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Mental Health

7 life lessons from hospice workers

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You can learn a lot about life from those who see death every day. These snippets of wisdom come straight from those who provide medical care to the dying—palliative care experts who counsel grieving families, and who see the best in people during life's most vulnerable hours.

Follow their advice, and you just might live your own life a bit more fully than before.

1) Remember to reflect

Reality can suck. It’s why we sometimes distract ourselves by playing iPhone games, watching sitcom reruns, and downing one too many beers. But when confronting a life-ending illness, people are forced to think more deeply about the world and their relationship to it. For those in the company of the dying, time can seem to stop, too, says Tom Hutchinson, director of McGill University’s Programs in Whole Person Care.

Put It To Use: "Turn off the distractions and work on becoming self-aware,” says Dr. Balfour Mount, the father of modern palliative care. Go for a run, take a drive, or sit in a park and let time freeze. Reflect on your accomplishments, your attainable goals, and on what actions you are taking that may move you farther from what you really want. Don’t be hard on yourself, but acknowledge your shortcomings. Luckily, you’re afforded the time to make changes if you’re not headed in the right direction. 

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2) Be compassionate to be manly

Men are naturally excellent caretakers, says Dr. Ira Byock, professor of medicine at Dartmouth and author of The Best Care Possible. He frequently sees men of all ages and backgrounds come to the aid of a dying loved one. “The courage and strength to care well for one another is a healthy, masculine trait,” says Byock. “It’s what real men do for their fathers and their mothers.”

Put It To Use: You don’t need the occurrence of a life-shattering event to tap into your more masculine, sympathetic side, Byock says: Be a mentor, bring food to your elderly neighbor, and try to approach everyone with understanding. You’ll probably be pretty damn good at it. 

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3) Learn to lean on people

Whether we’re caring for an ailing relative or going through a rough time at the office, we need to enlist others. Byock, who has worked in hospice and palliative care since 1978, helps his patients and their caregivers create teams of support and resources made up of medical professionals, relatives, friends, and neighbors. “They shouldn’t have to figure this out as if they’re the first family that has ever been through this,” he says.

Put It To Use: Employ his tactic whenever times become trying. Create a “team” in your life of trustworthy adults to whom you can turn. Ask also for the guidance of those who have been through a similar circumstance. “We are hard-wired as animals to care for one another,” says Byock. So, that co-worker you ask to do you a favor while your mom’s in the hospital may be more willing to help than you think. 

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4) Don't fight life

Some days, just getting up in the morning feels like we’re going to war. “We spend most of our time struggling against life,” says Hutchinson. We view our issues as the enemy rather than something to embrace. Some of Hutchinson’s patients hold a different view. They find tranquility in accepting their time is ending. “They begin to give in to life,” he says, stressing that this is much different than giving up. They focus on the present and maximize what they can accomplish before they die as opposed to physically healing themselves.

Put It To Use: Adopt the same attitude, Hutchinson suggests. Don’t struggle to beat every obstacle you face. Instead, accept when you’re clearly outmatched by a situation out of your control. Handle challenges rather than attempting to beat them. 

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5) Talk about dying

Honestly, no one likes discussing it. But talking about death and the process of dying isn’t something to shy away from, especially when remaining days are few, says Hutchinson. Those conversations reveal final wishes of the ill and how the dying want their loved ones to live when they pass away. Sharing a discussion on death brings a sense of peace, says Hutchinson.

Put It To Use: Have a real conversation about death even if you’re well. That doesn’t mean you should say, “Honey, kids, gather ‘round so we can chat about death.” But when it comes up in conversation, don’t instinctively change the subject. Open up about how you’d like your family and friends to carry on if your time on earth comes to an end. Having a calm, natural discussion will lead to less anxiety for you and your loved ones. 

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6) Check your pride

What guy wants to be viewed as weak? It’s not easy displaying vulnerability, but it’s inevitable. Hutchinson remembers the anxiety one of his patients suffered who was dying and waiting for his brother to arrive from abroad. How would his brother react when seeing the once strong man now feeble? In reality, the brother was just glad to be present in his sibling’s final moments.

Put It To Use: Don’t shut out loved ones in your time of physical, metal, or emotional frailty. All those who care will want to be included in all parts of your life. So call up your buddy when you’re a bit blue. Expressing your time of weakness can lead to a deeper connection with your friends and family.

7) Step up when you're needed

Most likely, a time will come in your life when you’re needed to care for a dying loved one. Your responsibilities may include physically and mentally taxing tasks like bathing your mother, helping your father use the restroom, or feeding your spouse. And although we as humans have a heart, it doesn’t make the situation easier. But those who aid their loved one at the end generally feel calmer after their loved one’s death than those who weren’t involved in the final days.

Put It To Use: When your help’s required, refrain from fleeing. Stay loyal to your loved ones, like a spouse who remains in sickness and in health. When caring for someone in their last days, “there is a confidence that you did what you needed to do,” says Byock. Take time off work if you can. Clean, cook, or even just sit at the bedside of your dying loved one. They truly need you, and caring for them will give them comfort now and will bring you peace later.