WorshipWeb: Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

Unfinished Business

By Karen G. Johnston

“Don't fear your mortality, because it is this very mortality that gives meaning and depth and poignancy to all the days that will be granted to you.”
–Paul Tsongas

How much notice would I want ahead of time before I die?

Is it six minutes? Six days? Six months? There are wise ones who say not to waste your time and energies on things we cannot know or change. Yet this set of hypothetical questions has been an evocative way for me to discern what’s most meaningful in my life.

A Black person with their back to the camera sits, holding the hand of a Black elder who's lying in a hospital bed.

All things being equal–given my current state of affairs and the current condition of my body and mind–which time frame terrifies me the most? Which one the least? What possibility do I sense in each of them?

In a class I lead where we engage these questions, our conversations are juicy. When participants share their reasons, it invites further reflection for all of us.

Is six hours enough to say good-bye? Maybe.

Is six months enough to do the things you’ve been putting off? It depends.

Audio of "Unfinished Business"

Listen to Rev. Karen read her reflection.

Is six days enough to put end-of-life papers in order? (No, I promise you, it’s not. Start now as a gift to those you love who will survive you. It’s worth facing whatever distaste or fear. Truly.)

How much time do any of us need to “finish our business” in this life?

Maybe that’s the wrong question, since we all leave unfinished business whether we die too soon or right on time (whatever that means). Perhaps a better question is, How do we embrace the fact of our mortality–not as an obstacle to finishing “business,” or as a source of fear that sours our life, but as an ever-present companion, giving our living days a deeper sense of meaning and depth and poignancy?

It is in engaging that question, over and over, that is the meaningful work of being alive. It is in living into that question, be it in solitude or in community or a combination of both, that gives us the best chance of making precious, perhaps even sacred, the business to which we do tend.


Spirit of Life and Love, be with us at all times. May our turning to face mortality—that of those we love and our own—be a passage to living the days of our life more fully and with more meaning. May we live with ease. May we die with ease.

Editor's note: this reflection concludes Braver/Wiser's October series on death & dying.

About the Author

Karen G. Johnston

Rev. Karen G. Johnston (she/her/hers) is the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Universalist Society Burlington in Vermont. Before becoming a minister, she spent 20+ years as a clinical social worker....


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