“How do we live fully so we are fully ready to die?”
Ann Voskamp — One Thousand Gifts pg 29
This one sentence has echoed through my mind since I read it a few months ago.
It is utterly amazing in the way revelation hits you at the right moment and this one thought has had a profound effect on me.
My new path into palliative care is filled with difficult decisions, outlined with unpredictable futures and right at the center are genuine people trying to make sense of their mortality and legacy.
Therefore this question about being fully prepared to die has framed my thinking, as I’ve talked to patients and their family, as it is connected so strongly with having lived a full life.
So the question that I’ve been pondering has been,
“What does it mean to live fully?”
Based on our current culture, living fully is could be based on who or what you are living for.
We could be living for the sum total of unique world experiences — E.g visiting all the continents, experiencing new cultures or working through our bucket list
It could mean fulfilling our wildest dreams such as writing a book, meeting our soulmate or attaining a certain level of wealth and success in business
For most people it could mean leaving a lasting legacy for our children and those to come.
But I think living fully is more than that, deeper and woven into the way that we live each day of our lives. Connected into living fully is experiencing gratefulness and joy to the fullest.
Author Ann Voskamp talks about living a “eucharisteo” life. Eucharisteo is a Greek word found within the pages of the bible.
At its root is the word “charis” which means “grace” and “chara” meaning “joy”.
Together “Eucharisteo” is thanksgiving.
Grace, thanksgiving and joy offers a way of living the fullest life.
(pg 33 One Thousand Gifts)
Even we aren’t believers in God or the bible, living a life of gratitude and thankfulness is the only way that leads to true joy and peace.
This is something that I’ve observed in my patients with terminal diagnoses. I’ve seen that those who are peace with their mortality often are appreciative of their life, thankful for their family and still able to smile in their last days.
They have fully lived.
Recently as I sat on Mary’s* hospice bed and held her hand, she beamed as all her family had gathered to celebrate her life.
(*name changed for privacy)
She thanked me and told me she’d recommended me to her friends, I smiled and tried not to tear up. I could see she was glad all her family had made it down to Albany to see her.
She passed away peacefully the next day.
Recalibrate and realign often
The trouble is that we’ve programmed to be distracted by the issues and problems of life and living a eucharisteo life has to be reinforced each day, brought back to the center and recalibrated.
For we are natural drifters away from thanksgiving, it must be practiced everyday.
This is something that I am trying to teach my boys, asking them each night,
“What are you thankful for today?”
Their answers were initially slow and surprising, but have forced them to reflect on the child-like joy they’ve experienced during the day.
“Mum made me a strawberry milkshake, then let me play outside”
“I liked it when you read me a book Dad”
“Dad I‘m thankful that you took Samuel and me to swimming lessons”
“I’m thankful that you didn’t have to go to the hospital tonight Dad”
Their answers have moved me in their simplicity and how as an adult, my life has become about my patients, the mortgage, my paper on delirium have I eaten right today?…….and so on it goes, devoid of joy and definitely not thankful.
The way forward
The lines on his face showed the anguish of the difficult choice in front of him. It was unmistakably grey with illness, but his kind blue eyes pierced through and caught mine.
“What would do Jonathan?” he asked.
He was confronted with an impossible question, one his wife described as the “most important question of his life”.
Little did he know, I’d been ferociously praying inside of me, for the wisdom to guide him, in the silence that filled the hospital room, occupied by his wife, myself and our nurse.
“I think if I had to make this decision,” I answered, not shifting my gaze, “I would ask myself, if I had fully lived, and knowing the prognosis that we are facing, are you fully ready to die?”
“To answer that, are you thankful for all you’ve experience thus far? Are you at peace with and truly appreciated those around you?
The words came out fluently and precisely as if I’d been practicing them for days.
But truthfully, my life has been changed by this one question:
“How do we live fully so we are fully ready to die?”
Later that day, I visited him again. The atmosphere in the room had changed.
“I’ve made up my mind doc”.
He smiled and then contently looked over to his grand-daughter who was quietly playing on her mother’s lap.
“I’m glad”, I replied, thankful that we’d talked openly and honestly before.
We don’t have to be on our deathbed to think about living fully.
It is a decision that we all get to make each day, whether to live filled with anxieties of life or to live thankfully, in gratitude and experience true joy.
It is unreasonable to be happy all the time, actually mentally unhelpful and not authentic to the ups and downs that we face.
But, ask yourself is there an underlying theme of joy in your life as a result of daily thankfulness?
It is the only way to live a full life.
Enjoy your health
Dr Jonathan Ramachenderan