Memento Mori: Chronic Illness, Death and Remembering What Matters
My 2-month-old son screamed at the top of his lungs as I walked around the nursery, holding him in my arms.
The sound pierced right to center of my brain, lighting up my nervous system like a Christmas tree and spiking my Meniere’s symptoms.
My ears rang louder and louder as he screamed inconsolably for more than an hour.
I didn’t know what to do. I was completely exhausted and starting to get dizzy. It felt like I was going to break.
But then a strange thought entered my head: “What if this was the last moment I would ever spend with my son?”
A morbid thought at first glance, but it instantly changed my perspective, and I started to calm down as a wave of love and affection washed away the adrenaline.
I suddenly just wanted to be with him. I wanted to savor every single second.
I wanted it more than anything.
A Meditation on Mortality:
This experience had a major effect on me.
The past few months have been some of the most difficult of my entire life, and this was the first time in a long time that I experienced such a dramatic change in my perspective. But it didn’t happen randomly.
I had been thinking a lot about a philosophical concept that I recently discovered called “Memento Mori.”
It’s a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “Remember that you will die” and can be found throughout history, dating all the way back to ancient Rome.
I understand that death is an uncomfortable topic. A lot of us spend a great deal of our lives avoiding thoughts of death. But the point of Memento Mori isn’t to make you uncomfortable; it’s the opposite in fact.
Memento Mori is the practice of reflecting on death, on our mortality, as a reminder to live fully in the time we have left, and to recognize what truly matters in life.
I’ve come back to this idea over and over since that moment with my son. It’s had a transformative effect on my daily experience, helping me cope with certain difficult moments, and keeping me focused on the things that are actually important to me.
When faced with death, or extremely difficult circumstances, many people experience this kind of change in perspective.
With a sudden and profound awareness of what really matters in life, many people regret the time and energy they spent throughout their lives chasing the wrong things and wish they could have done things differently.
Many of these people go on to live very different lives if death can be avoided. There’s even a clinical term to describe this kind of sudden and dramatic positive life change: Post Traumatic Growth.
When you’re diagnosed with a life changing chronic illness, whether terminal or not, these kinds of experiences are extremely common, too.
After my Meniere’s disease diagnosis, I was surprised to realize how much time and energy I had wasted worrying about things that no longer mattered to me at all.
I had taken so much for granted. The simple things, like feeling stable on my feet, the bliss of silence, or even being able to hear at all – these things mattered a lot to me when I suddenly faced their absence.
In a very real way, a part of me died when I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease. It really was like a death. My life changed forever. The old me was gone.
I do have a wonderful life now, and a lot to be grateful for, but I also still live with unwanted limitations, so it’s easy to forget the lessons and perspective that I learned early on.
A Thought Experiment:
The next time you are facing a difficult situation, whether you are sick, suffering, anxious, angry, or frustrated, I encourage you try the mental exercise of Memento Mori.
Ask yourself, “What if I die tomorrow? What if these are my last moments?”
Would you feel differently about your current situation? Would you do anything differently? In most situations, I would be willing to bet the answer is yes. It is for me.
You can externalize this practice, too. If you’re mad at someone, especially if it’s someone you care about, consider their mortality.
What if this was their last moment? What if you would never see them again after this? Would you still be mad? Would whatever you’re mad about even matter at all?
You can apply this kind of thinking to strangers, too. Would you yell at the customer service person on the phone if you knew they we’re about to die? Probably not. You might even go out of your way to make them feel appreciated.
Obviously, this is all just a thought experiment.
But on a deeper level, it carries a simple truth that is sometimes hard to face – we are all going to die one day. Life is fleeting. Every single one of us actually can die at any moment. And that’s what gives our life importance.
When things are difficult, like they are right now for me, this simple exercise can give you some much needed perspective and help you to remember what really matters.
10 thoughts on “Memento Mori: Chronic Illness, Death and Remembering What Matters”
Very helpful perspective- thank you!
You’re welcome! It really has been helpful for me lately.
Thank you Glenn…exactly what I needed to read today!
The inspiration I needed, Glenn…and an opportunity to change my perspective. Thank you so much. Blessings to you and your family at this difficult time.
Thank you Glenn for this reminder to live with the knowledge if the closeness of death. Without this perspective it us very easy to become trapped in wasteful and toxic ways of behaving. ‘We know not the day nor the hour’. Awareness of death allows us to live more vitally!
Wishing you peace friend.
I have just begun my journey with Meniere’s. Six episodes this week dashed my confidence about a future with this disease. I tell myself that I am going to keep doing the things I love but the reality is, this thing can rear it’s ugly head at any moment. Like at the movies this week or with friends at dinner. I pray to be able to remain positive with a healthy dose of reality to boot. I have read and read research about the disease. Most all the talk addresses the symptoms of the disease. Only one article in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine took a stab at the root cause for one patient who had experienced a cervical neck injury like whiplash from a car accident. I had the same experience and wondered if others may have as well. I am attaching the article link below and would really like to hear from others of you who have a similar history and Meniere’s. Here’s the link:
I’ve had issues with my neck for many years, due to a past injury. Had physical therapy several times–helped my neck but not my Meniere’s symptoms. I would like to try chiropractic care.
My chiropractor, has has treated me for back issues for over fifteen years feels he can help. He was quick to point out that there can be vascular reasons for Meniere’s and cervical nerve related issues or both. He indicated that the vascular causes would not be very effectively treated with Chiropractic but those sufferers with cervical/nerve related issues might well receive relief from the symptoms. He also pointed out that Meniere’s is a life ling issue for most folks but may be much more manageable with less frequency of onsets where chiropractic measures are appropriate. Just started my chiropractic regimen today with my chiropractor. Best of luck to you as you search for answers and relief form this ghostly disease which seems to always lurk in the shadows. Likely the worst part about it is not knowing when Meniere’s will come to visit. I pray you have a blessed Thanksgiving holiday for even as we deal with these issues, each of us certainly have many things to be thankful for!
I definitely have “vascular reasons”–lifelong migraine for one, and now, occipital neuralgia. I developed the ON after my first severe attack of Meniere’s. I have ear pressure and head pain, which worsens as the day progresses. I try to make the most of the morning and early afternoon hours. Yes, we all have many things to be thankful for, and we must not forget that. Blessings!
I would still give the chiropractic a try as each of us have different conditions affecting us. It would be terrible to think you didn’t try something that might have worked.I hope that y can find relief from this ghostly disease! All the best! Mark