05/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How To Die Happy

We were given some bad, sad, and shocking news yesterday. It was announced that Ted Kennedy has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Terminal illness, or any announcement of imminent death (though it's still unclear how imminent--if at all--it is for Senator Kennedy), is always a bit of a doozy. Because death is really freaking scary. And I think fear and religion go hand-in-hand.

Religion is often characterized as a sort of metaphysical insurance policy and I don't think that's necessarily wrong. People want to believe in something higher than themselves, they want to take a little bit of the pressure off, take away some of the responsibility of control. That way, you know, if things start to go wrong at least there's someone else to take the fall. A higher power is undeniably comforting.

Christianity (because that's what I'm familiar with) takes it one step further. And that's one thing I've always liked about the Christian God -- he's willing to take you in whenever. He doesn't care if you were a pagan until your deathbed, as long as you really mean it when you decide to join the fold, then you're in. And that's a pretty forgiving open-door policy, especially for a religion so notoriously judgmental.

So, I'm sort of playing Captain Obvious here (OMG, dying people get spiritual?!), but I think this is an interesting topic. If someone spent their lives as an atheist -- someone who believes in the here, the now, and the earth under their feet, isn't it a little absurd (and a little hypocritical?) for them to all of a sudden, at the last possible moment hedge their bets and go the God route? And I get that hedging one's bets is always a smart move, but I am a firm believer in, (if you've got 'em) staying firm in your beliefs.

To me, the deathbed flip-flopper plays directly into the Christian image of the stereotypical heathen (They will repent! They will come unto Him and see the light!), so I like to think that out of sheer stubbornness I'd remain a gentile 'til the end.

And also, while the "say it like you mean it" policy of the Church is pretty forgiving, I'd hope that the Christian God is even more awesome than that. Because despite (and in spite of) the fact that I write these columns occasionally skewering the main tenets of Christianity, I'm still a good person. So I like to think that this God is not suffering from the utterly plebeian fault of vanity, but that he really doesn't care what you believe, as long as you do good things while you believe it. Isn't that really the point? Do unto others? Learn from Jesus? He died for your sins, now don't go effing it up?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that you can be terminally ill, you can know you are going to die, and you can still handle it with non-religious grace and aplomb. Like, for example, the Last Lecture Guy, also known as Randy Pausch. Here's a shortened version of his video.

And it's definitely worked for him. He passed his 6-month so-called expiration date almost 2 months ago. There is also HuffPost contributor Alice Crisci, who seems downright heroic in her refusal to let a pesky disease like breast cancer get her down.

That, to me, is the way to do it. Step up your game a bit. Do a little more unto others, pull yourself out of the freshly dug grave of self-pity and live your life like it ain't ever gonna end. Though that's easy enough for me to say now - I'm twenty-four and have a (fingers crossed - haven't seen the doc in a while) clean bill of health. But I guess I just wouldn't want to take the easy way out. And I think that last-minute conversions are kinda like COBRA health insurance. You can sign up for it the day you get hit by a bus and are stretchered into Manhattan's most expensive emergency room, and it's still gonna cover you. It's handy, but not necessarily the best policy.

And that raises the question of why it's always "the end is near!" that has to give us humans a kick in the pants. Why does it take a death sentence to have a speech like Randy Pausch. Would we find his speech as powerful if he gave it during a random lecture 15 years ago, as healthy as a horse? And isn't what we take away from Randy's speech the fact that we should be living life like death is always just around the corner? That's the way to invest in soul-insurance -- not signing the enrollment papers while simultaneously knock-knock-knockin' on Heaven's door.

But it's also more than a little presumptive of me to challenge the beliefs of someone who's, you know, dying, so I'm curious. Have any of you had a near-death experience? Did it change your life? Are any of you dying? Have you found yourself more religious or spiritual? How have those around you handled their death? How would you like to see yourself handling yours? Ready, set, discuss!

[Author's Note: This is by no means a condemnation of those out there whose announcement of death would have them turn into a crying, quivering, spineless amoeba of self-pity, because while I can admire Randy Pausch and Alice Crisci, and all those who have suffered with courage and humanity, I can almost guarantee that my reaction would involve a lifetime (no pun intended) supply of tissues and The Bridges of Madison County on repeat.]