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Lessons learned from the dying

The Healthy Set Go team asked Mae Gibson Wall, a chaplain with Allina Health Hospice, to share some of the wisdom she's gleaned from her patients in hospice care. Here is her response.

I took a bike ride with my Death last night. Riding through the spectacular spring air, squealing like a child with each downward slope, I became aware that the uninhibited joy I was feeling never had been, and never would be, a guarantee. I pictured the faces of my hospice patients and thought about what kinds of nights they might be having. My fiancé wondered aloud, "How come we never ask 'why me?' when things are wonderful in our lives? Why do we only ask 'why me?' when we're suffering?" 

In Philip Pullman's book The Amber Spyglass, death is described as a "special, devoted friend who's been beside you every moment of your life, who knows you better than yourself." We are advised to "live together in kindness and friendship [with our deaths]…. Say welcome, make friends, be kind, invite your deaths to come close to you."

The response of the book's protagonist is, "I don't want to die. I love being alive."

The greatest lesson I've learned so far from the dying is this: to lean into the uncomfortable truth that death comes to us all and to allow that to inform our living; to plan for death's inevitable eventuality while simultaneously loving life.

The poet Jane Kenyon wrote of a typical day in her poem Otherwise; it begins, "I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise." As she tells the events of her day—eating a peach, walking her dog—the mundane is made magnificent by the recognition that her small joys will not last forever. Terminally ill at the time, Kenyon concluded the poem thus: "One day, I know, it will be otherwise."

When I resist exercising in the morning, I remember all the patients I've met who can no longer walk or even stand. They cannot do these things, yet they long to do them. They hate that their lives are resigned to sitting in front of the television—yet how often do we with able bodies willingly choose to watch TV instead of going for a walk? 

Another regret seen clearly from many deathbeds is the wish to have traveled more. We are good at planning for long lives. We responsibly sock away money for retirement even if it means we cannot take a vacation this year. We can travel after we retire, we think. Yet I've met many patients in hospice who received terminal diagnoses within months or years of their retirement. They wonder why they waited to live life all those years and regret the risks they never took. The saying goes, "No one ever looks back at their lives and says, ‘I wish I had worked more.'" No. They wish they had spent more time with their families. They don't say, "I wish I had had more screen time." They say they wish they had had more adventures.

So how do we live in such a way that we plan for both life and death? Across the world's wisdom traditions, from Celtic Christianity to Buddhism, those cultures who have the greatest acceptance of death are those that have allowed death to be their companion throughout life, just as Pullman wrote.

Recognizing our mortality does not have to be dark and macabre. It's the elephant in the room, after all. No matter how much we don't want to think about it, death is the only thing that is guaranteed to each of us.

So why not treat your death as a wise old friend and ask her advice now and then? Why not look backward from your deathbed long before you are confined to it?

Because one day, you know, it will be otherwise.


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