By Charlene Thurston, ANP, Program Director – from Currents Spring 2014

When we come to our final days and look back on our life, what will we say has made it meaningful?

How can we spend whatever time we have remaining in a manner that brings satisfaction and fulfillment to our lives and to the lives of those we love?

If we were told we could die tomorrow, what would we want to be sure to pass on to those we’d leave behind? What legacy would we leave?

People often think of the tangible things they’d like to leave to others, like their property, money, and other valuables, and are usually very sure to leave a will. But what of your life’s story would you like people to remember? What has given your life meaning? What lessons have you learned and what values would you like to pass on? These are the parts of ourselves that live on and are often much more important than the things we leave.

If there is any blessing to having a life-threatening illness, it is that, in bringing one face-to-face with the possibility of dying, it provides time for pondering the questions of life’s meaning and for addressing the issues which surface during this phase of life’s journey.

Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement, said, “You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.”

We’ve used this quote often in articles we’ve written because it clearly states one of our central goals – ensuring that our patients recognize their value and dignity, no matter what state of vulnerability and weakness they might be experiencing. Supporting our patients and families as they confront the existential and spiritual issues that emerge when faced with life-threatening illness and grief is a most important aspect of our work.

Reviewing our lives, reminiscing, and sharing memories can often be very beneficial in reaffirming the value of a person’s whole life. At a time when one may be feeling particularly vulnerable, it helps to remember who they’ve been, whom they’ve loved, what they’ve accomplished, and what they’ll leave to those who survive them. In this way it helps complete their life story and share it with those they love, re-experiencing times that have brought them joy, and providing an opportunity for them to reframe, forgive, or reconcile with events or people that might have been very difficult.

For those who are well enough to do so, time may be spent on a spiritual search, looking for answers to questions about life and death and whatever follows, re-prioritizing things in their life so that they live more authentically for whatever time there is remaining, whether weeks, months, or years, and realigning their lives with their values.
For people who may be too weak or uninterested in such a pursuit, simple reminiscence with loved ones with opportunities to pass on treasured memories, values, forgiveness, and words of wisdom will be most valuable. For those with the interest, strength, and opportunity to do so, creating a documented legacy, written, audio-taped, or video-taped, can be a wonderful way to share one’s life and to leave something which surviving loved ones may return to after a death, creating a tangible bond which endures for years to come.

Patients, family members, and friends can all participate in the process, and, if desired, our volunteers are available to help as well.

One of our veteran volunteers, Toby Greenberg, recalls successful life review projects with some of her patients. Using an interview tool designed in booklet form learned at a training session, she was able to help patients, even those with memory loss, tell their life stories which they remembered and enjoyed in amazing detail.

Ginnie Faria, our volunteer coordinator, recalls helping a patient friend create a photo book. Not only did the patient love having a book to enjoy and to leave for her loved ones, but a detailed story of an extraordinary family road trip from her early life as a young mother emerged from just one picture.

There are many tools that can help in the process. Some people just like to sit over photos and talk about what was meaningful. Others like to write letters to those who’ll remain. Still others choose to follow guides to document their stories. We have several resources in our office which people are invited to borrow.

However it’s done, reviewing one’s life provides an opportunity to make meaning of the life we’ve lived and enhances our connection to people we love. We encourage family members and caregivers to ask about the lives of persons they’re caring for and to take the time to listen attentively to what’s being shared. Everyone will benefit.

Funded by the Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket Foundation, the Palliative & Supportive Care Program is operated as a department of the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, which is an affiliate of Massachusetts General Hospital, and a member of Partners HealthCare. Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket is a specialized health care program dedicated to providing excellent physical, psychological, social, and spiritual care to persons with life-threatening illness and their families.

A Partnership in Caring

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