Facing one’s death is not just about accomplishing a bucket list. A big part of it is being able to understand and appreciate what has been accomplished, what one’s life has meant to others and in the grand scheme of things. I’m not talking here about work accomplishments (although they were important, too), but rather how a person’s life has impacted on and enriched others. This is where others come in. In the end, things aren’t important, it’s the people in our lives.
Although I have asserted that in the end we all die alone, people in our lives have joined us on our road to that end. It is incredibly important for the dying to know how they have touched others’ lives along the way. There is a sense of purpose, of fulfillment to know that somehow you have made a difference to someone else’s life.
We never really know how our actions have impacted on others unless they tell us. For instance, in my many years of practice, I was so often struck by the unsung heroes in people’s lives. Sometimes, it was a schoolteacher or a sports coach, or the little old lady down the street who used to invite a youth in for a cup of tea and a chat who had shown the caring that made a youngster feel worthwhile. It could have been a college mentor or a pastor, someone who took the time to listen and share. The profound, life-changing effect of these people was so many times beyond what they could have even imagined.
What I am suggesting here is two-fold. The dying need to hear it and so do the living. This should be true for everyone. We need to let people know what their lives have meant to us, not just near the end. People get so caught up in simmering resentments about wrongs they have experienced that they forget about all the “rights”. They forget about all the good things others have done that have made their lives better. The time is overdue to recognize those.
None of us knows how long we have. The end could be from a fatal car accident as easily as it could be from a protracted bout with cancer. How often do we hear a tearful relative bemoan that their last interchange before a fateful flight or other accident had been in an argument? They try to remember the last time they had said they loved their lost loved one…did they know they were loved and appreciated in their last moments?
We can’t stop life’s inevitable conflicts from happening, but we can ensure that those we love know it. So what does everyone need? To hear about the good things, the appreciation for what they have done to make others’ lives better. When it comes to someone who is dying, they need to hear it as much as they need to tell others the same. The living need to hear it too, but they also need to be sure that they have let their dying family member know how much they have been appreciated and for what. It helps remind people that their life has had some purpose, made a difference for another, that their existence meant something.