What Mortality Can Teach Us About Living

“What Mortality can teach us about living” was the title of a talk I attended by Dr. Ira Byock in April. I went because I was intrigued by the title, own a couple of his books and like much of what he has to say. It’s not rocket science but he gets to what is important…which for me and many is more useful than rocket science.
Dr. Byock is trained as and has work as an emergency room physician, however, experiences in life and medicine, as well as his care for people has made him into a wise speaker/writer about life, palliative care and end of life care and experiences.

He started out by asking these questions (answer them for yourself as you read):

  1. Would you rather live a long life or a good life?
  2. Would you rather live a easy life or a full life?
  3. Would you rather live a happy life or live more fully?

At Byock’s talk, most of the people attending were hospice professionals who had each journeyed with many people to the end of their lives. With each question the group reply came quickly, in unison and with clarity. They had seen the answers to these questions lived out with various results and without hesitation were clear on what their own choices would be.

Dr. Byock went on to point out that most people have many habits each day to care for their physical self…exercise, eat healthy, brush teeth and floss, eat fiber, wear seat belts, helmets and life jackets, etc. Comparatively most people have very few habits that tend to their mental and spiritual well- being. He encouraged us by stating: “It’s time to put those 3 areas more in balance.”

Dr. Byock is well known for discussing and writing about: “The Four things that matter most.” He describes them as saying: 1) Please forgive me; 2) I forgive you; 3) Thank you; 4) I love you. These things along with the additional lessons that he made at his talk are very practical, rich and helpful. The lessons are: 1) human beings are imperfect, get over it (have mercy and grace); 2) the things that matter most to people are: other people; 3) relationships are imperfect (including the knowledge that some wounds will never close); 4) healing is possible, it’s not frivolous…narratives can be re- written. 5) Live everyday a heart beat from eternity 6) Forgiveness is more than absolution, the past cannot be changed but with forgiveness the future can be changed. Apologize more freely with meaning. You can only take care of your side of forgiveness, you cannot control what others will do. Asking for forgiveness and receiving forgiveness = wellness.

While I listened I found myself finding an answer to prayer. My relationship with my dad has been hard for me for a long time. I am guessing it is because we are too alike…hard-headed Germans who did time in rural Minnesota and as Missouri Synod Lutherans. As the youngest of 4 children with the others being boys, on a farm I was seen as less valuable or at least it felt that way. This feeling of not being valued, continued for me through my life. It didn’t seem to matter how many jobs I had at one time, how hard I worked or how many people told him that I was a good employee, I always felt I didn’t measure up. I can only remember one time in my life my dad told me he was proud of me, my confirmation day. My dad never was one to sugar coat things, he said it how he saw it with limitedvocabularyorsoftness. AsI grew older, there were opinions and values we shared, and there were ones we did not. When my mom died first, I thought maybe this would force us to talk through some things and heal our relationship.

But that hasn’t happened. Still eight years later, I never end an email or visit with “ I love you.” We each say thank you for gifts or visits.

Dr. Byock made me think: why haven’t I done the “4 things that matter” with my own dad? What’s getting in my way?Heis90yearsold.Iam55.Ican justify his actions because I know his story and the many experiences that haveshapedhislife. AsmuchasI know internally that it’s important to say these things, somehow I struggle to do it. I have started to wonder if perhaps this is one of those wounds that will not close.

Dr. Byock’s simple “4 things that matter most” infused with his “lessons” help greatly to see what I need to do more clearly and give me the push of motivation to make it happen. It helps me pull myself out of the sinking sand of complicated emotion and gives me a picture of how to move forward. While I know it should be done in person, it may have to start in a written simple note. It will still take a lot of prayer and help from God but I hope I accomplish these 4 important things with my dad.

Who do you need to say these things too? Don’t wait. Life is short. Imagine well being. As the singer songwriter Graham Nash says, “life is terrifying and beautiful…I’ll take both, thank you…”

Kaye Wothe, Faith Community Nurse (NOTE: Dr. Ira Byock’s books are: “Dying Well”; The Four Things that Matter Most: A Book about Living”; and “ The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life”).

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