What Dying Teaches Us About Living
What can we learn about living well from those facing the end of life?
Posted Oct 01, 2019
We all have an expiration date. If you knew you were going to die in six months, what changes would you make to your life? What important things that you’ve been putting off would you start doing immediately? What might you stop doing in order to make room for more important pursuits?
What lessons might the experience of dying teach you about the most effective way to live?
David Maginley has some insights. David is an interfaith counsellor at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, Canada, where he works with cancer patients approaching the end of life. He is also the author of Beyond Surviving: Cancer and Your Spiritual Journey. Every day he helps those facing terminal illness address their fears and find comfort during the most difficult time of their lives. David hears their stories along with the anxieties, disappointments, and regrets that have marked their journey. He helps them work through their personal and interpersonal challenges as the end draws near. Mortality accelerates this assignment, through which people come to realize the most important life lessons, often for the first time.
I asked David what three things dying people teach us about living a life with few regrets. His responses were candid, heartfelt, and wise.
The Importance of Relationships
Without hesitating, the first lesson David conveyed is that we must nurture our relationships because they are the most important thing in life. He explained that facing death confronts us with the unfinished homework of the heart: the quality of our connections to others. Any discussions of substance he has with dying people gravitate to this topic.
As people come closer to their final hour, they want to tell the story of their loves, burdens, and the pain they have experienced; and they want to make peace with it. They want to surrender to love. His training as a Lutheran Minister coming through, David says “our relationships are the only clothing we wear to heaven”.
Research confirms David’s observations about the importance of relationships. Human beings have a need to belong and build close attachments to others. For instance, people who have more friends or socialize more are happier than those who have few friends or who spend more time alone. In fact, this need is so fundamental that our connections with other people are a better predictor of longevity than whether we drink alcohol or smoke. The message is clear: nurture your relationships to build a happy life.
The Need for Forgiveness
The second lesson David talked about was the importance of forgiveness. We all suffer injustices in life. From the bruise of an insult to the trauma of abuse - no one leaves this world unscarred. David suggested that living well requires that we forgive these transgressions wisely, no longer investing them with personal energy. We need to stop replaying the injury.
He explained that dying people have taught him to not be defined by the wrongdoings of others. Those who were part of our history need not be part of our destiny. This is even more true when our destiny is death. One can face that ultimate mystery without the burden of resentment and retribution. The perceived injustices can even be used to affirm one’s dignity, seeing through the pain to a deeper power which calls one to bring the best of self to the worst of life. The dying remember who they truly are, and they release the offenders from their mental clutches with gratitude for that growth.
David clarified that although our relationships are the most important thing in life, forgiving people doesn’t necessarily mean picking up the phone to repair the broken connection. It simply means letting go of the hurt that binds us. His patients teach those of us still in the prime of life to liberate ourselves from the destructive tendencies of assigning blame and seeking payback, and instead to develop compassion not only for others, but for ourselves.
Research has shown that terminally ill cancer patients who participate in forgiveness therapy experience less anger, feel more hopeful, and report a higher quality of life. Similarly, for those of us who are still healthy and vigorous, forgiveness is associated with well-being outcomes such as lower levels of anxiety, depression, and hostility. Forgiveness is liberating.
The third lesson is awakening to the mystery of life. David spoke of one of his dying patients coming to recognize that she was an enigma in an unfathomable world. She overcame her anxiety as she grew open to the wonder that was about to receive her. She had quieted her ego and was able to sit in the ambiguity of existence with tenderness, not needing to be defined or to exert control. The end of her life had turned into a light-hearted dance to be experienced, instead of a puzzle needing to be solved.
The lesson for the rest of us is to get over ourselves and re-learn how to play, love, and drift. In a world that celebrates and even glorifies the self, it is challenging to simply float, buoyed by the mystery of existence. But overcoming our selves and opening up to the mysterious reality of life is part of developing wisdom. As explained by University of Florida professor Monika Ardelt, wise people calm their egos which gives them glimpses of a larger reality beyond their individual selves. She notes that such people “have transcended the egotistical self and feel more part of the ocean instead of an individual wave."
It is not necessary to wait until death approaches to implement the lessons David’s patients have to teach. Right now, you can nurture your relationships, practice forgiveness, and not take yourself too seriously. Every day you can take advantage of the opportunity to dance to the music of life. You do not need to wait until you are dying to start living well.
McCullough, M. E., Root, L. M., Tabak, B. A. & van Oyen Witvliet, C. (2009). Forgiveness. In S. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed., pp. 427-435). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Ardelt, M. (2008). Self-development through selflessness: The paradoxical process of growing wiser. In H. A. Wayment & J. J. Bauer (Eds.), Transcending self-interest: Psychological explorations of the quiet ego (pp. 221-233). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.