Five Life Lessons I Learned from the Dying

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“It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, we will then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Have you ever experienced a simple, and perhaps random, moment in time that altered the course of your life? Life has a way of giving us the experiences we need at the perfect time.  Sometimes our whole lives can be redirected through the insight gained from that one defining moment.  A statement that my sister made to me while she was dying of cancer was one such moment that changed my life forever.

In the late afternoon three days before my sister passed away, I was rubbing lotion onto her dry body and waiting for the hospice nurse to arrive. My sister opened her eyes, looked at me, and told me in a tired, weak voice, “I think you need to work with people who are dying.” She had not spoken a single word in several days prior because she had no energy left to expend on words. And she did not speak again. This was the last thing she ever told me.

That statement stuck with me. It must have been important for my sister to tell me this, although I had no idea why. Working with the dying had never crossed my mind before, but I began pondering the possibility day after day.  I intuitively knew that her statement, “I think you need to work with the dying,” was much more than just her opinion that I would be good at it. I could not get it off my mind, and I wanted to honor my sister by taking her suggestion to heart.

After the intensity of my grief had subsided some, I knew what I had to do. I interviewed for the first hospice position I found and was hired immediately. Little did I know at the time that the impact working in hospice would have on me, and that I would spend the next six years learning valuable life lessons from my dying patients.

Working as a hospice social worker completely opened my mind and my heart. My patients became my biggest teachers. They taught me about what was truly important in life. I listened deeply to my patients who were dying as they looked back on their lives to gain closure and make sense of it all. Some people were able to make peace with themselves, while others were not; and although the stories were all different, there were overwhelming similarities.  These are the five lessons I learned from the dying that completely changed my life. I hope they can help you too.

Live my own dream.

I found that so many dying patients had unfulfilled dreams due to living their lives trying to please others or living according to what society taught. Many never allowed themselves to pursue their own passions or go after what they wanted in life.

It took a long time to discover what my dreams were because I was always trying to please others.  I learned the importance of doing what brings me happiness and fulfillment, and going after it with everything I’ve got. I am now living my own dream, and it brings a sense of purpose to my life that was never there before.

Take lots of risks.

I learned from many of my dying patients that they wished they had not been so afraid to take risks.

I played it safe for most of my life, but I found that being cautious was not worth the consequence of having a life of muted mediocrity.  Anyone who has ever achieved anything great has taken risks. I’ve taken many risks that didn’t pay off as planned, but I learned something significant each time that helped me grow.

One of my biggest risks was leaving the comfortable and secure world of my 9-5 job and creating a business from scratch using skills that I didn’t even know I had. It was one of the scariest times of my life, and I’d be lying if I said it was easy; but it provides me with the opportunity to leave my familiar comfort zone every day, and that is where my growth lies.

Family and friends mean everything.

People who are dying often have regrets about relationships with their family members. They wish they had been kinder, more patient, more available, and more loving to the people that meant the most to them.

I have learned that a big hug can mean the world to someone I love. When I freely share my feelings and my love with my family and friends, they have no doubt as to their importance in my life. My family relationships have taught me the meaning of patience, acceptance, and unconditional love.

Don’t take myself so seriously.

Many of my dying patients expressed wishing they had not taken themselves so seriously and had allowed themselves to enjoy life more.

Life is way too short to take seriously. It’s true that we only get one chance at this life, so why not have fun? At times when I start taking myself too seriously, I have to say, “Get over yourself already.” This helps me to keep my problems in perspective.

Strive to leave behind a legacy.

People who are dying often look back and wish they had done more to touch peoples’ lives. They wished they had had a greater positive impact on those they leave behind.

I want to be remembered as the mother who loved her children and taught them well, as the woman who lived her dream by discovering her purpose and helping others to do the same, and as the woman who left the world a better place than how she found it.

These five important insights I learned from the dying have completely changed the way I view and live my life.  I believe my sister knew that these were the lessons I needed to learn the most, and she created that defining moment as her final gift to me.

Do you have a defining moment that changed the course of your life? Please share it in the comments below.

Photo by Ulrich Joho