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September 16, 2019

5 Things I learned about Living from Dying Patients.

Nothing affirms life more than death.

Even a “mini-death,” such as the loss of a relationship, health, purpose, or finances, can serve as a reminder of the fragility of our life.

It is through spending time with dying patients that I have witnessed the painfully simplistic realisations of what is truly important in life, and just how integral our emotions are in our everyday life.

Our life has death flowing through it at all times, but since we never truly know our own expiry date, we tend to live a habitual existence with a false sense of invincibility. We switch off from human connection in favor of a wifi connection. We fool ourselves that we will stop procrastinating and take action on another day, a day we mistakenly trust will come to us when the time is right.

Our emotional well-being is paramount to our entire existence, and yet we often allow our well-being to ebb away, to fall to dramatically low levels—something that we would never allow to happen to our mobile phone’s battery.

Despite our emotions being the foundation of our human condition, we can pass through life unaware of their importance for our cognitive processes, such as our perceptions, choices, beliefs, motivation, learning, memory, and intentions. Having been able to nurse the dying in what I feel is the most privileged of roles, I have been blessed with the knowledge and wisdom of how to truly live an authentic and emotive life.

Be Happier

Time and time again, those with a suppressed immune system would tell me how they had allowed themselves to be emotional suppressed throughout their life. The poor want to be rich, the ill want to be healthy, but the rich and healthy simply want to be happy.

Those with a life-changing or life-limiting illness would implore me never to love a broken relationship more than I love myself, to embrace my heart-led dreams rather than a stable pay packet, to be joyous and silly beyond my childhood years, and to find joy in the little things in life. For when we look back over our life, we will see they were actually the big things all along.

Connect to Something Bigger than Yourself

It is so easy to be consumed and overwhelmed by self-sabotaging beliefs and thoughts when they are all we have contained within our otherwise brilliant mind. Not everything we think is true, and, moreover, our thoughts do not define us.

Whatever you are going through now, take a moment to look beyond yourself. What is it that you can truly believe in? God? World peace? Volunteering in your community?

There comes a time in all of our lives when we need to search for meaning and purpose within our life, to help us make our world tangible. Meaning is often derived through connectedness, so start making those connections and allow yourself to become part of a greater existence.

Speak your Truth

Any nurse can tell you that they all have that one patient they always remember. For me, it was the poignancy of working with a gentleman who had spent his whole life pleasing others and never speaking out of turn. We connected as I administered his chemotherapy for oesophageal cancer, an iniquitous diagnosis for a man who had never authentically used his voice as he felt he should, and was now being robbed of it for his, now curtailed, future.

So speak your truth. Say no to others and yes to yourself. Leap out of your comfort zone with the highest level of self-belief and tell the world your message.

Do More of what you Love

Work less and play more. In the grand scheme of things, you are not going to notice that extra day’s pay in your bank balance, but you will feel far richer banking up happy memories with those you love to be with. The archetypal ward matron would frequently announce “There are no pockets in shrouds,” as she passed by the nursing station and overheard our chatter of our material desires.

We used to think of her as hardened and lifeless, but, looking back, she had already learnt the poignant life lessons from the patients who had shared their dying words with her.

Live your Life

This may seem a rhetorical term, but live your life—not someone else’s version or expectations of it. As I sat administering the colourful flow of cytotoxic agents to those in an inert state, with time, their words and tears would flow with the utmost synchronicity.

The dutiful wife would tell how she had thrown away her dreams to allow others to pursue theirs. The alcoholic who inherited and worked on the family business rather than travel the world. The childless career woman who had given her fertile years to a job she hated but believed it would provide her with the gift of her parents’ approval when seen as a success in their eyes. This is your life—now live it, before there is not enough of it left.

I am under no illusion that I am invincible, any more than I am under the illusion that you will heed the insightful words of the dying I have shared here. However, I ask that you allow yourself the opportunity to at least ponder, in this sacred given moment, just one of those pieces of wisdom—be happier, connect to something bigger than yourself, speak your truth, do more of what you love, live your life.

For now, just pick one and apply it to your day ahead. Just for one day—rather than “one day…”

author: Shelley Knight

Image: A Walk to Remember (2002)

Editor: Kelsey Michal

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