What My Hospice Patients Wanted You to Know

As a hospice doctor I have had the privilege throughout my medical career of sitting at the bedsides of hundreds of patients. I have listened to their stories, answered their questions and shared their concerns as they faced the gradual decline that occurs at the end of life.

But I also asked questions of my own as we sat together over those final days. Always a willing student, I viewed my patients as teachers who have explored unknown territory that I too will some day experience. Over and over again I have discovered gems of priceless wisdom in the words of the dying and have learned valuable lessons for living my own life.

Many patients asked me to share this knowledge with the world since they are no longer here to tell their own stories. This request led to the book What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying, where I compiled those stories into a framework for living well before we die. That book contains profound spiritual wisdom but here is some of the simple everyday advice my patients also asked me to share:

“What seems important now doesn’t matter in the end.”

Many of my patients discovered at the very end of life that they didn’t care at all about the material possessions or wealth they had accumulated earlier in life. In fact they felt they had wasted time and energy trying to have more “things” in their lives and wished instead that they had focused on relationships and experiences, like travel and time in nature.

“Don’t worry so much about diet and exercise.”

Believing they would live longer and healthier lives, some of my patients had been very strict about eating the “right” foods and staying fit. But when they got sick anyway in their later years they felt they had cheated themselves out of some of life’s pleasures. “Exercise and eat to feel good” they recommended, but enjoy the foods you love and take plenty of time to relax, rest and have fun.

“Your doctor doesn’t have all the answers for you.”

During the early stages of illness many patients believed that modern medicine would cure them. They pursued treatment after treatment and followed medical advice to the tee, but instead of a cure they got severe side effects and complications. These patients wished they had spent less time relying on doctors and more time learning to trust their own judgment.

“Your life’s purpose isn’t what you think it is.”

Finding meaning and purpose in life is one of the great challenges of our human existence. We spend our lives seeking out the “right” occupation that will allow us to achieve both success and fulfillment. But some of my patients recognized that their life’s purpose was much simpler and smaller than they had assumed, such as being a thoughtful neighbor, planting a garden or caring for a pet. Pay as much attention to the simple things of life as you do to your efforts to climb the career ladder.

“Religion is less important than learning how to love others.”

Some of my patients had been devoutly religious throughout their lives but began to see that path as limiting when they faced their last days. They stopped identifying themselves as part of one group or another and saw instead that we are all connected and all deserving of love. In fact, they said that loving others was the most important task of their lives.

“Dying isn’t as scary as you think.”

Many patients were surprised that they no longer felt afraid of death as they got closer to it. They expressed curiosity about the dying process and were able to watch it unfold without fear. One patient told me she was “dissolving” a little bit each day and turning into light, which she described as a wonderful experience. “Don’t waste your time and energy being afraid of death,” she said, “instead … enjoy being alive!”

“You’re going to die anyway so you might as well be ready.”

The fact that death comes for each of us no matter what we do was one of the common bits of wisdom from my patients. Many of them wished they had started preparing for it earlier in life and those who had planned ahead for death were at peace and filled with gratitude. It’s never too early to tell people you love them, to practice forgiveness, and to find joy in the simple things in life.

While not everyone experiences peace or love through the process of dying, I found that those people who were open to it and ready to let go had by far the fewest difficulties at the end of life. Whatever you do to prepare for your later days will benefit you in the end so it’s worthwhile to start thinking about it now.

Remember: death is the one life experience that all living things have in common. Indeed, even stars and planets eventually die. Why not embrace it and follow the wise advice of my hospice patients? A life well-lived leads to a death without regrets … and that’s worth planning for.

Learn more about how to get ready for the last days of life at www.eoluniversity.com with Dr. Karen Wyatt.