As a hospice volunteer, one of the
many things I’ve come to understand is that everyone faces serious illness and
the prospect of death differently. There’s simply no “right way” or “wrong way”
to approach it.
But I’ve also come to understand that
it is possible to be at peace with oneself through the end of life, having
experienced moments of real joy along the way.
I’ve certainly seen ample examples of
the alternative, though, and it is heartbreaking. There was “Bobby,” who was
suffering with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), who railed angrily about the fact
that there was no hope for him, and for whom there was no pleasure to be found
in day-to-day life.
He lived his last months in his
brother’s home, where he didn’t have the company of his three beloved dogs, and
he died without having a chance to say goodbye to them.
And there was “Jane,” a widow
declining quickly from cancer that had spread to her bones, who was in a
literal race against time trying to make living arrangements for her two
adopted teenage daughters.
Often refusing pain medication
because she hated the way it made her feel, refusing family and friends’ offers
to help until she was desperate, “Jane” badly wanted to tie up all the loose
ends in her life but fell into a coma before she could.
Anger, sadness, resentment, shock,
denial, resignation, isolation – or some combination of all of these intense
reactions – are not unusual when people learn of a life-limiting illness.
And, just as we cannot simply advise
anyone suffering depression to “snap out of it,” we cannot simply persuade
those, like “Bobby” and “Jane,” that there still remain moments worth savoring
and life is yet full of meaning.
Changing the Personal Narrative
In spite of much evidence to the
contrary, though, I believe that repair, resolution, reconciliation, and even
redemption are possible through the end of life. And working to achieve them is
an important way to enable us to live emotionally and spiritually well in the
face of serious illness.
For those whose lives have been
particularly difficult, it can help to work on changing perspectives on old,
painful narratives that continue to hurt and haunt the present. Toward that
end, consulting with a geriatric psychiatrist or psychologist could be
The best example of how a person can
live so emotionally well is writer Ronni Bennett, who blogs at Time
Goes By. Now in her
late 70s, Bennett learned a year ago that her pancreatic cancer had
metastasized and that there were treatment options but no cure for her
So, Bennett decided to write about it
and to keep on writing as long as she can, because for her that was a way of
better understanding herself.
Her hope was to approach the last
chapter of her life “alert, aware, and lucid,” she said. Besides being great
company on the page, she is honest above all, sharing the good, the bad, the
ugly, and the amusing elements of her life.
Finding Ways to Express Yourself
Writing is certainly one way to understand
and express who we are. But we can also choose other invaluable creative
outlets: doing audio or video messages for family or friends; reviewing photo
albums and talking about those special moments and memories; listening to the
music that pleases us.
Or we can quietly reflect about our
life, about what has given it meaning and purpose.
The hospice and palliative care
pathfinder Ira Byock, founder
and chief medical officer for the Institute
for Human Caring of Providence St. Joseph Health, often says, “Death has a lot to teach
us, if we let it.”
Specifically, he advises focusing on
what matters most and communicating it to your loved ones. That can be
summarized in four key phrases: I love
you. I forgive you. Please forgive me. Thank you.
In other words, to quote the singer
John Mayer, we should say what we need to say to the people we need to say it
to – while we can.
Whatever form of creative expression
or communication we choose, let’s keep in mind Ronni Bennett’s basic insight:
“However short or long my remaining
days may be, it is a great gift I have received, knowing my death is near. It
led to what I think is the most important question in the circumstance: what do
you want to do with the time that remains?”
That’s a great question for all of
us. If our aim is to reach the end of our lives feeling at peace, then asking
that question is the first step we need to take.
What do you want to do with the rest
of your life? Are you, or a loved one, living with serious illness? How do you
express yourself knowing that life’s end is drawing near? Please share your
thoughts in the comments below.