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5 Life Lessons From End-of-Life Experts

Make sure to do these things while you are still able


Part of the Living to the End of Life Special Report

(Editor’s note: This story is part of a special report for The John A. Hartford Foundation.)

You’ve heard it countless times: Life is short, so appreciate each moment.

People with life-limiting diagnoses know this intimately: When they come to terms with their mortality, their priorities often change, and they may try to squeeze as much substance into their lives as they can. This often involves trying to resolve long-standing problems with loved ones and strengthening important relationships.

Very few healthy people live this way, though. We get caught up in the details of our busy lives and often forget to put things in perspective, believing that we’ll have time to sort everything out. But end-of-life experts believe that everyone should adopt some of the attitudes and values that dying patients embrace.

“It’s easy to put something off into the future,” says John Mastrojohn III, chief operating officer of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. “For some, that future may not be as long as we’d like. Having meaningful conversations, or doing other things that bring joy, can have a profound impact on how we feel about ourselves and others.”

You may be inclined to delay these types of conversations if you don’t sense an imminent need. But they can positively impact your relationships and help you realize what’s most important.

“Those of us who work with people who are seriously ill have found that [saying] ‘Please forgive me,’ ‘I forgive you,’ ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you’ — that almost always has value to people, whether relationships are fractured or strong,” says Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician in Torrance, Calif., and author of The Four Things That Matter Most.

End-of-life experts believe that the following advice — which they often share with patients who are in the final weeks or months of their lives — is surprisingly well-suited for active, healthy people, too:

1. Adjust Your Priorities

You may take your friends and relatives for granted because you’re focused on a work project, your upcoming kitchen renovation or the number of “likes” that you received on a Facebook post. But it’s important to periodically stop to appreciate the meaningful relationships in your life.

“The things that matter most to people aren’t things; they’re other people,” Byock says. “Ask somebody who’s facing cancer or chemotherapy for the third or fourth time what matters, and the answer they give will always include the names of people they love.”

2. Make Time for Loved Ones

Your schedule may make it difficult to see friends or relatives as often as you’d like, but you can change that. Giving priority to your most important relationships should make you feel less frazzled and more grounded.

“There is not a single seriously ill patient I know that worries about all the current items populating their calendar when they receive a life-threatening diagnosis — their thoughts go immediately to their time with those they love,” says Dr. Cory Ingram, a palliative-care physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “There are some things in life to postpone; however, relationships with those who matter aren’t on that list.”

3. Have Meaningful Conversations

Most people don’t apologize, seek forgiveness, offer gratitude or extend feelings of love to their closest friends and family members on a regular basis. They may believe that their feelings are tacitly understood by their loved ones. Or they may feel that the topics are too significant to broach in everyday conversation, so they keep their feelings inside.

But putting words to your feelings can boost your relationships significantly. It’s particularly important for parents who may not have shared their thoughts with their children — especially adult children.

“It’s worth taking the time to sit with each of your children and let them know how proud you are to be their mom or dad,” Byock says. “[Or tell them] ‘I love you more than I can say.’ Who else on this planet can give that gift in your voice? I’ve counseled many children who were crying after the death of a parent, who never heard words of that nature. Some of those children were in their 60s.”

4. Don’t Hesitate to Share Deep Feelings

In many families, people don’t discuss emotions unless there’s a crisis, but you can work to change that. Consider how you’d feel if you or a loved one died suddenly, before you had the chance to share what was in your heart. Revealing your feelings can help to alleviate that sentiment and bring you closer.

“Some people say, ‘My kids know that I love them,’” Byock says. “’I say, ‘Great! Then it will be easy for you to say it.’ No excuses and no mumbling.”

It can be particularly difficult for some men to talk about their feelings, especially if they’ve maintained a gruff, stoic reputation. But once they open up, their words can deeply move the people in their lives.

“Most of them aren’t so tough — they just learned to cloak their feelings in a hard shell,” Byock says. “We guys aren’t as verbal about our emotions. We have emotions. We just don’t talk about them. Talking about this stuff can be very impactful.”

5. Prepare for the Worst

Many terminally ill people create advance directives, which are documents that name a loved one to make medical decisions on their behalf in case they are ever unable to speak for themselves.

But two-thirds of healthy people don’t have advance directives, perhaps because it requires them to consider their own mortality. Advance directives are invaluable for everyone, however, since we never know what may happen.

“It’s a way of taking care of your family,” Byock says. “I have an advance directive. Not because I have a serious illness, but because I have a family. I’m a dad, and if I’m in a car accident or have a stroke, if my wife and daughters would struggle, I can give one of them clear authority to speak for me, with no ambiguity. I can give them some sense of what I think I want, to lift a little bit off their shoulders.”

After you designate someone to speak on your behalf, let them know.

“Completing the document is only part of the requirement,” Ingram says. “The real work of completing an advance directive is having a conversation about your values, preferences and priorities for health care with those you named.”

By Lisa Fields
Lisa Fields is a writer who covers psychology and health matters as they relate to the workplace. She publishes frequently in WebMD and Reader’s Digest.

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