09/26/2013 09:12 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

Continuing to Learn What's Important


Two weeks ago, a mentor and colleague died. Dr. G had been in good health until symptoms surfaced and he was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. Upon receiving the diagnosis, he decided not to undergo any form of treatment, opting instead to spend whatever time he had left with his loved ones and friends, having his pain and other symptoms managed by hospice.

I hadn't seen Dr. G in about six years. Because he was not seeing many people, we started exchanging emails. Eventually, I was able to go and visit him four days before his death. Our email exchanges included my telling him about how grateful I was for how much I had learned from him when we were co-chairs of the hospital's Bioethics Committee where he was a Doc and I the Director of Pastoral Care. I was a relatively "new" chaplain and he was a seasoned doctor, highly skilled in talking with patients and family members about some of the most difficult decisions they would have to make in terms of how they wanted to be treated (or how their loved ones wanted the patient treated) as they neared the end of their life. He was very patient, loving, and deeply committed to helping families through the painful process of decision-making when there was no certainty of their loved one surviving. He would ask questions and then listen carefully to the answers, listening for both what was spoken and what was unspoken. He would take whatever time necessary to help the family reach whatever decision they reached and he would support them in their decision. It didn't matter what he personally believed; he would support them. I learned so much from him and his way of being present with patients and families. In our email exchange, I told him how grateful I was for those "unspoken" lessons -- the lessons I learned while observing him doing what he did naturally.

It is not surprising that I continued to learn from him, even as he himself was dying. When we saw each other, Dr. G told me that he was ready to die -- that he was very much at peace with God and with others and that his main concern was for the one who would survive him. He had taken every step possible to ensure that the care for his most loved one would continue. He had very little concern for himself, saying that he had had a wonderful life, had been loved by so many beloved family members and people in the hospital and in his practice, and could not imagine a better life. We talked about how he had felt God so present in his life and how much he had loved doing for others -- often without their even knowing he had done something for them. He expected nothing in return for his generosity and truly delighted in the joy of others. And yet he also admitted to getting much back. Much love, much satisfaction, and a much closer relationship with his mentor, role model and Lord, Jesus Christ.

His decision not to have aggressive treatment, but rather to enroll in hospice and allow the natural course of his illness to proceed, was yet another lesson -- a lesson in faith, hope and strength. He had such total peace because he knew deep in his spirit that God would continue to be with him, even as he walked into death. It was awe-inspiring. Even as a clergyperson, I am not certain that my faith would be that strong. I learned so much from him in my early years as a chaplain, and I was privileged to learn from him, yet again, almost 15 years later, as we talked about his dying.

What I learned from him the most during my visit with him was the importance of letting people know what a difference they made in your life. Dr. G told me that he was not aware of the depth of the impact that he had had on me, and how much he had taught me (instead saying how much I had taught him). While I had encouraged my own father to be sure to tell my mother everything he wanted her to know every time he left her room, since we did not know when she was going to die, I had not anticipated how much it would mean to a friend and colleague to know just how much he had meant to me and how much I had learned from him and how grateful I was to him and that I am the pastor and chaplain I am now, in part, due to his mentoring me. He told me what a difference it made to him to know that, particularly at this time in his life.

So, I encourage you to let people know (even those who are "fine"), what they mean to you. Dr. G died much sooner than expected. When I left him, we said we would see each other in a week.... he died four days later. I am not sure whether he realized that he would die so soon, but I do know that he thought he would die before "too long"... whatever that meant. I am so thankful that I had shared with him how I felt. It made a huge difference for both of us.

Dr. G's faith strengthened my faith. I do believe that, based on how he lived and how he died, that when he died, he heard, loud and clear, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord." (Matt 25:21)