Getting to know a person who is on the brink of death certainly teaches you a few things.
For three years, I have served as a hospice volunteer, both at home in Seattle and in Schenectady.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with hospice, it is a philosophy of care that focuses on end-of-life care for those with terminal illnesses.
Those that choose to enter hospice care forfeit life-saving treatment and instead, decide to live their remaining days in an environment that promotes comfort. Essentially, a hospice organization is where a patient can die peacefully.
As a hospice volunteer, I perform a variety of roles in order to cater to a patient’s needs and wishes. Most often, however, I sit at their bedside as a fellow human being, sharing moments that never cease to teach me lessons about life itself.
In a hospice patient’s final months, weeks or even days of life, the most authentic essence of the person is brought forth to the surface.
Meaningless distractions and societal expectations are shed; what I have the privilege of seeing are the final values a patient internalizes to the day they die.
These often consist of family and friends, passions and the regrets one leaves behind. Each represents priorities that we, as young adults, often miss.
For example, as college students, we consider relationships to be transient; this perspective translates into numerous hookups, vast numbers of friends and short-term girlfriends or boyfriends that all end after graduation.
While none of these relationships are inherently negative, the learning opportunity in developing relationships to last lifetimes becomes minimized.
Sometimes, we discard important relationships in exchange for social, career or academic success. However, we fail to recognize that societal success is both superficial and never-ending.
I have patients that do not have any family that visits them at their deathbed. I have patients that regret losing contact with their best friends because the anxieties of life were too distracting.
Therefore, we must treasure those that are important to us, and never let those individuals go. We must never treat friends as temporary, but rather, as those that we will happily die with.
Furthermore, we must treasure our passions. My patients often have one or two passions that they will incessantly engage in, as they understand the days for them decline in number.
But we ought to never reach that point. Instead, we need to center our lives on our true passions, never compromising them.
Our lives must be directed by what we love and believe in, and not by another’s wishes or society’s standards. After all, one’s life — and death — is entirely that person’s own and cannot be defined by external pressures.
Lastly, as young adults, we often live in a constant mindset of stress and planning for the future. We look to what is in front of us, and we envision what we desire.
However, when we do not achieve those carefully formulated plans, we have feelings of failure, and also, regret.
But failure is a limitation that we, as humans, must embrace. We are bound to a physical universe that proceeds along a linear timeline. We cannot hope to guess at anything beyond our current position.
We may be diagnosed with cancer, suffer a fatal injury or develop a chronic disease that significantly affects our quality of life tomorrow.
Therefore, to never regret in life, we must always uphold these aforementioned values. In any decision we make, we must prioritize family and friends, and then pursue the passions we treasure.
And any decision, regardless of the outcome, will be the right one.
We will inevitably reach our final moments sometime in life.
I hope that we all will be able to reflect and be satisfied with how we treated others, and ourselves, in that dying breath.