What Boomers Think About Death and Dying
Their views on the life beyond and living for today
Boomer icon Steve Jobs, who died in 2011 at 56, had this to say about death: “No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
The older we get, the more apparent the reality becomes: We are all going to die someday. But how do boomers feel about death and dying? To find out, I surveyed some.
Each had a singular view. But for the most part, I learned, with age comes a willingness to think more seriously about what it means to live with the idea that the end is, if not necessarily near, then closer than it used to be.
(MORE: Die at 75? No Thank You)
The Loss of Loved Ones
“The idea of dying is much more real to me now since my husband passed away,” said Linda Hayes, 58, of Fayetteville, Ga. Her spouse Gary died suddenly at 61. “Death becomes more real as we see those we love go before us.”
Brad Strickland, 66, a close friend of Gary Hayes, wrote that when he and two other friends died “way too early,” it really drove home the idea “that we need to make the most of the time we have.”
Gregory Nicoll, 56, of Tucker, Ga., echoed that sentiment. “When I turned 50, I got a tremendous sense of having passed a milestone. And knowing that my life was now more than half over, I could let go of a lot of stuff.”
Nicoll said that for decades he's been hoarding fine antique drinking glasses, never using them for fear of breaking one. But after turning 50, his attitude changed and he began using the glasses. His current thinking: “If one of them breaks, well, it was gonna happen eventually!”
Looking to the Future and Reforming Today
Others contemplating death have taken steps to reform themselves. Allen Steele, 56, a science fiction author who lives in rural western Massachusetts, said: “Knowing that I may have less time to live than I previously thought has forced me to examine my priorities. It has prompted me to quit smoking, watch my diet, get more exercise and prepare a will.”
But some were more blasé. Henry Rollins, 53, a writer, actor and public speaker in southern California who sang in the punk rock band, Black Flag, in the ‘80s, said: “I really don’t think about it [dying] besides prioritizing things I want to do,” adding that, “since it’s unavoidable, I don’t sweat it.”
Knowing that death is unavoidable is one thing, but thinking about what death means — that’s something else.
“Dying means it is done. Back to the atomic particles that will be absorbed into the universe and reconstituted across space to be pulled into the vortex of some other celestial body,” said Flora Delaney, 52, a former retail consultant who owns a children’s theater in Edina, Minn. “But I will never know it. I will be over.”
Views on Life After Death
Others, however, told me they believe in some kind of life after death.
Ever since she lost her mother recently, Nelda Mays, 56, of Decatur, Ga., said: “I have thought about this a lot. I cannot imagine that there is nothing after death. I refuse to believe that the strength of spirit within people does not go somewhere.”
Linda Hayes feels similarly, though she’s increasingly less certain. “I believe in a life after death,” she said. “But I do not really know how that looks. I hope that is where my loved ones are, so I can reunite with them, however that may look. This is what is learned in the Christian faith.” However, as she has grown older, Hayes said, she has had more doubts, which saddens her.
“Not that I do not believe, but there is fear that what I have believed all my life isn't exactly what I think it is. I fear sometimes I will never see those that I love again,” she said.
Others view death as a finite end to their lives.
“To me, dying means you have to leave the party,” said Steve Oakley, 55, a police dispatcher who lives in San Pedro, Calif., paraphrasing author Christopher Hitchens, “and you can’t come back.”
Sandy Salzinger, 55, a violinist for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, said: “I believe when you die it’s the same as all the time before you were born…not good or bad, just not there.”
Knowing that death is unavoidable and accepting its reality doesn’t mean being thrilled by the prospect, though.
Julie Bruey, 56, a schoolteacher near Gainesville, Fla., told me that even though she believes there is an afterlife in heaven, “I don’t want to die. So I do everything in my power to stay healthy and vibrant. I have too much left to see and do!”
As Steve Jobs put it: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there.”
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Stephen L. Antczak is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and is the author of four books and more than 50 short stories.