BJ Miller, MD, the Executive Director of Zen Hospice, said something in an interview that has really stuck with me. While I can’t quote him exactly, here’s the gist of it: the only difference between someone with a devastating diagnosis and the rest of us is that the former knows how they’re going to die. This is such a valuable lesson: all of us are in the same predicament, it’s just that most of us are able to live in relative denial since we don’t know the exact means of our demise.
While this concept may strike some as slightly esoteric, I recently learned, on a deeply personal level, just how true it is. A beloved family member, a relatively young and outwardly healthy man, had a fatal heart attack while on his bike. No one saw it coming, and he was gone in an instant. And yet he had probably been at grave risk for years, living with an undiagnosed blockage in his heart. He, like all of us, was living with a terminal diagnosis: it’s just that he didn’t know what it was.
How is this relevant to the work we do here at Pathfinders?
Our staff members spend a great deal of time with those who are outwardly ill: we advocate at hospital bedsides, we represent those who are no longer able to participate in everyday activities, we coach people who are newly diagnosed with challenging illnesses. So we are in danger of falling into the trap of seeing our clients as different from the rest of us, as unfortunate victims who are at risk of losing their battle with their disease. But instead, we strive to remember Dr. Miller’s words, and to maintain a more informed perspective. We retain our empathy for the difficulty that our clients are facing, but at the same time we look beyond their illnesses and help them to live the best lives possible. Yes, we assist them in defining their individual journeys through illness, but we do it the service of celebrating life, and by helping them define their unique perspectives and personal choices. And in the meantime, we do our best to help them live just like the rest of us….and to remember that we’re all in exactly the same boat.
In return, we have the privilege of working with extraordinary people who teach us about grace, resilience and kindness. They remind us about the value of maintaining a sense of humor, of enjoying simple pleasures, of continually appreciating loved ones. We are incredibly fortunate to spend our days with such inspiring teachers.
I heard the phrase the other day, “making peace with illness”, and I think that captures this concept well. As we come to the end of 2014, our wish for each of you is to find your own kind of peace in the coming year. It is an honor to work with you.