How Can Death Be an Ethical Teacher?

Neil wrote this essay as an assignment for an Ethics class taught by Professor Vincent Kovoloski at Edgewood College. Neil reflected, “We read Man’s Search for Meaning and Tuesdays with Morrie. The assignment he gave was to answer the question ‘Can death be an ethical teacher?’. The question had deep meaning for me beyond the books, having had close relationships with both my grandmothers.”

By Neil Fauerbach

Reflecting on the writing of Mitch Albom in his book Tuesdays with Morrie, I have spent a good deal of time thinking about people in my life, their effect on me, and the way I live my life, or want to live my life. To answer the question “Can death be a teacher of ethics” my answer is “yes”, from several points of perspective. In this reflection, I draw from my own experiences along with that of Morrie and Mitch.

In the presence of a compassionate person who is dying, one who understands what effect their words, actions and demands have on those around them, you can learn much. Their compassion for how the witnesses are coping with the stress of their decline is clear, absolute. Their acceptance of the inevitable does not make it any easier to witness. We can learn patience, forgiveness, and love through example.

Morrie encourages ‘Do what the Buddhists do. Every day have a little bird on your shoulder that asks ‘Is today the day you are going to die?’ Am I doing all that I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?’”

You can also learn compassion for the soul who is dying, and suffering, and wants everyone to know it.  It is a person who is, at the cost of those around them, asking that we feel sorry for them. The sorrow comes, not only in empathy for their suffering, but in pity that they never understood the love that others felt for them, or that they thought it was never enough. 

What do we learn from this person? We learn patience. We stick with them out of love, or duty, or we avoid them, at the price of guilt, but temporary peace. We learn that we need to be the exact opposite of what we observe with these poor souls. Accept love, accept weaknesses, teach others through example. As everyone’s grandmother says “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar.”

“Morrie would sometimes feel sorry for himself, though briefly. He would mourn what he had lost, and then be thankful for what he had. The good things left in his life.” (P 56 Tuesdays with Morrie).

I cannot help but think about the life and near death of my godfather. An Army enlistee in WWII, he was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and held prisoner in a German POW camp. What I learned from him was how thankful he was for every extra day he was given after his liberation. He took incredible pleasure from even the smallest wonder of living; ants on the ground, snow on the trees, ice in a glass. He taught us to be thankful for what we have as if we could lose it at any time.

“He was standing on the tracks, listening to death’s locomotive whistle, and he was very clear about what was important in his life. Death brought clarity, and with it, a sort of peace”. (P 66 Tuesdays with Morrie)

I had the privilege of being close to both of my grandmothers at the time of their deaths. I was my maternal grandmother’s guardian and one of a few family members who spent time with her in her last days. One day, nearly a year before she died in a nursing home, she commented that it was “taking so long to die.”  She was still strong, even though bed-ridden, fending off infections and falls from her bed, and exhibiting her life-long bad disposition. She died at 98. From this experience, I learned a new respect for health care workers, a compassion for the elderly, and a realization of who I wanted to emulate–my paternal grandmother.

My paternal grandmother also lived a long and full life. The last time I saw her, she was meeting with her doctor in the hospital.  He told he her that her kidneys were shutting down and there was not much more that could be done.  Her concern was that she did not want to be a bother to her family. She had few regrets, having made peace where it was necessary, and let all who needed to know that they were loved, understood, forgiven, and valuable.

By stripping away the distractions of life and allowing us to concentrate on truth, death can be the greatest teacher of ethics.

© 2021 Neil Fauerbach

Neil is a retired marketing professional having worked for over forty years for several professional service firms. In his free time he creates videos, photographs nature, chairs committees in non-profits, and is learning to play the banjo.  

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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