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Don't Let Google Kill Talk About Death

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My dad has always joked with me about death.

When he'd leave the house and I'd say, "See you soon!" he'd respond, "If I don't die!" with a chuckle.

But before you wonder where child protection was, hear me out.

My father is a Buddhist, and has spent a lot of time thinking about death: in particular, how acknowledging it enhances life. As a child, his dark humour gave me permission to think about a subject too many of us push away.

It's easier than ever to live our lives without accepting they will end. Especially when the transit towards immortality is Google-powered. Last week, Time asked "Can Google Solve Death?" in a story about the tech company's foray into the life extension business. In May, National Geographic ran a piece on gene mutation with a photo of a baby and the headline "This Baby Will Live To Be 120."

For decades, scientists have been messing around with mice, worms and monkeys to find ways to prolong life. Already advances in medicine and public health awareness have increased Canadian life expectancy to 81 years -- about a seven-per-cent jump since the 1970s. In America, the average lifespan of 78 is predicted to increase another year every six years. I'll happily take another few healthy decades on this earth (thanks in advance, Google!) but more time won't make our lives richer. Talking about death will.

Unfortunately, mortality has a PR issue: too many of us view death as a mouse in our brains -- a creature we ignore during the day but that gnaws away at our sanity come night. Instead, we should welcome the discussion of death into our homes.

Or, as one site is proposing, literally eat dinner with it. A Seattle-based artist started "Death over Dinner" last summer, an interactive website that helps people plan and invite guests to a meal where the conversation focuses around, well, you guessed it. And there are other initiatives to put talk of death on the table: last year Death Cafés spread across North America, and in July, NPR host Scott Simon live-tweeted his mother's death from the I.C.U. unit.

But the fact remains that bringing death into life is still a challenge. According to the Dying Matters coalition, 71 per cent of the public agrees that people are uncomfortable discussing death and grief. The cost of that silence can be measured in medical bills: though nearly 75 per cent of Americans want to die at home, only a third of them do. But the most important reason to face death head on is that, simply put, it is what motivates us to live.

Without time limits and, er, deadlines, humans would be aimless. There's a reason the axiom "You only live once" is so popular: recognizing our mortality is motivating and incites important questions about how to spend our time. A powerful YouTube video shows a pile of 28,835 jelly beans, one for each day of the average American lifespan, shrinking, as a voice explains how much time we spend on mandatory activities such as sleeping (8,477 days), working (3,202 days) and eating (1,635 days). We're left staring at a pile of 2,740 magic beans and some big questions:

"So what are you going to do with this time? If you only had half of it what would you do differently? What about half of that? How much time have you already spent worrying instead of doing something you loved?"

Touché. And why am I writing this column instead of hanging out with my 91-year-old grandfather?

Humans respond well to contrast, and life and death are the ultimate example. Without them, we would take too much for granted. How else to explain the sensation we feel after finding something or reuniting with someone we thought was lost. Whether salad spoons or a lover, both become infinitely more valuable when we realize just how tenuous our hold on them really is.

Just ask the dying about death's power to bring life focus. In a short film about the U.K. Labour Party strategist Philip Gould, shot in the last two weeks before he died of esophageal cancer in 2011, the wilting man said "I knew that the purpose here now was to give as much love as I could to people who mattered to me even though I was dying. And my life became death. It gained a kind of quality and a power as it never had before."

Last year, a hospice worker recorded the top five regrets of the dying for the Guardian. Number two? "I wish I hadn't worked so hard." Number four? "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends." Our jobs don't love us back and can't comfort us on our death beds.

The fact that we are going to die should provide a sense of freedom along with the pressure to have a meaningful life. No matter how important we feel, we are one of 7 billion people who will all meet the same fate; microscopic flecks in an enormous universe. And no matter how badly we want to leave a legacy, be productive, or make the world a better place, death means we won't be around to enjoy it -- precious permission to take ourselves a little less seriously.

Talking about death isn't easy. I spend many nights baffled by the thought of not being on Earth one day. My dad told me this weekend he's still scared of death, and the man has spent a short lifetime meditating on the topic. But acknowledging the reaper is real will make for better years than even Google could manufacture.

*This article previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen

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