6 Lessons From A Dying Person

In the fall of 2013, my sixty-one year-old brother, Hal, was in Vancouver to receive the award for Alberta’s Outstanding Family Physician. Three days before the award ceremony he had a seizure and a few days later came the grave diagnosis: a grade III Anaplastic Astrocytoma – an aggressive, inoperable tumor intersecting three lobes of his brain. The prognosis was grim. With no treatment, he would live an estimated three to four months; with aggressive radiation and chemotherapy, one to three years, and with a miracle, longer.

For the past two and half years I have traveled with Hal through what he has been calling his “Adventure with an Astrocytoma.” This so called ‘adventure’ was at first a grinding mix of aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatments, with accompanying aphasia, memory loss, itching rashes, seizures, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and so little energy that putting his feet on the floor in the morning can be called success. Hal’s limbs got skinny and his belly grew from the steroids that prevent brain swelling. With the medication experimentation, the days when he was able to get himself outside into the sunlight and around the block was a ‘Mount Everest’ accomplishment.

While I wouldn’t wish this hell on anyone, I am surprisingly grateful. Hal and I have spent more time together in the past thirty months than we have the previous thirty years. We’ve done some reminiscing; we’ve said “thank you” and have forgiven each other. Every time that we are together, we now say that we love each other. And we make time to hang out when he simply can’t get out of bed, can’t utter a word, and I have no clue what to say. This whole imperfect and human experience of being together in an awkward and clumsy way has somehow been a blessing. This reminder of the impermanence of life has strangely increased my life’s quality. My marriage and my relationships with my daughters have improved as I’ve slowed down and made a little more room to be a bit more present a little more often with those that matter most to me. Being open to the pain of Hal’s experience has deepened my experience of being alive, what matters in life, and what it means, more fully, to be human.

Below are six lessons I have learned thus far on this adventure with my brother and his astrocytoma:

1) Don’t procrastinate getting to your bucket list. If you have some things you are planning to do when you retire, don’t wait. Do it now. The preciousness of life is not realized in the future. It is realized only in the present. There is no guarantee that the future will meet your current expectations.

2) Take time to connect. Life is so short. Every relationship as you know it today eventually ends. Don’t wait for the end to be near to appreciate what is here now. Besides, we never know how abrupt and unplanned that ending can come. You really don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Don’t miss opportunities to be present to the people around you.

3) Embrace the realization of life’s impermanence. “Impermanence is life’s only promise to us, and she keeps it with ruthless impeccability,” writes the poet Jennifer Welwood. The older you get, the more opportunities arise to be with people who are in the sunset of their life. Be with people when they are dying whenever you can. Embrace the experience of dying along with the pain, and your life, and the lives of those still around you, will be enriched.

4) Take regular sabbaticals. In today’s world, with its relentless focus on success and productivity, we have lost touch with the balance between work and rest. Constantly striving, so many of us feel exhausted and deprived in the midst of abundance. Carve out regular time each week for rest, renewal, time with friends and family, and a few moments for yourself.

5) Take care of your health. When you have you health, you have a thousand wishes. When you don’t, you have but one. Don’t take your health for granted. Good health is a source of wealth. Being free of pain is one of life’s most vital blessings. While you can’t necessarily control your health, you can certainly influence it – with good habits. Later life will test your disciplines.

6) Renew your faith. Times of loss afford us immense opportunities to renew, strengthen, and deepen our own personal and individual experience of spirituality. Take time each day to commune with nature and witness the intelligence within every living thing. Spend time in a sanctuary away from the demands of the world. Sit silently and watch a sunset, or listen to the sound of the ocean or a steam, or simply smell the scent of a flower.

The reminder of impermanence awakens you. The awareness of death magnifies what’s important in your life. Remember to stop and embrace fully that which surrounds you. The life you have today won’t last forever, and remembering this will help you appreciate and grasp it more deeply. And in turn, you will amplify your impact while enriching and nourishing the lives of those you lead and enlarge. There is no better personal or leadership development than coming to terms with your humanity.

How To Transform Suffering Into Service – Leadership In Action

“Only when we learn to be humble about ourselves, can we begin to respect others.”                                                                           – Lindsay Leigh Kimmett

A sign of great leadership is the ability to transform the inevitable losses of the human experience into something beyond the loss. While certainly not seeking pain, a person of character does find a special attractiveness in difficulty, since it is only by coming to grips with difficulty that they can realize their potential. Below is a story of courage and compassion, along with strategies to turn grief into creative endeavors that serve the greater good

Lindsay Leigh Kimmett was an athlete, a leader, and a medical student with enormous potential to do great things in the world. But her life ended when, as a seat-belted passenger, she was tragically killed in a single car rollover in 2008. Lindsay’s parents were consumed with unimaginable sorrow at her untimely passing, “but in an attempt to move forward positively,” they were determined to carry on her legacy. Lindsay’s family and friends created the Lindsay Leigh Kimmett Memorial Foundation in honor of her memory. To date, more than a million dollars has been invested into our community in Lindsay’s name through an array of initiatives, including Valedictorian Scholarships at all the three Cochrane high schools, the Dr. Lindsay Leigh Kimmett Prize in Emergency Medicine at the University of Calgary Medical School, and Lindsay’s Kids Minor Hockey & Ringette Sponsorships. Since her death, Lindsay’s family has also been very active in supporting Alberta’s distracted driving legislation and asks all to drive responsibly without distractions.

Great leaders have the willingness and capacity to turn sorrow and hardship into a gift that benefits others. Those who experience grief and have the courage to work with it and work through it, emerge a better person, enabling leadership qualities like perspective, patience, clarity, and empathy. Through learning to grieve in a healthy way, you open yourself to the capacity required to live in harmony and balance with one another and the earth.

Here are six ways to transform loss into a gift that benefits others:

  • Make room to grieve. Let life touch you. Stop and allow grief to surface when it is present. Go to funerals. Allow yourself to cry. If you can, be with your pet when they die. Spend time with a dying relative or friend. Community can be built in tragedy. Don’t be afraid to grieve and share your grief with people you care about and who care about you. Allowing yourself to grieve enables you to accept loss as a part of the good life. Grieving is a lonely journey and should not be traveled alone. You may never “get over it,” but you can work through it – by acknowledging honestly what is happening inside you, and allowing your heart to open, both with yourself and with others.
  • Accept what is. “Impermanence,” writes the poet Jennifer Welwood, “is life’s only promise to us, and she keeps it with ruthless impeccability.” Maturity means having the courage to face life as it is. Life, at some level, is a series of problems to solve. Do we want to spend our life moaning and whimpering about this, or spend our days living in the solution? At some point in our lives we have to be willing to grow up and realize that yes, life hurts. It’s hard. It’s all part of the human experience. The sooner we can accept that life is difficult, the sooner life becomes a little less difficult. Life happens. Pain is a part of our existence. At some point we have to build a bridge and get over it.
  • Let go of the anger. Anger is often born out of suffering, especially when someone or something has caused your loss. While it is part of the process of grief, unacknowledged anger or anger that festers inside, turns into the bitter poison of resentment. The antidote to anger? Name it. Claim it. Take responsibility for your reactions. Then have the courage to let it go. An indication of strong character is the courage to bear an injustice without a motive of revenge.
  • Be willing to not know. Sometimes the best you can do is accept what is. Although it is human nature to seek control through answers, sometimes the answers simply aren’t there. Often you have to delete your need to understand. A sign of maturity is the courage to accept the vast and inevitable unknown of the human experience, and the willingness to let go of the need for complete comprehension.
  • Let grief be your teacher. In the arduous journey of grief, if you pause every so often to open your heart and look within yourself, you will discover that the grief is guiding you to be a better person. While you may not be able to find your gifts in the immediacy of tragedy, keep an open mind to what life’s adversities can eventually teach you. Loss and subsequent grieving can foster, among other things, the ability to be compassionate, to connect more meaningfully with others, and to gain perspective and clarity about what matters most.
  • Turn sorrow into service. In an effort to move forward constructively, find ways for your loss to fill a need in the world. While establishing a foundation was the Kimmitt’s way to transform grief into positive action, there are many ways you can make the world better through your loss. Being open to what grieving can teach you will amplify your ability to impact others through a stronger leadership presence.

I have deep admiration for what the Kimmett family has done for our community and more in light of their tragic loss. Their willingness to turn sorrow into service is authentic leadership in action. May their story inspire you to embrace the inevitable and at times seemingly unjust and often unanswerable tragedies of life as you stumble forward – with courage, conviction, and compassion – on the journey to being a better person and a better leader.