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What the Dying Want You to Know About Life

06/22/2015 06:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016
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It was a rainy December day when I knocked on Melissa and Bradley's* door for the first time. I was pregnant, cold, wet and without an umbrella; it rarely rains here. Melissa answered the door, quiet, sullen, with dark bags under her eyes, and probably (definitely) anemic. She devoted all of her time to taking care of Bradley, at her expense. Since his ALS diagnosis, Bradley had become steadily weaker, less capable. Refusing a voice-assistive device, he had been reduced to grunts and nods, a barely effective means of communication. He had been robbed of ability to stand, walk or to use his limbs at all.

Melissa embraced me in the doorway, the desperate grip of someone who had lost hope. She had never seen me. No matter.

Hospice does that to people. It makes strangers family.

Melissa took my saturated sweater, saying, "I don't see your wings, but I know they are there. You are surely an angel." She invited me in, offered me a cookie and showed me a seat.

That day stands out, maybe because Bradley and Melissa are so much like me and my husband. Maybe because I saw my own sullen face in hers. Maybe because of the profound fear that I felt; the fear of losing someone you love so deeply, so deeply that the world couldn't possibly continue to move around the sun without them.

When you tell people you're a hospice nurse, the default comment is always, "Oh I could never do that. I would cry all the time." In truth, those who work in hospice do cry, not every day, but certainly enough. Still, despite the tears shed, there is a real privilege in being at the bedside of the dying. I've traded my stethoscope in (at least temporarily) for a laptop. But my hospice experiences are indelibly etched, and what I learned from the dying is important.

And worth sharing.

Don't sweat the small stuff (it's all small stuff). At the end of your life, everything that's not vitally important -- oh, let's say, whether or not your pants are too tight -- suddenly seems really unimportant. Ask yourself if what worries you will still worry you in 10 or 20 or 50 years. Answer honestly.

Don't ignore pains, aches or symptoms of disease. Especially those involving the breast, testicles, bowels or skin. This isn't particularly deep or moving. But it's important. These things sneak up on you. Many people wish they had faced their fear, seen the doctor earlier and gotten treatment earlier.

Money is an illusion. You think you need so much. In the end, you don't really need any of it. Prioritize people and experiences over possession.

The key to a long life? There isn't one. But a 105-year-old woman told me she lived to be that old because she, "didn't take no shit from no one." The same woman told me that the one piece of advice she'd give any woman is this: "A woman can do any damn thing a man can do. You don't need no man for nothing." From the mouths of the incredibly old. Sage wisdom.

Your body is just a vessel for your soul. Quit looking in the mirror. Quit obsessing over your wrinkles, your ass, your dress size. Quit worrying about your hair, makeup, saggy breasts, varicose veins, stretch marks or that mole on your chin (unless it might be cancerous). Quit thinking about any of that shit. It all fades anyway, one way or another.

Repair what's broken. Above all else, at the end of their life, the one regret that every person shares is broken relationships. Whether it's with your parents, your children or your siblings, if it can be repaired, repair it. Don't do it to your detriment, but if it can be done, do it. At the end, love is everything.

In hospice there are a lot of tears, and a lot to learn.

*names and some details have been changed to protect patient privacy

This story by Joni Edelman first appeared at ravishly.com, an alternative news+culture women's website.

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