People who were dying in the Middle Ages said their goodbyes, gave away the furniture, and just stopped breathing. The non-event was witnessed by friends and family, who, at the moment of death, absconded with anything of value. Later, they might gather to either celebrate or deride the person’s life. Today, although we rarely fight over furniture, we do something worse.

We layer death with a multitude of screens, hoping to hide the elephant in the room. Unfortunately, the delusion is easily shattered by words, events, and thoughts that despite our best efforts to the contrary, reassert the role of death in life. Today, instead of welcoming death as the greatest of all life coaches, we dread its appearance as if it is an embarrassing relative at a family gathering.

The theologian Thomas Merton, described how when his mother was dying, she wrote him a goodbye letter, rather than risking the possibility of scarring him for life by actually seeing her dying in the hospital.

Our attitudes today have changed little since Merton’s mother’s death in the early 1900’s. The Buddha said that just like the elephant leaves the largest footprint in the forest, so does death when it comes to living. As a bedside hospice volunteer for the last seven years, I have and still reside in the elephant’s footprint. What I’ve learned are lessons about living that hit me with the force of a sledgehammer.

The linguist, Korzybski, said “The map is not the territory.” Arriving at the territory of personal excellence may not require  lectures, workshops, or even books written by great motivational authors. The map I use involves people who invite me into their lives as they approach death. As I watch their transformation and growth, I feel as if I am experiencing the peeling away of an onion’s layers. When someone knows they don’t have much time to live, things that were once thought important—such as roles, egos, and societal niceties—are shed as quickly as one takes off a winter coat in a hot room. What’s left is an understanding about what’s important in life and an honesty often painful to witness. But from the words and actions of these people comes wisdom that cuts to the core of what it means to be human.

After serving patients ranging in age from 3 months to 98 years, I’m beginning to understand how to transform my life from one that has been adequate, to one that is fulfilling. One universal maxim I’ve learned is the way we choose to live, usually becomes the way we are forced to die.

If you want an easier death, make yourself a better life. It’s a causative proposition that is unfortunately often misinterpreted as “being glib.” But its relevance lies in its simplicity and evidence throughout human history. Learning to live fully is unlike learning the steps for delivering a dynamite speech. But there are general guidelines that I’ve gleaned from my experiences that can become a blueprint for personal excellence. Below are six of the many I’ve learned. Each is presented in the form of a short, but true story. Each story serves as a life coach for how to live fully and die better.

Ask for Forgiveness. Mary had abandoned her two children and husband when she was 30. Now in her 70’s and near death, she sought forgiveness from her children who refused to see her, even knowing she was dying. After three weeks of intense effort, we finally had a letter that would be sent to them after she died. It read, “I’ve always loved you. I’m sorry for hurting you. Please forgive me.” Although they refused to see or talk to her, the act of asking for forgiveness allowed her to die more peacefully. Asking to be forgiven for unskillful acts or words can be soothing, if not curative, even if forgiveness is withheld.

Let Go. Martha was in excruciating pain and decided to end her own life by stopping nourishment and fluid. As she became weaker, I whispered into her ear, “It’s okay to let go, I know how much pain you’re in.” She slowly nodded her head and pointed to her mother, who was sleeping on the couch across the room. On an erasable board she wrote, “Not ready.” Martha was prepared to endure indescribable agony from a terminal illness because her mother wasn’t ready to accept her death. By not letting go of things that no longer make sense, we not only hurt ourselves, but also others.

Give. I knew Sid for 7 days before he died. As I sat next to his body, I felt cheated. I wanted his friendship even though I knew he would die soon.  I came to realize that my compassion towards him had a kicker—I expected a buddy in return for my compassion. I now understand that giving isn’t analogous to a business contract where if something is given, something is expected in return. Giving should be unconditional with no expectation of reciprocity: you give because it’s the right thing to do.

Communicate with heart. For more than 30 years as a Professor of Communicative Disorders, I believed words and language were the best means of communication. It was only when I served people who were dying that I realized the use of words and language often get in the way of the emotions we wish to convey.

Show Compassion. Before beginning my work with hospice, I viewed compassion as involving big gestures such as showing great concern over someone’s loss or financially helping someone who was destitute. But the simple act of emptying an overflowing urinal resulted in an outpouring of gratitude far exceeding my efforts. I came to realize that a measure of compassion is the effect it has on the person experiencing it, not the largeness of the effort.

Do what matters. I’ve never underestimated the power of positive thinking. But I found by hoping that one’s life will get better, people often neglect improving their present situation. Instead of tying up loose ends near death, people often waited, hoping for a miracle to happen. “Hoping” for the best in the future often results in not doing something meaningful in the present.

Forgive. We often hold on to an emotional pain as if its continuation validates the injustice we experienced. The Tibetans have a saying, “You can throw hot coals at your enemies, but you’ll burn your hands.”  Bruce forgave his son for refusing to take care of him when both knew he was dying. It resulted in needed closure that allowed him to have a more peaceful death. Forgiveness does not mean that an act of cruelty was justified. Rather, it implies an understanding of why it occurred and allows one to move on positively with their life and death.

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Stan Goldberg

Stan Goldberg is a Professor Emeritus of Communicative Disorders at San Francisco State University. For over 25 years he taught, provided therapy, researched, and published in the area of information processing, loss, and change. Stan has published seven books, written numerous articles and delivered over 100 lectures and workshops throughout the United States, Latin America and Asia. He is currently working on a novel and a book on loss. He also consults on issues of personal, institutional, and corporate change. He has served as an expert legal witness in high-profile court cases and is a consulting editor for Oxford University Press. Stan leads workshops for adults whose lives were suddenly and traumatically changed. He serves at the bedside hospice volunteer in San Francisco for Pathways Home Health Care and Hospice. and is a featured columnist in the Hospice Volunteers of America quarterly magazine. His published magazine articles, essays, poems, and plays have received numerous national and international writing awards. Written with humor and sensitivity, they have appeared in magazines ranging from Psychology Today to Horse and Rider. His latest book is Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life It’s a memoir of his six years as a bedside hospice volunteer; an experience that taught him to accept his cancer and live fully, no matter how long that might be. He can be contacted at Numerous downloadable articles appear on his website

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