7 life lessons from the dying

The author shares what she learned from her suffering patients during her work as a hospice physician

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During my work as a hospice physician, I had a great opportunity to study how people respond to times of suffering and adversity in their lives. What I learned by watching and listening to patients who were facing their death was that a spiritual focus on life is the most important factor for getting through the fires of suffering and creating something beautiful. Those patients all had to accept that their lives were coming to an end soon and during that process each of them mastered certain spiritual lessons that are important clues to how we should be dealing with our own suffering.

As a devoted student of those dying patients, I learned seven life lessons that I have been able to incorporate into my own life and that have helped me find my way through my struggles:

7 life lessons from the dying

1. Suffering

Embrace your difficulties rather than resist them. This lesson is the key to learning the most effective attitude towards challenging times. Those who resist their suffering tend to experience more pain and more complications, while those who accept that suffering is just a part of life, quickly move on to focus on other issues. Use your time to make the best of each situation rather than complaining about the things you don’t like.

2. Love

It’s all about relationships. In the final analysis, dying people care more about relationships than anything else in life. Those who have failed to love earlier in their lives spend most of their dying hours trying to rectify that situation. Pay attention now to the relationships that are already in your life. If you don’t already know how to give and receive love, start learning now.

3. Forgiveness

Move on quickly after mistakes. Nothing is gained from harbouring resentment towards self or others. Most dying patients work hard to make amends and find forgiveness with their loved ones. Start now by refusing to hold on to grudges and negative feelings. Take the disappointments of life lightly and keep moving on to deal with greater lessons.

4. Paradise

Enjoy what you have and where you are right now. Wishing for things to be different traps you in the future, and regretting what has already happened ties you to the past. The dying focus on the present moment because it is all they have. But they find a great capacity to enjoy even the smallest things and savour each and every experience. Throughout each day, stop frequently and find the pleasure in exactly what you are doing in that moment.

5. Purpose

Purpose is what you are creating in the moment right now. The dying have no future about which to daydream or fantasise. So they find meaning and purpose in whatever they are doing in the present moment. Recognise that your life is unfolding one moment at a time and that each and every moment has its own special purpose. Make every moment matter and stop living for what you might accomplish someday—there is only now.

6. Surrender

Stop trying to change what you cannot change. All attempts to change the way things are have long been abandoned by the time the dying get to their last days. But it is foolish for any of us to waste our precious time and energy trying to make things different than they really are. Once you give up this battle, direct your energy towards being creative instead.

7. Impermanence

Let go of your fear of failure. One of the most difficult tasks for the dying is to overcome the fear of death. But once they cross that obstacle, it becomes clear that nothing in life should be feared. Keep moving forward in your life and lose your fear that you will fail. Truly, no matter what happens, you cannot fail if you are on your path because failure doesn’t exist on the spiritual journey. So stop giving your energy to fear and live your life fully and courageously.

With these seven lessons from the dying as a guide, it is possible to live with joy and celebration even in times of great difficulty. Pay attention now to these things that really matter so that you can spend your life in peace and equanimity. This is really why we are here and why we are facing such enormous challenges. Become a student now, practise your lessons every day and watch as the beauty of life unfolds before you, just as a flower blossoms in the light of day.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing magazine

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Karen Wyatt
Karen Wyatt is a family practice and hospice physician, and the author of the award-winning book What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying. Dr. Wyatt received the Spirit of the American Woman Award in1996, was named one of Utah’s 100 Notable Women in that same year, and in 2005 was a recipient of the Outstanding Citizen of the Year Award for Summit County, Colorado. To sign up for her free What Really Matters Workbook visit www.karenwyattmd.com