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What We Can Learn From Those at the End of Life

Instead of dying well, what if we focused on living well?

A few nights ago, my dear friend Mary Quinn McCallum texted me the following: “Here is a message I got earlier from Bob — only read if you have a minute and a glass of wine.” I don’t know Bob, but I had heard Mary talk about her friend and former neighbor in the past. I braced myself and opened the message, pretty sure whatever Bob had to say was going to tear out a piece of my heart.

“Hello People I know,” it started. “This is Bob Umhoefer. Apparently I have terminal brain cancer with a prognosis of blah-blah months. So that sucks. On the upside I am almost stress free, it’s hard to explain.”

In the raw and inspiring letter he shared with friends and posted on CaringBridge, Bob expressed a newfound appreciation of what’s important in life.

“Every day I just talk with people, listen to people, slow down, walk around and enjoy friends. I’ve gotten to know many of you better than I ever have,” he wrote. “My heightened sense of what matters is frightening, Friends matter. Family matters. Fun matters. Food matters. Freedom matters. That’s it.”

Apparently I have terminal brain cancer with a prognosis of blah - blah months. So that sucks.

— Bob Umhoefer

What Would a Doctor Do?

His sentiments reminded me of those expressed by the subjects of artist Claudia Biçen’s “Thoughts in Passing” project. They also sounded remarkably similar to those of the dying doctors quoted in a recent New York Times essay by Dr. Ira Byock, author of Dying Well and The Best Care Possible.

In his piece, “At the End of Life, What Would Doctors Do?” Byock argued that while much attention has been paid to the treatments doctors choose for themselves at the end of life, it may be more fruitful to focus on how they choose to live at the end of life.

“What dying doctors do with their time and limited energy, and what they say, are deeply personal, sometimes raw and often tender. Like everyone else, doctors experience pain and suffering — yet many speak of a deepening moment-to-moment sense of life and connection to the people who matter most,” Byock wrote.

What Dying Doctors Say

He cited several examples, including:

  • Dr. Jane Poulson: “I have found my Holy Grail: it is surrounding myself with my dear friends and family and enjoying sharing my fragile and precious time with them as I have never done before.”
  • Dr. Bill Bartholome: “There is a kind of spontaneity and joyfulness in my life that I had rarely known before. I am free of the tyranny of all the things that need to get done. I realize now more than ever before that I exist in a ‘web’ of relationships that support and nourish me, that clinging to each other here ‘against the dark beyond’ is what makes us human.”
  • Clinical psychologist Peter Rodis: “The shock of knowing I’ll die has passed. And the sorrow of it comes only at moments. Mostly, deep underneath, there is quiet, joyous anticipation and curiosity; gratitude for the days that remain; love all around. I am fortunate.”

“These experiences are like dabs of paint on an Impressionist’s canvas,” Byock said. “Taking in this contemporary ars morendi we can appreciate how dying and well-being can coexist. For all the sadness and suffering that dying entails, our human potential for love, gratitude and joy persists.”

Like my friend’s friend Bob, Byock urged us to take note so we can “live fully for whatever time we each have.”

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