This year, my uncle was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a passenger died on my flight home from holiday and my auntie had a near-fatal stroke. It seemed as though everywhere I turned, I was faced with the reminder that death comes to us all. I looked towards my future and saw my days lined up, one after the other. Hopefully there’d be another 70 years’ worth, but maybe not. Either way, there was one sure conclusion at the end of the line: death.
Perhaps naively, my realisation that existence is not infinite was fairly sudden, and with hindsight, I felt like I’d spent my first 23 years on Earth taking this whole life thing for granted.
I know we shouldn’t dwell on things too much, but we also shouldn’t eat crisps before breakfast or cross the road at a red light. I do dwell on things, and after the happenings of the past year, my eventual death became something I couldn’t stop thinking about. I’m not very good at controlling my thoughts, you see, and as the first half of the year passed by, I became increasingly anxious about not being around in the future.
I analysed the prospect of my death in great depth, so much so that I’d find myself at dinner with friends wondering how they could possibly go about their normal lives knowing they might be hit by a truck tomorrow lunchtime. Why do we spend our whole lives learning, only for things to be cut short? What if I’m struck by illness and die young? Why can’t we all live forever under a sky of candyfloss clouds? I didn’t get very far in coming up with the answers.
One day, while I was mid-pondering on my walk to the tube, my phone vibrated. The words “Don’t forget, you’re going to die” flashed up on my screen. I’d been sent a notification from WeCroak, an app that uses a poison dart frog as its logo and reminds you of your impending fate. I downloaded it after my fears around death became all-consuming, because despite its startling nature, it’s supposed to teach us to implement needed change, to let go of what doesn’t matter and relish what does. In short, I hoped it would turn my fears into a powerful and positive new mindset.
Cofounded in 2017 by Hansa Bergwall, a publicist from Brooklyn, and Californian app developer Ian Thomas, WeCroak is based upon the old Bhutanese folk saying that “to be truly happy, one must contemplate death five times daily”. This theory is called death recollection, an old but forgotten tenet of healthy meditation practice.
WeCroak works by sending its 90,000+ users (they have 5,000 in the UK, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s) five daily notifications between 7am and 10pm. It’s ad-free, doesn’t have any links to social media (to minimise unproductive time spent on your phone) and notifications come through at random times – ironically, exactly as death does.
When you open each notification, you’re greeted with a thought-provoking quote about productivity, positivity, life or death.
“If they were going to write your obituary tomorrow, would you be happy with what they said?” was a personal favourite of mine. Other quotes that left me thinking included “Life is too short to be lived badly” and “Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun”.
Although death anxiety isn’t yet listed as a disorder in its own right, it is referred to as a phobia, and there are a number of reasons why it may develop.
“I’ve seen a number of adult clients who have reported a sudden awareness of death after big life events, both negative and positive,” cognitive hypnotherapist, Hazel Gale, tells me. “For example, some find themselves more acutely aware of their fear of death after entering a meaningful relationship, achieving a long sought-after career goal, or starting a family.”
Clinical psychologist and author of Mindfulness in Motion, Dr Tamara Russell, explains that it may be a mounting problem. “Our baseline levels of fear and threat (particularly extinction anxiety) are growing, alongside an inability to cope with unrealistic expectations peddled about living a life of no pain, fear or death”.
That said, “people may combat a fear of death by looking it directly in the eye in a facilitated way,” she continued. And that is exactly what WeCroak helps users to do.
The idea that death recollection is good for our mental health isn’t a new one, though. People have been confronting their mortality all over the world for thousands of years. Just as Bhutanese Buddhists believe that it’s healthy to regularly think about the moment we cease to exist (by the way, the people of Bhutan are the happiest in the world), meditation on death awareness remains central to Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche writes in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that regular contemplation of death can lead to a deep experience of joy as old attachments and negative habits are released.
Researcher Laura Kubzansky has found that characteristics like resilience, positive outlook on life, and a sense of meaning and purpose all lead to increased happiness and therefore better health. Interestingly, these are some of the same traits that Sogyal Rinpoche teaches are enhanced by accepting the reality of death, along with a reduction in fear and stress.
More recently, said teachings gave rise to the western “terror management theory”, which suggests that an individual’s drive to achieve personal goals is often motivated if they are aware of the certainty of death. Another study of young adults at the University of Kentucky found that, after advising one group of students to contemplate death and the other a painful trip to the dentist, those who considered their mortality were more likely to construct positive words such as “joy” when asked to complete stem words. Are you starting to recognise a trend?
Despite historic theories, studies and the celebration of death in other countries such as Mexico, modern western societies have famously shied away from death recollection in a big way. In fact, a recent study by Co-Op Funeralcare found that 16.5 million Brits are uncomfortable talking about death, with only 7% putting their wishes in a funeral plan.
In an interview with Recode, Bergwall said: “Sometimes, when things hop cultures and go from one place to another, we sort of take what we’re most comfortable with and leave out the rest.” As stiff-upper-lipped Brits, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve done exactly that. But WeCroak builds on the historic practices which are all too easy to push away and encourages a more useful, modern strain of death recollection. It’s one that forces us to think about life more productively: to look at the bigger picture and not waste time. I think that’s why I like it.
Since one of the things that makes us most unhappy is our tendency to get caught up in things which don’t actually matter, WeCroak teaches us not to sweat the small stuff.
“WeCroak doesn’t remind us of anything we don’t already know. However, keeping that truth a little closer can help us let go of what doesn’t matter and stay focused on what does,” WeCroak’s founder, Hansa Bergwall, tells me. He’s got a point. When we remember our mortality, we can take a deep breath, think ‘I actually don’t have the time to waste worrying about this’, and move on.
When I quiz Russell on why death recollection is ultimately incredibly healthy, she says: “Regular contemplation of death helps us to live more fully, prioritise what is really important to us, be thankful and grateful for the little treasures of daily life and really value these relationships that nurture us.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Though the reminder of death can be chilling and sobering, it shocks me into letting go of worries about what other people think of me, large workloads and missed parties. It’s not that these things don’t matter, but remembering that I’m here for a limited time puts everything in perspective and loosens my deadline-induced tight chest.
In rooms full of loved ones I sit back and soak up the special moments. I spend weekends exploring and seeing friends rather than cleaning my bathroom floor, and I absolutely don’t fret if my hoovering plans are delayed by a day or two. No one has died, after all, and in all of this, that has got to be the main thing.
Images: Getty, Unsplash, Alessia Armenise