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Treating death as a part of life instead of an event outside it

Death is a transition to another life stage. Here is how to approach that transition with gratitude.

Photo of Chris Lee
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Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine the end-of-life experience?

This is an idea for both the dying and for the survivors (who will eventually become the dying).

Things are dangerous to the degree that we are unprepared to deal with them - riding a bike, driving a car, rock climbing, raising a family, facing death.

The key to dealing successfully with a thing is to prepare before you engage.

We need a framework of stories on death and dying that prepare us to deal constructively with what it means to die instead of avoiding death as if it were unnatural.  We need a way to see death as a normal part of the arc of life. We need a threshold rituals to mark the weight of the transition but to let it come and, more importantly, to let it go.

This idea consists of three parts:

  1. Capturing the continuity of your own life story
  2. Normalizing the experience of death
  3. Threshold ritual (beyond the burial)


Continuity

A common theme around the challenge seems to be collecting stories and using those to make sense of one's life. Rather then collect the stories right around death or after the time of death, how about writing our own stories, one sentence at a time, over a life time? A "one sentence journal" (idea from Gretchen Rubin - The Happiness Project - here and here) is a compact way of seeing how your life has changed over the years. Looking back could mean picking a day and seeing the arc of your life over the years. From these journals one could extract the stories that seemed the most relevant or told the long story of one's life most effectively for others (friends, family or public) to see and use to normalize their own life and death experience.

Creating a system for easily capturing daily sentences and for easily lining them up by date or by content over the span of decades would help one see the continuity in one's life. 

e.g. In one's dying days, the system might pop up digest of the things you did on this day over your life so that you could more easily see the arc of your story over the years. From that arc, the addition of today would seem natural and small compared to all the days that have come before.

Normalization

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”
― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

It seems to me that we are surprised that others have the same experiences we do, especially when faced with the tribulations of life. Seeing the stories of others living a "normal" life, even as they age, even as they die is very powerful*.

Creating a system for sharing life stories, possibly categorized by life event, would help put the process of dying into context for both the dying and the friends and family of the dying. 

e.g. As the dying (or the living) experience the process of dying, they may choose to share their thoughts and tips for dealing with the experience. As others journal about their experience, the system might suggest links to others who have dealt with something similar. This way your own experience can be normalized through observation of the experience of others.

* Try watching the Up Series from 7 through 56 all in a row. You'll see the arc these ordinary peoples' lives take and understand what I mean.

Threshold Ritual

Funerals are for the living so that the natural grief of loss can be processed. Using the stories of the deceased (continuity) and the context of the others who have gone before (normalization), this sense of loss can be turned into a sense of gratitude. That sense of gratitude can be embodied in many ways: a story, a token, an urn, a dance, a song.

The same system which helps record one's days and link those to the stories of others, could also present a number of options for remembering and possibly link to services which facilitate those memorials.

e.g. A survivor may browse through the one-sentence journal of the deceased, guided by "likes" from others who have viewed it perhaps, and choose two quotes or events that resonate particularly strongly for him/her. The system would link to a service that offers ways to embody those quotes in something physical (e.g. as a brass coin) which the survivor can hold and return to on occasion as a reminder of their thanks for the person's life.

The process of using these tools over the years, hopefully, creates a more adaptive outlook on one's life and what death means in that life. That way, when the time comes, the sadness of loss is held in the context of a life well lived and with a sense of the greater human experience underlying it.

This idea emerged from

  • An Individual

11 comments

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Photo of Shane Zhao
Team

Great to have you in this challenge Chris! Perhaps you might consider helping people better grasp how this idea could play out by describing some of the proposed activities you've outlined. Check out the user scenarios that Jim created in his idea: @maybeMaybe I Know Something About This 
Looking forward to learning more about this!

Photo of Aaron Wong
Team

Chris,
I actually see a lot of similarity between what you want to achieve and Jess Paik 's idea in Once Upon a Time . Storytelling can be a great way of personalizing, customizing, and designing new experiences, habits, and rituals. Perhaps you may also find Judith Henry 's post Planning Mom’s Funeral . . .With Barbra Streisand’s Help  a good source of additional inspiration.

Photo of Shane Zhao
Team

Nice links Aaron!

Photo of Chris Lee
Team

Thanks Aaron,

That is a great story in the planning story. It's exactly the kind of mindset that I hope one would be able to have. 

Photo of Morgan Meinel
Team

Chris, I love and find this idea very inspiring! I especially love the title - "Treating death as a part of life instead of an event outside it." 

By sharing our collective stories with one another - both the triumphs and tribulations - we as fellow human beings can connect to each other in an intimate way in this universal experience of life and death. Like you mentioned - By sharing our stories and normalizing the inevitable process of dying, we can cultivate profound states of gratitude and really highlight what is meaningful and important in this fleeting life. 

As a Palliative Care Nurse, often I encourage my patients and their loved ones to share events and stories that have been particularly memorable and formative for them in their lifetime. Through this process, much joy and appreciation unfolds. It's a beautiful shared experience and truly becomes a celebration of that person's life. 

I wonder how we would be able to engage a large community of people to participate in a project/process such as this one? Personally, I would love to explore this idea more as I think it could be very beneficial for those interested in participating in it. 

Your concluding statement is tremendous: "The process of using these tools over the years, hopefully, creates a more adaptive outlook on one's life and what death means in that life. That way, when the time comes, the sadness of loss is held in the context of a life well lived and with a sense of the greater human experience underlying it." If every single one of us can embrace and embody this statement at the end of our life, our dying process and transition has the potential of being one of gratitude, wholeness, and peace.

Thank you! :)

Photo of Chris Lee
Team

Thank you for the feedback Morgan.

I agree that your question "how we would be able to engage a large community of people to participate in a project/process such as this one?" is a key one. 
A significant portion of my career has been in marketing. One of the blessings/curses of that experience is thinking deeply about how marketing is used to shape behavior around you everyday. One thing I have seen consistently is the message that everything will be alright (i.e. you'll be happy and perfect) if only you buy X. The messages are geared to defining happiness in ways that you can buy something to achieve.
Because people don't seem willing to pay for content directly we end up with ads paying for things which then results in this kind of message proliferating.

I don't know how to change that except that the daily message needs to change. That's why I built the idea around journaling and reflection. My belief is that, when you look back at your own messages, you'll find that you didn't write about how much product X made you perfect(er). Or, if you did, viewed 20 years away, you will have a different impression of the importance. Or, after reading 20 years of products that were supposed to make you perfect, but did not, you'll see that those things didn't matter so much. Either way, it's a long process of deprogramming the marketing message we're all exposed to and loading in something else which is personally meaningful.
Given the systemic dysfunction that ads pay for our media, I don't know of a simple way to achieve this except to experience something that renders the ad messages as "untrue" in one's own experience.

Photo of Morgan Meinel
Team

Chris, thank you so much for your thoughtful reply, and for making me a part of this team! I'm honored.

I think it's a blessing that we have your unique perspective from a marketing standpoint.  I absolutely love the idea of utilizing journaling and storytelling as a way to reflect on the experiences that have contributed the most joy and meaning to our lives. I often look back in my journal entries and find tremendous life lessons in them. 

I particularly love hearing the stories of my patients and their loved ones that have really contributed to their well-being. It's really beautiful to be a part of that experience and ultimately allows us as healthcare providers to become more intimately connected to the people we care for. This intimacy and connectivity to one another can bring such feelings of interconnectedness and joy. 

I look forward to seeing how your ideas unfold! Thank you again for your thoughtful contribution :) 

Photo of James Senior
Team

Hi Chris - very thoughtful reflections thank you. I am looking for the idea in here, and it seems that you are proposing a three-part service or activity: journaling, reflection and ritual remembrance? So if I wrote one sentence a year for example, the accumulation of which would become a draft for a self-written eulogy, or at least one aspect of a Threshold Ritual?

You mention the (wonderful) UP series - are you suggesting that people do selfie video-journals at standard ages or life-stages (marriage, graduation etc.), or that a service be setup to allow people to do that? Love this direction overall, but can you clarify a bit more please?

Photo of Chris Lee
Team

Hi James,

Thanks for helping me think about focusing this by summarizing what you read from the idea.
If I were to summarize it the same way, I was thinking that the result should be two things:
1) An easy way for the dying to look back with fondness over the arc of their life and feel a sense of progress, normalcy and closure. e.g. Be presented each day with a remembrance of everything that you did on this day over your life. Not so much a eulogy as reminder of time passing and the difference you have made and changes you have seen. 
2) Some kind of remembrance ritual or object (token) for the survivors that contains one or two essential things about the deceased. e.g. A small metal coin engraved with a favorite quote or memory from the deceased, ideally selected from the daily sentence journal, that reminds you of their impact on your life. Something that lets you remember with gratefulness instead of loss, what the person left in your world. 

I mentioned the UP series as context for the idea that seeing a whole life lived over a very short period is a powerful experience. I was not suggesting that video or capturing life moments in video journal would be especially helpful. BUT, I can see where some people may prefer the video, audio or pictorial mode of journaling instead of the written word, so having that option would be a good idea. :)

Photo of Chiara Pineschi
Team

Hello Chris! Thanks for the input. And thanks for the one-sentence-a-day idea, I loved it. I also think story-telling is a core focus in the process of accepting a beloved's death, and of letting it go. I also proposed a similar idea, which has to do with storytelling as well. I don't know if you want to check it out: Online platform to connect people who are dying to the living for the passing down of experiences . Thanks for sharing!

Photo of Chris Lee
Team

Thanks Chiara,

I think there is a good synergy between the two ideas. I have focused on the generation of remembrances, context and rituals for oneself and people in your immediate circle. Your idea seems to be about the generation of such things for a wider circle, including those you don't know.
I'm sure the combination of the two would make them even better. :)