Five Lessons on How to Live – From the Dying.

About 15 years ago, I experienced a dangerous combination of existential crisis and the Dark Night of the Soul. No meaning in life and no God to comfort me. I was running from life – not to it and there’s a huge difference. I was angry. As the southern saying goes, “I was losing my religion;” at the end of my rope. Volunteering in hospice care beckoned. After all, I was dying. Not in a literal sense but in a major psychological and emotional way. Who better to commiserate with and where better to hide from the world than amongst those who were on the same trajectory? It turns out that living with the dying saved me. Through this experience, I learned how to live, to shed cloaks of darkness, to see the value of time, and to understand priorities. Though it was my experience, this is their story. These are some of the lessons they shared. I distilled them to the five most important.

There is a very thin line between the smell of death and life. I know. Volunteering in a nursing home, hospice, and Alzheimer’s facility holds a unique energy. The minute you open the door you are met with a distinct aroma. Anyone who has ever been to one of these facilities will attest to this. No amount of Lysol, bleach, or other sanitizing cleaners can eliminate it. Mask perhaps – but not eliminate. It lingers – just like the dying. A trace of their lives still remains on this side of the veil. I use veil not as a religious symbol but as a metaphor for the thin separation between this life and whatever awaits us after it.

The smell assaults your nostrils, and it takes all that you have not to gag and just press ahead. People often say that “old people” have a smell about them. “Old people” is a relative term. I would say this smell is not about age. It is the contrail from years of life’s experiences. It is mileage. It’s joy and heartbreak. It’s loyalty and betrayal. It’s winning, losing, and a whole mess of other stuff. The attitude we possess about aging and older people is both sad and a denial. Aging serves as a mirror of our own destiny and well, we just don’t want to get there.

Healthcare workers inside these facilities become accustomed to the smell, sounds, and sights as people arrive and people die. There are loads of these facilities and many more will be needed as the Baby Boomer generation ages out. It’s not that family members don’t love their older/elderly parents or grandparents. It’s that life has too many moving parts and having time to provide the care mom and dad might need just doesn’t exist. Or maybe they need more care than can be provided. Harsh as this might sound – it is understandable and forgivable.

But where forgiveness ends, and shamefulness begins is when mom and dad, our loved ones are dropped off like laundry and the visit ticket gets lost. I watched as parents lived for the next time a visit came but the space between them grew longer and longer. Once whisked away behind closed doors – they truly become out of sight – out of mind. People would say that this is uniquely an American phenomenon – it’s not. It is becoming more and more global as our population ages and we are absorbed in a world that never turns off. This might sound harsh or accusatory – but it is the truth.

I began to love and look forward to my time visiting the people who resided and would die in this home. Very few ever left other than in a body bag. Despite understanding that the people I got to know were dying – it was a time I treasured. I came to understand that sharing the final lines of a person’s narrative was, and still is a true privilege. It is through their stories and their willingness to share lessons – I learned not only how to die but how to live.

How can you fall in love with total strangers so completely and so immediately? I can’t give you a logical answer, but I can tell you it happened. I felt the strongest human connection in seeing their vulnerableness, their struggle for dignity, and their enduring desire to love and be loved. I saw myself. My wholeness and my brokenness. It is how many healers are born through an empathetic moment of grace – the psychologists, social workers, and others who suffered wounds and recognize them in others. The wounded healers.

Regardless of their station in life – most were wearing the same gown, eating the same food, and staring at the same four walls. No one had Armani-designed pajamas, a large diamond rock, or other major possessions. As the saying goes, U-Hauls don’t follow hearses.

So exactly how does one learn lessons from the dying on how to live. Simple. You listen.

Lesson 1 – Love.

Love is really what matters in the end. It is our most enduring, cellular possession. Loving someone and being loved by someone – despite our loss of hair, teeth, bladder control, memory – says we matter. I saw heart-wrenching moments when the person did not remember their partner or child. And still, these people showed up religiously because love isn’t limited by illness or diminishment of our stature.

We are clannish people and need to belong. In that belonging – we are relevant. When we banish our elderly and “forget” to visit – we are saying that they no longer matter or are a part of the clan. They are no longer welcome. I saw it so many times. When an ambulatory mother begs her son to bring her home for one Christmas dinner. He did. It was her last and I’d like to imagine she died with a smile on her face.

When you realize as a total stranger that you are this person’s human connection, their tribe – it makes you mad at their family. As we age, we are decaying, stripping away the layers of pretense, charade, and other constructs we form. Without these, it becomes easier to see the core of who and what we truly are…love. Sadly, it takes dying for us to recognize our oneness, our connectedness, and in the end, love is why we are here.

Lesson 2 – Meaning.

Viktor Frankl, a notable psychiatrist who endured Auschwitz and survived the Holocaust studied why some prisoners survived while others simply gave in and died. In his famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he explains that if we possess a why we are living, the how becomes secondary. When you cannot change the situation you are in, you are challenged to create a change within you.

Many of us will go through an existential crisis well before our supposed end of life. What does my life mean? Has everything been an illusion? What is my purpose? Why am I here? It comes back to relevance – did my life matter? Will I be remembered? Will there be a ripple effect of my life? These are the questions most of the dying asked. We need to matter – if only to one person because we live on in that person by memory – until he or she is gone. Yes, we could be writers, artists, scientists; someone who leaves behind a body of enduring work but that represents our name – not our person.

One individual who was a successful businessman had very few visitors – if any. Admittedly, he was a bit edgy but when you peeled back the layers of defensive anger – you saw the face of fear. Of dying alone and only remembered by an engraved tombstone. He told me that I should never confuse being busy with living. He was the busiest man he knew. But in all that perpetual motion – other priorities took second place. Yes, he had goals, objectives, and plenty of success. Work was of paramount importance, so family suffered. What I learned is to invest more time in those who will mourn when you’re dead. No business will ever come to your bedside when you are dying or stand by your grave.

Life is one steady stream of chaos. Creating purpose allows us to navigate through it. Meaning in life is our fuel. Many retirees who served and had a mission die early because they haven’t found a new purpose. I discovered if you wake up – you have a mission. I saw grace in those who suffered or were dying young. They found purpose in their dying. They knew they were setting an example and teaching others how to die.

Lesson 3 – Disputes/Closure

There are no perfect families. There will be fights, arguments, harsh words, estrangements, and even animus. Blood doesn’t create family, demand unity, or even translate to love. When disagreements come, and they will, be careful how much you cling to them. Like holding onto a dead cat too long – it can become stinky.

I met a woman whose sons “disowned” her because she sold her home to fund her stay at the nursing facility. They were mad that she had spent their inheritance. Before you get all self-righteous that you would never do that – be assured her sons probably never thought they would either. But inheritance expectations can creep in as our parents age. Even if we’re fighting over Precious Moment statues. When family members consistently failed to show up, the euphemism was busyness. Sometimes it was, other times it was harbored bad feelings.

One Nonagenarian never had a visitor. I assumed her husband was dead and wondered if she had any children. A son. The word hung in the air. Silence. Would he be coming for a visit? No. The story was that many years before they had a falling out. “Funny thing is – can’t remember what it was about.” I wondered if the son could be reached to bring closure. He had died twenty years earlier. With her son unavailable, we used the empty chair technique where she shared what she felt, what she should have said, and what she would have done differently. With closure, she died shortly afterward.

 I know there are many fractured relationships that no amount of glue will repair. People would say, “Well they weren’t so nice growing up,” or “They weren’t there for me.” Alright then – they weren’t. But when they’re dead – you will never have closure. That chapter of your book will stay open because you never got to close it. In the immortal words of John Mayer, “Say what you need to say,” because once they’re gone – you can’t. Closure is more medicinal for the living than the dying.

Lesson 4 – Faith/Religion.

I have often heard that faith is a blessing or that religion is a crutch. I have my opinions, but they aren’t relevant. I learned that faith/religion can be an exceptionally good thing at the end of life, or unfortunately, unbelievably bad. Our ego is what fears death the most. It just cannot imagine nonexistence. Faith in something after death ameliorates this fear. I might be dead…. but (this happens afterward). “I” – go on in some form. This is not to diminish any faith tradition or belief structure. I have seen the dying so joyous and at such peace about their impending death, I almost felt envious, uninvited to the going home party. Until I had the presence of mind that maybe I could wait a bit. After all, there is still some purpose tread on my tires. These folks just knew in their heart of hearts where they were going, who was going to be there, and what it was going to be like. I was so, so happy for them as they seemingly surrendered to an undercurrent of calm.

Sadly, there were faithful who focused exclusively on certain doctrinal teachings. They agonized with great fear about the fires of hell for what seemed to me to be minor infractions. Mind you – I do not see myself as a judge of any sort – but the notion that missing service, not tithing sufficiently, or some other minor transgression was sending them to burn in the fires of Gehenna was tragic. Some who had been abused by their spouse were terrified at the prospect of spending all time and eternity with their abuser. They were frightened of letting go and experienced a bad death.

Having undergone my own Dark Night of the Soul – questioning the existence of a Higher Power – I know the agony of seeing one’s faith through a distorted lens. The lesson here is that if a Divine presence does exist – the Golden Rule is the most consistent ideology throughout all religious teachings and faith traditions. I am pretty confident that a Higher Power will not grade us on how well we did or did not follow the many human-made, administrative rules. Perhaps our report cards will be as simple as how well we took care of each other.

Lesson 5 – Memories.

If love is the most important thing in our life, then memories are the paintings of that love. Memories capture pinpoint moments in time, protracting, bending, and arcing them into the present. We relive the moment as if transported back in time to experience the emotions, the sights, sounds, touch, and the people. I am not talking about terrorizing memories because if we can avoid reliving them, we should.

In using a technique called, reminiscence therapy, we go back in time to review our lives as if glimpsing a photo album. By remembering so many events over the arc of time – we appreciate the totality of our lives and experiences, our impact on others, our contributions, and gain a glimpse of why we were/are here. I learned that creating memories is our ripple effect, the imprint of our time here, and the one true thing we take with us.

A Privilege.

Working with the aged and dying was a privilege. One I will never forget. Through their openness, I was given a gift. An intimate glimpse of our end of life. Many trite expressions such as, “no one ever wished he or she had worked more” are used to express life lessons. Though simple and overused it is true. Life doesn’t give us an instruction guide when we are born but we get to do a book review when we are dying. I am thankful these people were willing to share their narratives and their life lessons. It taught me so much. Not only on dying well – but how to fully live. Over time, I realized that in losing so many people I was losing tiny bits of myself. Accumulative grief. I am not wired like the courageous workers who can walk the path with the dying, bid them farewell, and return to escort the next. I left my volunteer position.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of this experience is the reverence I acquired not only for death, but more importantly for life. I understand now how truly limited our time is here. While we are merely a blip in the grand cosmos, to some or someone, we are the universe. This makes me grateful for life, for love, for challenges and joys, for family and friends…and for discovering the footprint of my purpose.

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