“For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story,
and in stories, endings matter.”
-Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
I will never forget the first patient I saw die. She was old and ill and beyond the curatives of modern medicine. I sat beside her bedside because I believed strongly that dying was something that should be shared. I believed then, and still do, that no one should die alone. I felt that this woman’s life was a story, and she should not be alone in her final chapter.
Even as a young woman early in my nursing career, I was awed by the beauty of dying. It was a messy, sad, fragile, beautiful event. In this way, I was struck by how closely dying resembled birth, which is also poignantly beautiful and messy. These two life events were different sides of the same coin, and both awe-inspiring, sacred moments. Yet, even at these early stages of reflection, I understood that for some reason our society celebrates birth but shies away from the topic of dying. To me, this seemed inherently wrong and backwards. Why do we glorify the start of life but deeply fear its end?
Witnessing death was beautiful to me because, although I didn’t really know this person, except as my patient that day, I knew that she had a story. I wondered what that story was. I sat beside her and I wondered what she was like as a little girl. I wondered if her dreams had come true, what her disappointments were, and how she forged on through both triumphs and losses. I wondered who she loved and who loved her, what she was proud of, and what she regretted. I wished that she could tell me her story. I wished for her, that she left with someone truly knowing her.
As I sat with this woman during her last moments of life, I looked at her and I was struck by the realization that life is like a book. We open the first chapter with our birth and then the story grows. Our lives advance, and so does the character list of meaningful people who surround us. We overcome obstacles like a literary hero, and experience devastating losses like a Shakespearean tragedy. Despite the ups and downs, and for many, the lack of a tidy narrative arc, our lives progress and expand into a beautiful, utterly unique story. Our story. In this story that is solely our own, our dying is the last chapter of our book. The End.
For the woman in the hospital bed in front of me, her story was at its end. As her personal book began to close, she was taking most of her chapters with her; countless stories that go unshared, maybe even including the essence of who she really was. She lived, she conquered, she touched people, she loved, she hated, she worked, she played, she likely raised children, she touched other lives, she died. The beginning of life is a celebration. Maybe, the end should be as well.
Now, I don’t even know the number of people who I have sat beside as they died. My career as an intensive care nurse and then an emergency room nurse gave me witness to many people dying, in many different circumstances, at many different ages. From the womb to the elderly, I have felt privileged to be present as many people closed the back cover of their story.
In addition to the privilege of spending time with people and their families in the terminal moments of their lives, I also have had the privilege of facilitating discussions on many “final chapter” conversations. Following my career in nursing, I chose to start a new chapter of my own life and cultivate my passion about communication, especially when communication is most difficult. To pursue this passion, I studied psychology and conflict management. In the many roles that I have played thus far in my life- nurse, mediator, conflict manager, friend, sister, daughter, and mother- I have participated in countless conversations around choices and decisions that were “last chapter”.
I love my job as a mediator. I get to help people who are stuck in conflict. I help them to take down the walls and to build bridges. I help them hear and understand each other and to be heard and understood. I help them learn how to communicate more effectively. Mediation is an amazing tool for helping opposing sides, views, desires, come together and reach an agreement that satisfies both sides, and it is a wonderful alternative to litigation. When we are so angry that we take someone to court, the expenses are huge. Anger, fear and resentment grow. Usually one person loses and one person wins and the fate of that is left up to a judge. In mediation, people get to come into an agreement that is mutually beneficial. Problems are solved collaboratively and everyone has a voice. There is no need to make up a story about the other’s motives, feelings, or intentions. We can talk about them. Rather than have the separateness and acrimony of a lawsuit, relationships can almost always be salvaged, if not enhanced. Resolving conflict in a win-win enhances relationships, and this is especially important at end of life.
One of my mediation clients, a 90-year-old, very successful attorney now preparing for his last chapter, had all of his finances, estates issues and final wishes in order. What remained, and what he sought my help to address, were unresolved family issues. He wanted to have peace in his family, or at least the opportunity for peace, as part of the legacy he left behind. As he said to me, “I came into the world well, I want to finish well.” There is a process to finishing well, to being purposeful in how we design the closing chapters of our lives. This client came to me because he wanted to learn this process, and to finish his life story with purpose and deliberateness.