don’t. I think sometimes you have soldiers going into battle who will write letters, who will think about their mortality and I think there are certain people who are of a more philosophical orientation or people who face personal illness or illness in their family who do have a sense that you could die at any minute.

But I think that human beings are great factories for denial. And it is the most evident piece of knowledge that we have. People say it’s death and taxes. But we know that we’re going to die more than we know that we’re going to pay taxes. For those who are in tax-evasion mode, there’s no death-evasion mode. The angel of death comes either way.

So why wouldn’t you have the conversations you need to have or grant the forgiveness that you need to grant or write down the wisdom that you’ve collected? When you’re a child — an 8-year-old who passes away — it’s only natural that those are not things that you would ever think about. But as you age, as you start thinking about who you want to be professionally, as you choose life partners, when you have your first child, I think there are certain stages where you say, “It is time for me to get things in order.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And in your opinion, what should “getting things in order” look like?

ERICA BROWN: Well most people that I speak to have financial wills. But very few people I speak to have ethical wills. And I always tell people, “Money is not unique. It’s in many ways the least distinctive aspect of you that you can pass on. The most distinctive thing is your wisdom and life experience, so why should you keep that for yourself?”

Make it a project that every 10 years on that birthday, you’ll sit down and re-write an ethical will, or what you’ve learned. Because people who have those from relatives who have passed on, they treasure that. So even if you just take an hour to do it, that’s more than most people will spend in a lifetime.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Why do you think Americans have such a tough time talking about death? Even opening the subject to discussion?

ERICA BROWN: I think that we live in a society that prides itself, sometimes falsely, on its exceptionalism. And one aspect of exceptionalism is the sense of invincibility. A lot of it has to do with a certain naïve way in which we think we’ll live forever, we’ll be strong forever, we’ll be powerful forever. And that makes us so woefully under-prepared for the times when we’re not. There are societies where the average citizen is much more vigilant about life because they understand that life is fragile and that we’re vulnerable.

In my research, I read a great endorsement for another book on this topic called, “Good to Go.” The endorsement said: “If you or someone you know is going to die, buy this book.” And it just made me laugh, because it’s so emblematic of the society in which we live today.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: A lot of our parents come from a generation where we don’t talk about this. And if you have a parent from that generation who doesn’t want to even discuss the subject but you know that the subject needs to be held, how can you suggest that you open a conversation?

ERICA BROWN: That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book — to give people some language and structure to facilitate those difficult conversations. I think the gentle touch rather than judgmental touch usually works best. Ask them: Have you ever thought about the collected wisdom that you gained about friendship, wisdom, marriage, money, charity? Sometimes it’s the circuitous route that helps people think about their collective wisdom. Then you can get into other questions: Have you written a will, have you thought about burial?

Unfortunately, in the fog of losing someone, the death industry comes in and takes tremendous advantage because there are expensive funeral costs that could be diminished for your family or the second-guessing or the in-fighting that happens when people have not specified where their possession should go. You watch these things and it rips apart families. I don’t believe that any mother or father would want to experience their children fighting over their legacy because the parents themselves didn’t make it abundantly clear. So I think in that way, we actually give the gift to ourselves with the knowledge that we’re preparing the way for a clear vision for the next generation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: You discuss religion quite a bit in the book. But do you think that’s crucial to the process of preparing for death?

ERICA BROWN: No, I don’t. I do think that in interviewing people from different spiritual traditions that if you have a strong belief in the afterlife, that it does help people deal with death a little better. Often, if people have been in the military or have served in a war, they’re often more honest and candid about their mortality. But I don’t think you have to be a religious person. I think most people are spiritual beings even if they’re not religiously affiliated with a church or house of worship or particular denomination.

I think it may give more language, so it may make it more accessible. And you may be in a house of worship where you’re clergy person does speak about these issues with frequency. But no, I don’t think you have to be religious. I think you just have to have a pulse. In the sense that you have to be alive enough to realize the importance of living while you’re living and preparing to die because that’s part of the life cycle.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What advice would you have for people in the Boston area, and for that matter in Texas, as well, where there have been a number of deaths in an explosion down there, who are going through the suddenness, the unexpected nature of this sudden loss? What advice would you have for them on how to deal with it?

ERICA BROWN: Having lived there, I can say that Boston is a tough town and a resilient town. But I think it’s time to mourn and grieve and honor those who are ailing by sending our best wishes towards them and by being a more vigilant society. I think we’re not as careful in terms of planning events and making sure that we can all be on the front lines to make sure these incidents don’t happen or that we are more careful.

But it helps us to remember that we don’t know when the last day is. So if you could craft a last day, then craft it now and live it now. Are there things that you want to do on your bucket list? I always encourage people to have an emotional bucket list. Is there forgiveness that you have to grant or forgiveness that you have to ask? Are there regrets that you have to correct right now? Are there relationships that you could cement? Is there an ‘I love you’ that must be said? If these are things that we can do now, why wait? Because we don’t know when that last day is. For some people, unfortunately, it was this past Monday.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: You’ve written so much about this, you’ve thought about it so much, you’ve interviewed so many people. When you think of your own death, how do you think of it?

ERICA BROWN: I guess I range between being terrified of not existing and feeling remarkably blessed by the life I’ve had thus far, which has been relatively pain-free. I feel extremely blessed. I have four beautiful and healthy children. I’ve been married for 25 wonderful years, I’ve watched my career blossom. I’d love to keep living and keep experiencing the blessings. But I understand that if I had to go today, I hope I could look back and say, “I made the most of the day.”

I think that desire to squeeze meaning out of every day has helped me come to terms with the fact that one day I’m going to go. I’ve done my wills — including my ethical will — I’ve made my burial request, I’ve put those pieces into place. So at the very least, I think my children will be free of that burden. And I think that the people I love know that I love them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: All things to consider. Erica Brown, thank you so much for joining us.

ERICA BROWN: Thank you.

This interview has been edited for clarity. Top photo: Officials react as the first explosion goes off on Boylston Street near the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on April 15. Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

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