This holiday season, I find myself reflecting on the ways we can do end of life better. After a doozy of an autumn that brought mortality to my doorstep, several times, both personally and professionally, I am reminded that even when we know death is imminent, we never have as much time as we think we have. As such, most of us put off the important conversations, the focus on how we want to leave things, and learning how to fully engage with the dying process until it feels too late. This avoidance causes stress not only for us, but also for our loved ones at a time that is already stressful. And, it makes our end of life process, which could potentially be rich and fulfilling, feel harried and needlessly rushed as we try to fit it all in.
The truth is, we don’t believe death will happen until it happens. We think we have more time than we than we actually do. This is part and parcel of being human, and of having a will to live that transcends consciousness and is buried deep within our DNA. This has me wondering, what if we put less focus on cramming all of our end of life work in at the very end, like a bunch of procrastinating school kids, and took a proactive approach instead?
If I’ve learned anything from the dying, it’s that in the weeks and days and hours before death, it is truly a challenge to do all there is to do then. To say what needs saying and to share the stories that need to be shared, whether formally in a legacy project, or simply to give voice to important feelings and experiences as a means of making amends or, in the words of James Taylor, to “shower the people you love with love”.
In the hours before my grandma began actively dying this fall, even though we had had a very open relationship, she told me, “I’m not ready to die; I have so much to tell you.” We had many days after she uttered those words to be together, but she wasn’t able to share what she had wanted, the way she had wanted to before she died.
What if we each made the commitment to start this work now? Maybe it’s as easy as telling someone that you love them. Maybe they already know. Or, maybe it cracks something essential open for you. Maybe those three little words, that are the three biggest words, create a shift that continues to open conversations and stories and expressions that will enrich your lives together going forward.Start there, even if it feels risky. Give the gift of “I love you” this holiday season. If you already share I love you’s easily and well, graduate to storytelling – that time when you felt seen, honored, adored. Add “thank you” to your conversations. If you have thank you down, try “I’m sorry” – for that time you hurt their feelings, or made an unskillful choice that caused pain.
There is no end to the ways we can deepen our relationships by showing up more fully and vulnerably in them. And what better time than at the holidays? Not only will it help us each to live more fully now, it will undoubtedly help when it is time to depart later.
May your holidays be merry and bright, may you offer the gift of presence to those you love, and may it be returned again and again. All in the spirit of keeping the End in Mind.
as originally published for End in Mind on December 21, 2018