In Order to Authentically Live; You May First Need to Imagine Your Death

Typically at some point in the beginning of your work with a therapist you will get some form of the question, “What brings you in to therapy?”, or maybe “What would you like to work on together?”. It doesn’t matter if I am working with a client who comes in for therapy, personal training, or wellness coaching (which combines them both), the question needs to come up in order to provide good ethical service on behalf of my paying client. In theory, a client should know what it is they are having trouble with, or what is causing them distress; however, I have found this is not always the case. Some clients come to see me because they aren’t feeling well, living authentically, or without knowing what’s wrong at all. They just know something is off. That life promised more than what they felt was being delivered to them and they couldn’t begin to figure out what to do about it or how to fix it. These are some of my favorite clients to work with because I get the double pleasure of helping them to articulate and discover what it is they are looking for and THEN support them to figure out what they need to change in order to attract the possibility of a different path for themselves.

In my work I have found that sometimes the best way to figure out how to live is to imagine your death. I draw out a tombstone on a piece of binder paper and send my clients home with a homework assignment to write out their headstone. I ask them to imagine that they are at their funeral and their family and friends are surrounding their grave. “How would you want to be remembered?”, I ask. “What are the characteristics that matter to you most: kind father, loving partner, foundation president responsible for funding the cure for cancer?”. I ask them to imagine the possibilities are limitless. This is an exercise that you can do at home on your own. The answers point you in the direction of what matters most to you and uncovers for you your core values and goals in life. It helps to start you off on a direction towards authenticity if you feel stuck and it can take as little as 10-15 minutes.

I have done this exercise with gang impacted teenage boys aged 15-19 who were in an anger management class I taught at a local High School in East San Jose. They came in with their creased tombstone hand outs from the previous week folded up and pulled out of their back pockets. I hadn’t really been sure what to expect as these were not typical homework “doers” and I hadn’t tried this exercise with this population before. Imagine how incredible it was when all 10 of them came in and one by one read out loud how they wanted to be remembered when they died. These young men are surrounded by death at every turn in their gang families and were no stranger to dying young. Most of them wrote that they “had lived a long life” which quickly became evident as a common goal they shared. They talked about raising children outside of the gang culture, providing a home for their families and working an honest job. Many of them for the first time were given the opportunity to experience hope as they imagined a life with different goals and values then they were currently promoting. It was one of the most powerful sessions I have ever had the honor of facilitating. It was inspiring.

Once you are able to see the final curtain for yourself, you can ask yourself the next fundamental question: “What does my life look like today?”. If what you are living today and what you want to be remembered for in your life are not in alignment, you have an answer to the question of what to work on in your life. You can begin to change the choices you are making each and everyday by asking yourself when faced with a choice, “Is this in alignment with my vision of who I want to be remembered as, or not?”. If the answer is NO, you know it is time to make a different choice.

When I first went to graduate school, I was given this task as an assignment. Part of what I learned about myself that day is that I am afraid to die. Another thing that I learned was that I am passionate about helping others change their life because with the realization that death is scary is the knowledge that life is delicate and short. This blog is a part of my larger plan to do everything I can to help anyone who is interested, seeking, or curious to become empowered to start living the life they want now. Right Now.

I welcome your comments or suggestions. I would also love to hear about how this exercise goes for you if you give it a try.

Yours in Health,
Stacey Neil


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andrea Rickman
    Mar 06, 2014 @ 08:58:24

    First, let me say that you are approaching your “business” (and I am loathe to describe it as such because I can tell that it is so much more than that for you), in a way that I have always thought would be the most beneficial. Wellness Coaching – using personal counseling therapy to get the mind sound in conjunction with physical therapy to support and empower the mind/person. Brilliant!

    My “re-birth” assignment was very similar. I learned that while I am not afraid of death, I have been afraid that my time here was not going to be impactful to the people that mean the most to me. My role as an effective parent (human) is the most important thing that I would want the world to learn about me as I am being eulogized. And as my boys get older, my tombstone message continues to expand. I would like to know that my existence was one of honor and integrity and that I would have helped other people find the confidence to live full independent lives and not succumb to their fears (both inherent and learned). I think that I’m on that path, I have goals, I have a vision – just waiting for my baby birds to fly so that their mom can fly as well.

    Every day bring us one step closer as long as we live in our own authenticity.



  2. S Redfield
    Mar 06, 2014 @ 09:52:22

    You’re setting the bar high with this first blog post, providing a well-written, thoughtful look at something that impacts everyone.



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