“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” ~ Khalil Gibran.
The joy of being a story-teller is that first you must collect the stories. Which means at the very least having willing ears and an open mind. Many of us don’t have the patience to hear a story the way it is told, we want to rush to the end, get to the point, jump in and offer words, assume we know what the person is trying to say. I have been guilty of all of the above. Yet some of the greatest pearls have presented themselves to me when I have tamped down my impatience and just listened. One of the joys of teaching is that if you are open, you will learn from your students. But sometimes you have to learn humility to allow that to happen.
I am a strong believer in the concept of quality over quantity, especially as regards to the end of life. When a loved one is very sick, perhaps even terminally ill, it is natural that we want them to fight to the bitter end. Like the poet wrote, we do not want them to “…go gently into that good night” and so we push for radical interventions, we put our trust in science, we focus on the positive and in doing so ignore the reality that may be right in front of our eyes. What is it that the person in the bed wishes? It was a nursing student who told me of her grandmother’s fight against cancer. After diagnosis she underwent gamma knife surgery, and spent a year undergoing treatments before she died. The student told me she realized later that her grandmother had elected to have the treatment not in the hope of a cure, but because she knew her granddaughter was not ready for her to die. She knew the intervention would grant her time, this was her gift to her granddaughter.
Many years ago I read an amazing book by Bernie Siegel, a physician who turned from the absolute science of surgery to the exploration of the power of self-healing and the role unconditional love plays in health. He learned from his patients, and passed that on through books and lectures to thousands of people. He found that children with terminal illness had a capacity for knowing what was happening, even when their parents tried to protect them from the reality. While parents refused to give up hope, the child had already recognized the inevitable, and if the parents would only pay attention, the child would comfort them. The child could see a future free of pain, they could see a realm beyond a hospital room.
I remember attending a seminar on death and dying, and being given an exercise at the start of a session. ‘Write your own obituary’ we were told. Most of us needed more instructions. ‘What, if I died right now? Or if I live to be 100?’ It was up to us. We were given the freedom to create our own life story, to imagine a long life or a sudden death, to make up a family, a career, whatever we liked. I have given that exercise myself to students, and have had emotional reactions. One student, a mother, broke down at the thought of her children being without her. Why is it so difficult for us to imagine a world without us? Do we really believe we are the center of the universe?!
Most of us live with the expectation that we have years ahead of us, that time is endless, that there is no rush. It is not until we are confronted with our own mortality, or the loss of a loved one that we have to face the fact that time is not promised to anyone. Those who have had a close call, or who have survived serious illness or injury have had to confront the reality of the fragility of life. If they are lucky, that will give them the opportunity to reorder their priorities, to recognize what things or people are the most important to them, to live while they are alive. But why should it take a wake- up call to remind us of the fact that our time on earth is finite, with no guarantees of ample time to do all that we want to do.
Funerals are opportunities to celebrate life, to say farewell, to share memories and to feel the impact that one human can have on the lives of others. It is often at funerals that we learn about aspects of a person’s life of which we were unaware. The surprises may be positive or negative. I have heard tales of children who learned for the first time that they had a whole set of siblings that they were completely unaware of. Poppa was a rolling stone! But the biggest message we all should take away from a funeral is the reminder to live while we are alive.
In the healthcare industry (as in many other service industries), employees are often provided with ‘scripts’ to ensure they say the right thing. The airline industry is famous for this, those of us who are frequent flyers can virtually repeat the safety lines along with the flight attendants! In one local hospital, after dealing with repeated complaints that nurses did not respond to the patients’ needs because they didn’t have the time, the nursing staff was taught to respond to calls by saying: ‘How can I help you? I have the time.’
In a world in which we are rushing from place to place, from event to event, do we have the time? Are we living our lives, and not just checking off lists, completing tasks? And can we listen to those who are facing serious health challenges and make sure that we are carrying out their wishes, and not our own?
This Friday morning may you find every reason to celebrate life, and to support those who may be confronting loss. As a friend pointed out to me this week, if we could live forever we would throw away opportunities, for there would always be more time. Have a wonderful weekend, Family! Dance, live, and love with abandon, for we do not know the hour.