How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Know You Are Going to Die

The experience of a former client: “I was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and given a 16% chance for survival in five years’ time.  After all the treatment I’ve been through, we haven’t seen remission.  I don’t have much time left.”

I have heard it said that the point of living is to learn how to die.  In other words, we have succeeded in “living” if we live our lives in a way that- should we die this instant, from any of an infinite number of unforeseeable causes- there is nothing of consequence left incomplete.  Sure, we may never finish writing the book we began nor may we compete in the marathon we planned to run: those things are not the ultimate definition of “success.”  In the case of the former client whose dilemma, above, I am referencing for this article, a young child was left fatherless when the client died.  In his last weeks of life, the thought of not being there to “walk his daughter down the aisle” represented his fathomless grief at dying young.  This was heartbreaking for me, a tragedy that doesn’t make sense.  Most adults have faced senseless tragedy in our own lives or the lives of those around us.  While we can’t control the fact that sometimes, our lives are cut much shorter than the average and with fallout that feels cosmically unjust, we can absolutely control the way we live our lives until that unknowable date comes.  Being given a “deadline” is in one way a kind of gift- it can be a wake-up call out of the torpor in which many of us find ourselves floating.

underwater

Time to Wake Up

So, what do we do with the time we have?  Most of the tasks which we must accomplish to survive in this world are only beneficial because they help us succeed “historically”- in the realm of everyday things like career and finances and preserving material possessions.  These tasks seem to matter much, but they “ultimately”- in the realm of ontology- are of little consequence: paying mortgages, submitting paperwork for professional licenses on time, getting vehicles in for regular tune-ups, etc.  If we don’t tend to these things, our lives will be a bit out of control, things will fall apart… but, ultimately, dying individuals do not look back on their lives and think, “I am most grateful I never overdrew my checking account,” nor “I wish I had maintained my car better.”  In an often-publicized look into end-of-life regrets published by a palliative care nurse after eight years working with the dying, a common thread emerges: openness, authenticity, and strong relationships.  The regrets of the dying circle around the themes of not having been open and authentic in their lives, and not having put enough energy into building strong friendships and family connections.    

The consequences of these regrettable oversights are spending valuable life-energy doing things that are not fulfilling and, as the more than 70-year-long Harvard Grant Study has shown, not cultivating the one thing that leads to a longer, happier life: love.  It’s never too early nor too late to live your life fully.  Here are three suggestions that can guide you towards a regret-free life every day- whether you have 1 day, 100 days, or an unknown number of days left on this planet.

Sometimes, the grief of holding the prognosis that you are probably going to die soon is all you can do.  In those moments, all you can expect of yourself is to receive these three qualities of Amends, Appreciation, and Gratitude from others- and to give them to yourself, when you can.

 

Amends

We’ve all heard the term “to make amends,” but not many of us have an actual practice of regularly making amends.  In short, to “make amends” is to take responsibility for your part of a conflict and to share your regret at having played that part with the other parties involved.  This is a big part of 12-step recovery (step 10, “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”)  

You might be thinking, “But, but, SHE said X and SHE did Y, why should I be the one to apologize?”  You should be the one to take responsibility for your actions- regardless of whether the other person is blameless or is truly the source of most of the conflict- because they are YOUR actions.  You can only control your actions and your words, not those of others.  This is the meaning of another 12-step phrase, “Keeping your side of the street clean.”  Is waiting for the other person to wise up and admit their wrongdoing worth dying with a family conflict over a car that was totaled or a Christmas card that wasn’t sent?  When we remember that death is imminent, it is easier to openly, authentically- courageously- acknowledge our wrongdoing.

If this concept is entirely new to you, this article breaks it down pretty well.  I especially like the article’s focus on not just identifying the action for which you are apologizing, but the character defect of yours that allowed it to happen.  It’s also always powerful to identify the negative impact you believe this had on the other party, and your plan for fixing any damage caused and for preventing future lapses on your part.  For example, “Joe, I’m sorry that I cut you off in the staff meeting yesterday- you were making a point, and I was acting out of impatience and self-centeredness.  It must have felt insulting when I did that.  If it’s okay with you, I’d like to apologize for it at the beginning of next week’s meeting, to clear the air among all the staff so they know that what I did wasn’t right and that I am working on being more patient and kind.”

It’s important for us to always remember- whether veteran amend-makers or those new to making amends- that, similar to forgiveness, we are doing this work not only to be kind to others, but to free ourselves of the psychic, spiritual, and emotional binds of conflict and resentment.  We can only have deep and loving relationships if we are committed to this kind of open and communicative integrity.  What sounds most fulfilling: hiding behind self-righteousness and having shallow relationships, or vulnerably admitting when wrong and having deep relationships built on trust?

While it takes time to build trust between people, it is never too late to make amends.  The other party in the conflict may have written you off and may refuse to respond to what you have to say- but knowing that you faced your shortcomings and courageously sought reconciliation will free you from the burden of that guilt and shame.  When making amends, we make them with zero expectation from the recipient.  We are taking responsibility for our own actions, not taking inventory of others’ actions.  In fact, it is critical to only address our actions and not the actions of the other person during the course of our amends.  This is why it is important to have a script, so that we don’t regress mid-conversation to defensively trying to explain our actions based on the others’ actions.

If there is nothing else you have time to do before dying, it is worthwhile to identify all the outstanding conflicts in your life and investigating your part in them, writing a succinct but full script hitting all the key points (your role, your character defect, your regret at causing the other person pain, your plan for rectifying the problem) and delivering that script- whether in person, on the telephone, or in a written letter.  Do it promptly.

If you are unsure, find a friend or spiritual teacher who is willing to look at your amends with you and see if they seem right.  Always consider the recipient when making amends.  Does the other person fear you / your history of violence?  In that case, stick to a phone call or letter and clearly state that you only have one thing to say, that you do not intend to write or call again, and that you expect nothing in return from him or her.  Do you have reason to fear the potential violence of the other person?  Write your script in your own journal and do not deliver it.  Just.  Get.  Clear.  And then move on.  

Beyond people, there are other instances that call for making amends.  If you have a “Creator” concept in your spiritual views- particularly the Christian belief that you will go to hell unless you have humbled yourself before God and asked for salvation- this would be an important time to make sure you do that.

Moving forward, make daily amends- every night, look at your day and determine if you have anyone to whom you need to make an amend, and then do it promptly.  

         

Appreciate

In tandem with making amends, appreciating is the best way to strengthen relationships.  It also happens that spending time thinking about what we appreciate lifts our mood.  Every day, dozens of people we can name and thousands of unknown people contribute to our lives.  While it is beneficial just to think of and silently appreciate all this support coming our way, outwardly expressing this appreciation is the more “open, authentic” avenue.  The more you are able to express your appreciation to the people around you, the happier everyone will be.  Would you rather leave a neutral / critical legacy, or a grateful legacy?

If you are generally thoughtful, you probably already thank the people in service positions that you come across- checkout clerks, waiters, receptionists.  It’s always nice to say “thank you” when someone helps you.  It’s a delight to be able to share even more appreciation, with a specific gratitude.  For example, “Thank you for your patience as I unloaded my cart,” or “I appreciated the reminder call yesterday, I had actually forgotten to put the appointment on my calendar.”  Something sweet to do if you have several errands is to buy / snip a bouquet of fragrant, seasonal flowers and give one or two stems to the people in service positions that day that you come across, along with a verbal “thank you!”

As for people who occupy more time in your life, like colleagues or family members, making a point to catch them doing something you appreciate or admire and telling them is a joyful practice.  Small and beautiful / practical gifts, like flowers, coffee, or lunch, are easy and yet impactful.  If you have little time left on this planet (read: any of us,) spread appreciation in all directions.  Make it a goal to tell 1, 2, or 5 people each day what you appreciate about them.   

 

Generosity    

Yet another pro-social action that has strong positive impacts on the doer is generosity.  Whether gifts to people you see often or donations of time or resources to causes you appreciate, practicing generosity not only leaves a positive impact in your physical absence, but also helps you thrive while you are here, with feelings of purpose and connection.  I am most fond of acts of generosity that are experiential- where I can directly interact with those receiving my offering.  For example, if you donate money to a homeless shelter, can you also sign up to serve a meal there?  If you donate supplies to a youth program, can you also attend their open-house event and meet some of the families that benefit from the program?  How about making 15 sack lunches and taking a bike ride to pass them out at a homeless encampment?  Offering to carry bags when you see someone struggling?  Spending your Saturday helping at a public tree-planting event or an athletic event?  Doing a chore around the house that someone else normally does?  The possibilities are infinite.

It’s easy to be blind to the ways we can be generous, but if you commit to finding one way each day to practice generosity, the small but important actions will be easier to identify and do.  The more you can work generosity into your daily experience, the more beautiful your life and your legacy.   

 

            

     Important skills you are strengthening:

Amends

Communication

Personal Responsibility

Gratitude

Appreciating

Generosity

 

Share Your Experience

How do you live your life fully, every day?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!