'You're going to die': Two reactions to daily death reminders

Two Tapestry producers tried the WeCroak app, which reminds you about death five times per day. Here's what they learned about their relationship to death.

Tapestry producers respond to the WeCroak app.

WeCroak is a smartphone app created by the team of Hansa Bergwall and Ian Thomas. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

WeCroak is a smartphone app based on the Bhutanese principle that to live a happy life, one must meditate on one's own death five times a day. 

Hansa Bergwall and Ian Thomas created an app that does just that. At five random times a day, users receive a notification and a quote, reminding them of their inevitable death. 

For example, a user might see on their phone: "We don't know how or when we will die — even as we are actually dying," from Buddhist Joan Halifax. 

Daily reminders of death

Some people have lamented that the app is morbid, but Bergwall says the daily reminders about our impermanence help people to live better. Palliative care specialists have told Bergwall that they love it, because it helps bring up death in a non-emergency context. 

One person emailed Bergwall saying the app boosted their confidence at a networking event. Others report it motivated them to put down their phones and avoid spending too much time on social media. 

Melissa Gismondi, left, and Arman Aghbali, right, are both associate producers currently working on Tapestry. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Two producers at Tapestry, Melissa Gismondi and Arman Aghbali, recently used WeCroak for a little more than a week. Here are their thoughts on the ways daily death meditation impacted their lives. 

Melissa Gismondi

Using the We Croak app taught me an important lesson: death is a bit of a nuisance. 

Yes, I realize how that might sound, especially since death is -- of course -- so much more. Still, after a week of using the We Croak app, what I find most striking is the feeling of subtle annoyance I get when I see the reminders. 

Let me give you two examples. 

Last Wednesday was a busy day at work. I was rushing around, answering emails, booking interviews. Sometime around 2 p.m., I stopped to check my phone. It was cluttered with reminders to do my taxes, book a dentist appointment and respond to old emails from friends in faraway places.

Quotes appear five times a day at random times. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

I hoped I wouldn't have a death reminder, too. Because if I did, I'd feel obligated to read the quote and contemplate — even just for a second — that my life and the lives of those I care about will end. 

It's not that I'm opposed to contemplating life's big questions; I do work at Tapestry. But in that moment, I felt too busy. I skimmed the quote and went on with my day. And then I felt guilty for not reflecting because having the opportunity to think about death before it strikes you or someone you love is a privilege. 

It's one thing to understand intellectually that you're going to die. The WeCroak app is showing me that it's quite another to live your life with that in mind. - Melissa Gismondi

Then, on Monday morning, I was heading to work, marvelling at how nice it was to see the sun rising. I felt pretty good, despite not having my morning coffee yet. And then my phone pinged: remember, you're going to die. Instead of reflecting on that fact, I rolled my eyes.  We Croak had interrupted my pleasant morning. 

Living life with death on the mind

It's one thing to understand intellectually that you're going to die. The WeCroak app is showing me that it's quite another to live your life with that in mind. 

Several years ago, my friend died, just one month after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. She was young and it was a shock. For a brief moment, I truly realized how short life is. But mostly I went back to the busyness of life, a welcome distraction until I was strong enough to mourn her.  

Hansa Bergwall is one of the co-creators of WeCroak. He works for a public relations firm. (Submitted by Hansa Bergwall)

Now that I'm reminded of death five inconvenient times a day, I've been thinking about how the timing of her death was so cruelly unnatural -- just two years after marrying her husband, moving to a new town and starting graduate school. And I'm reflecting more regularly on the truth of nagging cliches like life is short. 

So yes, I found the We Croak app kind of annoying and the reminders inconvenient. But that's the point. The reminders helped me confront the fact that we'll always be too busy, too self-important to think about death. There will always be something else to do, some other distraction. But death doesn't wait until it's convenient. It comes when it comes, just like the We Croak reminders. 

Arman Aghbali

My friends were almost immediately incredulous when I told them about WeCroak. Why would anyone get an app that regularly sent you the message,"Don't forget, you're going to die?"

I'd laugh and shrug, with not much more of an explanation than the app was a good reminder to get work done — which was true. Nothing shakes your attention from Twitter quite like a reminder that you have finite time on this Earth. 

There are parts of my university experience I can barely remember.- Arman Aghbali

But in their skepticism, I recognized a fear of being constantly confronted by one's own mortality. It's a fear that once took over my life. 

When I was in university, especially in my third year, I used to talk to my friends about my ever-present fear of death. Not as a cry for help, although it might have been one in its own way. It was a brag. I messaged classmates and old high school friends: Look at all the essays and assignments I finished because I fear death.

In practice, that meant I never slept. I felt guilty when I did sleep, because it was wasted time. It meant I never stopped being worried about my work, and yet was so terrified of writing that I would wait until the absolute last moment. 

WeCroak's quotes come from artists, poets, spiritualists, films, among many other sources. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

There are parts of my university experience I can barely remember. 

I know there were two weeks spent in a bleary-eyed haze where I had maybe 20 hours of sleep total. I have images of my computer screen, then a library, then papers everywhere. I have two 4,000-word essays to prove that it happened. 

That obsession felt good in the moment — like every sleepless night was a victory over death. But a new project would start the cycle over and I would go back to being a neurotic mess. 

A healthier relationship with death

Now when I look at WeCroak's grim nudges, I can laugh. It effectively keeps me off social media by reminding me that I have better things I could be doing. The quotes are nuanced, and at times inspiring. I can read a quote like "Death is terrifying because it is so ordinary. It happens all the time," from memoirist Susan Cheever and not feel like a failure for all the things I've yet to accomplish. 

That old anxiety is part of the background radiation of my life. I'm learning how to move past bad habits I formed then, but part of me still regrets every weekend not spent working. 

So WeCroak, for me, doesn't just remind me that I will one day die. It shows me that I can have a healthy relationship with death — one that doesn't always entail living in fear.

Click LISTEN to hear Hansa Bergwall discuss how he created WeCroak and why he doesn't consider the app morbid at all.