I spent yesterday afternoon with a group of first-year med students in the palliative care ward of the hospital, with one of the palliative care specialists talking to a patient who is on the ward.
Prior to starting the interview, the doctor went around the room and asked for feelings about what they were about to do. The students spoke generally about not being sure how to react when dealing with a person who is so close to death. They spoke of how they had not had much proximity to death, and they did not know how to deal with it.
So then he brought in the lady who had agreed to be interviewed. She was young, perhaps 60 but possibly younger (your sense of young and old gets skewed in the hospital). And not looking depressed. Not talking quietly and crying.
Smiling, speaking loudly and with energy, she told the story of her cancer, the developments from first symptoms down the long road to diagnosis, surgery, chemo, re-staging, relapse. She answered questions with gusto, made the group laugh.
She told us what annoyed her about the whole process, gave us advice on what to do in that situation that might have made things easier for her.
She told us about her plans for her old age, how she and her sister had planned to live to the average life expectancy for a woman, 86, and how they had intended to become the Little Old Ladies’ Detective Agency. She told us about her youth travelling around Europe, about her working life, about her family.
She told us a little about her fears about her death, about whether she would suffer near the end. But she made it clear to us that she was more taken up with enjoying her remaining short time as well as she could.
Her parting words: “Good luck to all of you! Hurrah for life!!”
I guess these interviews are hardest when you really have not thought about your own death. Discussing the things that aren’t going to happen for you because the end is certainly going to come before that can open an abyss of terror for us all.
So, weirdly, a method I use to make myself feel better when everything goes pear-shaped is to write my own obituary. It makes me think about the things I have accomplished and whether I am happy with them. It also drives me to keep working on the things I think are important. On less morbid days, I just think how little this will all mean in a hundred years.