I am sitting with Shelley, a 62-year old woman riddled with cancer. She tells me the doctors have told her there is no treatment left to fight her illness. She has made peace with her family, her past, and her God. “So why is it taking so long to die?” she pleads. “I have no purpose left and I can’t even use my body.” She is afraid of being a burden to her extended family, which has brought her to their home with the services of hospice. Susan and her family decided that being together in her last days would help Susan feel safe and cared for, and would also help the family cope with their grief.

In that spirit, her 6-year old grandson gently brushes her hair. Her son dispenses her medication. Her daughter is writing letters to her mother’s friends from dictation. Family and friends take shifts to sit with Susan, listen to her stories, review scrapbooks and ask about her life. Others come to provide sponge baths and massage lotion into her paper-thin skin. A baby is curled up asleep under the crook of Susan’s arm. Despite the support of such a compassionate network of family and friends, Susan is impatient to die. “Why am I still here when I am so useless?” she wants to know.

This is a delicate question, but one I hear often. I do not pretend to know the timing and the mystery of her living and dying, but I trust it. I cannot tell her when she will be released from her physical body. But I can listen to her feelings and her questions and reflect to her the importance of them. I can validate her existential search for meaning.

“Why can’t I just die?” What if this journey toward the end of life is not framed as a punishment or a failure? I wonder, with her, if within this “suspended time” there might be a hidden gift and opportunity for herself and for her family. “What do you find most difficult during this time?” I ask her. She tells me that she has always worn her maternal instincts like a crown and felt proud of how hard she worked to care for her children. It is most difficult for her now to be the one receiving so much love and care, when she cannot reciprocate. I wait with her quietly as she thinks about this, and then she smiles impishly. “Do you think I am still here to learn how to receive love?” she asks.

When we are so busy giving to others we do not allow for the space to receive from others. When we are intent on doing in the world, we slow our progress of being enough. If we are to be whole, we must learn to receive as well as serve, and to act as well as be in the world. She learned, and was able to tell her family, that she finally knew she was loved without condition…not because she did for others, not because she had a healthy body, not because she was able to respond to them…but because she was Susan.

When she understood the meaning of her journey, she stopped suffering and laughed at her impatience and her agenda. She told me she could finally let go of the illusion that she was in charge of life. She learned that she could be in charge of how she responded to life, and that gave her the peace that she had been searching for in death.

About the Author

Lani Leary, Ph.D.

Lani Leary, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist specializing in end-of-life issues, bereavement, and trauma.

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