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How Death Can Bring You To Life: Existential Writing Exercises

There’s a well-known existential exercise that’s supposed to really ‘bring death home’ to you. And in so doing, really bring life home…

You might already know it. Basically, you take a moment to imagine your own headstone in a cemetery. And then you write what it would say about you. How it would capture a snapshot of your life as it is (which can sometimes highlight the gap between there and where you might yearn for it to be).

Or maybe you’ve heard of the other idea of writing your own eulogy?

Or perhaps you’ve felt moved by the Canadian blogger Derek Miller’s last blog post, which he wrote to be published after his death (of colon cancer, last week).

But have you ever done these sorts of things?

Personally, I’ve only ever thought about them (which is so different than actually putting pen to paper, or fingers to the keys, and making it all more ‘real’). They always seemed too ‘big’ somehow – too involved or something.

Until the other day…

At a writers workshop held in a cemetery, which was all about life and loss and death, our fabulous instructor Peta Murray suggested a simpler version of this stuff:

Writing your own death notice.

You know the little printed ones in the back of the newspapers? Nothing longwinded or too heavy.

Just a few lines.
Just a small notice.
(Just noticing your death).

It’s eminently do-able. And amazing how rich and liberating it can be. How enlivening.

For that’s the strange thing about death. It’s also about life:

The paradox is that although physical death will kill me…
the idea of death will save me in the sense that it will prompt me to live my life more resourcefully and more fully”

– Emmy van Deurzen & Martin Adams

So in a spirit of sharing some of this life and death business here together, here’s the bones of my own virtual death notice from the workshop:

Gawne-Kelnar, Gabrielle.
Died peacefully, surrounded
by family and friends.
Loving life-partner to D.I.
and V.K. (deceased);
and companion pet
to cats M.C., K. and H. (deceased).
She wrote about living and dying,
and felt privileged to explore these areas
with her clients in therapy.
Now she has lived her own dying.
All who knew her are warmly invited to
join in a ceremony celebrating her life
and your own.

What would you write in yours?



This writers workshop was run by The Groundswell Project at Rookwood Cemetery, as part of Rookwood’s ‘Hidden’ outdoor exhibition and sculpture walk.

You can read more about ‘Hidden’ and see some of the sculptures in my other blog post about this wonderful project.

Reference: Deurzen, E and Adams, M (2011) Skills in Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy, Sage Publications, London.
Photo: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar
Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a writer, blogger and Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She was the former editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.
How Death Can Bring You To Life: Existential Writing Exercises

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

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APA Reference
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2011). How Death Can Bring You To Life: Existential Writing Exercises. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 May 2011
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