Life & Death
Transcript of talk given at the Unitarian Universalist Church, Pittsfield MA
Oct. 23, 2005

A few weeks ago I got reminded just how quickly life can change. A family friend was killed in a house fire-he was only 24.

Now death might be death, but how it shows up makes a big difference.
What I mean is, death that you can see coming is easier (and I use that word reluctantly) easier to deal with. This is the death that comes through an illness or disease ….or just the natural process of aging.
Let's face it- it's a lot easier to accept the death of someone in their 80's then someone in their 20's.

Although a disease may be terrible and tragic, at least you have some time (hopefully) to wrap your mind around the idea that the person may be dying-and usually there is some sliver of hope that they might recover. But whatever the outcome, you have time to say and do things. You get to prepare a little.
What if you're the one that's gotten the diagnosis? Well the same things apply more or less- at least you get the opportunity to prepare to leave this life-you get the chance to say goodbye.

But when death comes out of the blue, with no warning, there is no hope-only shock and disbelief.
There are no deals you can make-no bargaining-no prayers. Nothing is going to change what has happened-there's no going back. That's the really tough part: there is no going back.

That's when the “if only's” set in.
That's where your mind runs down all the other possibilities that could have happened: “If only” they'd left for work a minute later,
“if only” she'd stayed home that night, “if only” he'd not been there.

And then there's the“I wishes”: I wish I'd spent more time with them; I wish I'd been nicer; I wish I hadn't said that…done that.

I think probably one of the saddest things imaginable-at least to me-is to get to the end of my life regretting and saying “if only” or “I wish”.

I became a volunteer with Hospice almost 9 years ago. Doing this kind of work has been an eye opening experience to say the least. You learn a lot about yourself-and you learn a lot about life. One of the things I've learned is that it's important for a volunteer to be a good listener. And to do that you need to be comfortable with yourself, because you need to be comfortable with silence. You need to give a person the space to say things in.

It's a funny thing-sometimes it's easier for people to talk to a stranger. I'm not sure why that is. But I think it probably has something to do with the roles we all set up for ourselves within our families.
But being a volunteer you're outside that family loop.
And I've heard some things from the people I've gotten to know -and I'll get to them in a minute.

Right now I'd like to share a few of the things I've never heard any of these people say:
*I've never heard anyone say that they had spent too much time with the people they loved
*I've never heard anyone say that they wish they'd been meaner, nastier, more greedy, or held more grudges
*I've never heard anyone say: Gee, I wish I hadn't taken so many vacations”.
*I've never heard anyone say that time passed too slowly.

My very first Hospice patient didn't tell me much at all-at least not in words. But I learned one of my most important lessons from him-I just didn't know it at the time.
Gerry was a 90 year old nursing home patient, confined to bed, with cancer and mild dementia. His wife, Patricia, visited him everyday without fail. She hated the idea of Gerry being alone.

I learned right away that Gerry was definitely not a talker. All my attempts at conversation fell flat. So I tried reading to him. But that got the same response. I was at a loss for what to do. Finally I decided I'd just come and sit by his bedside. So that's what I did week after week. I'd show up, say hi and then grab my usual seat.

I don't mind telling you that it was pretty weird at first. Remember how I said that a volunteer needed to be comfortable with silence? Well this was a lot more silence than I'd bargained for - and I felt guilty because it seemed as if I wasn't doing anything. But there really was nothing else to do.
During my visits Gerry would occasionally open his eyes and maybe say a word or two, but that was about it.
But, when his eyes met mine, we seemed to somehow connect-I could feel that.

When I'd been assigned to Gerry it was thought that maybe had a month or 2 left. Well, he fooled them! He lived another 6 months. One of the things I've come to believe is that this is something the patient decides on some level; they know when it's time to go-they make that decision. So Gerry called the shots-and me, I just sat….quietly.

A few months after Gerry had died I ran into his wife and you'll never guess what she told me. Now this really floored me- she said that Gerry always looked forward to my visits; that they were a bright spot for him. I'd had no idea that my visits meant much of anything to Gerry. That's because I'd been mistaken…I had thought it was about me “doing” something-that I had to make small talk, tell stories, be entertaining-somehow draw Gerry out of himself. And because I'd FAILED at those things, well then I hadn't done anything.
BUT… it wasn't about “doing” at all-it was simply about being available. I had been willing to be with Gerry. And that had been enough.

About 5 years ago I was assigned to a man with end stage lung cancer. One day, shortly before he died, he told me his biggest regret. Here's what he said, “I wish I'd been more intimate with people. I should have gotten to know people better…. and I should have let them know me better too.”

Speaking of “should's”: A 92 year old woman once told me that I said the word should' too much. Here's what she had to say about it, “If you think you should do a thing then for god's sake go ahead and do it - then it won't be a “should” any longer”. She leaned a bit closer to me, as she said “There's still time you know”.

One of the things you learn being around the dying is that they usually aren't interested in small talk. They tell it like it is. As one of them once told me: “I don't have time for B.S.” anymore”.
Anyone who's spent time around small children is familiar with this kind of honesty. What happens to us in-between both these places?

The title of this talk is “a matter of death and life”-I put death first because I believe that, until we really accept that we are going to die, we live our life too carefully. When I say “too carefully”, I'm not saying you should become a daredevil or throw good sense and caution out the window-at least not with your physical self. But maybe we could all become a little more daring with our emotional selves.

The truth is we are all going to die one day. Whether it's today, tomorrow, or 60 years from now-it is going to happen. No one gets out of here alive! I don't say this because I want to depress you-I say it because I want to shake you awake! No matter what may be going on for you in your life right now, you are alive, and with that comes' possibility. So I say it to remind you -and to urge you not to waste the time you've been given. If there has been a common thread that's run through the things I've heard from terminally ill patients, it is this:
Don't - waste - the- time - you - have!

When you really allow yourself to get this fact, things begin to change for you. What once seemed so important no longer is.
Let me tell you what a man told me the day before he died. He said, “People trump things….every time”. People trump things. Remember that the next time someone interrupts your favorite TV show because they want to tell you something.

I read a quote from Anne Frank. She said, “How marvelous that each day we get to begin our life anew…” This from a teenage girl hiding in an attic trying to escape the Nazi's. What a remarkable thing to have had such wisdom at such a young age. She knew: As long as we are alive there are possibilities.

A good life does not have to be long to be full.

Author and poet Diane Ackerman wrote, "I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”

What makes a life “wide”?
One of the things that makes my life wide is being of service to another person. I've found that I feel good when I help someone else.

“Helping” does not mean rescuing-it doesn't mean solving someone else's problem. And it doesn't have to be a huge thing. It can be small: smiling at someone, being kind, asking someone how they are and then really listening when they answer. That's being of service. I feel good when I do these things. I feel better about me, and when I feel better about me, I feel better about the world.

So, what makes your life wide?

Giving helps life to expand.

Every one of us has something to offer. Start small- a smile will do. You never know - that smile you give to some stranger might actually turn their life around.

I heard a woman once say that she'd been planning to kill herself and just before she'd gone home to do the deed a stranger had smiled at her and offered her his seat on a crowded bus. This small act changed how she felt. Instead of suicide, she sought help. I bet the guy who smiled and gave up his seat felt better to. So, you never know…
The truth is that whenever we are giving of our self we are also receiving.

There's a Buddhist saying: All the happiness in the world comes from thinking of others, all the misery from thinking only of one's self.

I'd like to read you a poem called “INSTRUCTIONS” by Sheri Hostleter
It's from the anthology “A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry” ©

Give up the world; give up self; finally, give up God.
Find god in rhododendrons and rocks,
passers-by, your cat.
Pare your beliefs, your absolutes.
Make it simple; make it clean.
No carry-on luggage allowed.
Examine all you have
with a loving and critical eye, then
throw away some more.
Repeat. Repeat.
Keep this and only this:
what your heart beats loudly for
what feels heavy and full in your gut.
There will only be one or two
things you will keep,
and they will fit lightly
in your pocket.

I've been with a number of people as they've left this life. I have also been present at the birth of all 3 of my children. The atmosphere in the rooms is almost identical. There is a “feel” of something sacred and profound. I've come to believe that what we see here as “dying”, is really also “birthing”.
Even as our bodies die to this life, our acts and the things we've done live on-the things we do here in this life carry forward.

Each of us here today has been given another day of life -what an amazing thing that is! No one is guaranteed another day. When you close your eyes at night there is no assurance that you'll be opening them come morning.
I remember when this realization hit me a few years back. Since then I start my day the same way every morning. The very first thing I do when I realize I'm awake is I thank God for another day of life. It puts things in perspective before I even get out of bed. And I start my day by being grateful for something.

This thing we call life is far too precious to waste! And while life may be a serious thing-we should refrain from making it too serious a thing.
We should enjoy the hell out of it-dance with it. We should sing the song we've been given. Dr. Wayne Dyer says, "No one should die with their music still in them……” I agree. Let your music out into the world-fill the world with your song. Don't worry about intonation, don't try to be perfect-just do it-sing it… and in time it will sing you!

If this were your last week of life what would you do with it? Ask yourself this question often...then listens. What does your heart say to you?

Don't leave things un-said -tell people what they mean to you; tell your loved ones you love them.
Don't assume you'll see someone later-tell them NOW.
Don't put things that matter off-
Stop doing what doesn't matter to you - so you can start doing what does!
Forgive everyone-start with yourself and move outward. You don't have to forgive the acts people commit-just the actors!
Pay attention-be conscious of you actions and how they affect others. Become willing to change.

Begin to live your life from this perspective and you'll be amazed what starts to happen! Not only will you feel better-so will the people in your path everyday.
Finally, if you wish for a kinder world-be more kind. If you wish for a richer life-be more generous. If you want peace, be peace.
Somebody once said: this ain't no dress rehearsal. It is life.
This life here, right now- is your life-
It is the only time you're going to get to do this life-it is as unique as you are. Now go and live it as if everything you do matters-because it does. As my 92 year old friend reminded me: There's still time you know.