"Live as if you were dying tomorrow. Learn as if you lived forever." ~ Mahatma Gandhi
I am a chapel of the hospital.
I provide spiritual care to the dead and their families.
I do this by presenting them with them. I hear the fears, the worries, the joys, the worries and the disappointments. I listen carefully to what is said and carefully watch what is not said.
When people find out what I'm doing to live, the reaction is almost universal: "Wow, that must be tough. I could never do it."
I understand it completely. In fact, years before this work, I remember reacting to a hospital volunteer in a very similar way. I was terrified of death. I did not like to think about it or talk about it. I certainly never thought I'd spend my days relieving death.
What I did not realize then was that death was no other kind. They are beautiful and courageous human beings who do not stop living just because they die. They do not differ from the rest of us except that they are more aware of the preciousness of their time on earth.
To my surprise, the time you spent with the death gave me many important lessons for life.
Here I have learned so far:
1. It's not too late.
Most people who offer lessons from death often say, "Do not wait." Of course, I can assure myself that I have learned this from death. I had patients telling me that they wanted to pursue things they always wanted to do. These conversations may be spasmodic.
But I have traveled with others who took on new interests as they were dying. A patient began to paint as a way to process his emotions and feelings about death. Self-taught, he discovered he had the advantage of it and soon he created beautiful works of art to share with family and friends.
Another patient who had a long and difficult marriage decided to do things with his wife after receiving his final diagnosis. Many people in this situation would say something like this: "We wanted to have done it earlier." Instead, it was said, "This diagnosis brought us back together."
What gave these incredible examples to me is this: It is not too late. Though I fully resist the "Do not wait" advice, the problem is that many people think they have already been waiting a long time and that it is already too late.
They think it's too late to start a hobby, a career or follow a lifelong dream. They think it's too late to fix a broken relationship or start a new one.
If there's something you have postponed for months or years, the "Do not wait" tip is good. If you feel that your time has passed, you know that as long as you breathe, it is not too late.
As the saying goes, "The best time to plant a tree twenty years ago, the second best moment is now."
2. It is OK not to have all the answers.
We put so much pressure on ourselves to be known.
It is one of the reasons why we avoid death. There are no easy answers. As a nurse in the hospital, I often get questions like: "Why is this happening to me?" or "Why is life so unfair?" or "Where will I go after my death?"
Most patients do not expect to give them answers to these questions. They just need someone to hold room to fight with their deepest hopes and worries.
And when it comes to death, nobody is an expert. I remember sitting with a very smart person, whose career required many answers. During one of our visits, he admitted to me that he was not an expert in dying and he was just as afraid of all others. And he was struggling with the same questions that we all have to fight at some point.
There is something incredibly liberating to reject the known action. Instead of using our knowledge and intelligence to gain a sense of superiority over others, we can share our common humanity. We can feel safe to admit one another, "I do not know". Rejecting the act intensifies connection and intimacy among people.
3. It's okay not to be okay.
I once had a patient who, during our first visits, said he was okay with death. He lived life as best he could and felt peacefully with his life.
But as his health diminished, it was clear he was not okay with death. He was young, had children at home and he felt there were still things he had to do. He became more and more anxious about the process of death.
During one of our meetings after struggling with the change in his mood, he concluded that "I must be okay with not being ok". Surprisingly, coping with his discomfort with his death, he helped manage his fears and even bring him to a deeper level of peace.
So many of us spend our energy to persuade ourselves and the world that things are OK when they are not. We carefully cover social media channels so that only the highlights are shown. We love the idea of controlling the narrative of our lives.
When we do this, we deny ourselves the opportunity for personal development that begins when we can look at ourselves in the mirror and admit that we are not ok.
The death meeting will help you live
The study of the death of a person can be challenging and frightening, but it does not have to be. The lessons I learned from death helped me appreciate life more. It helped change my perspective on what is important and what it is not. It helped me make better decisions.
I can not say that I am completely above my fears of death, but I am more comfortable to think about it. And I am grateful for the lessons I have learned so far and for the lessons I have yet to learn.
How could you think of your death to help you live better?