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Changing the end-of-life paradigm...consider the dying as teachers

The capacity to learn is part of human intelligence, so why is it so hard to learn from end-of-life experiences?

Photo of Tim Golland

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I was fortunate in the eyes of many people to know my four grandparents well. Each had a profound impact on me, and I often wonder about this as part of their legacy. At other times I reflect on their last moments of life, all of them long lives. How would they have been feeling? How would those closest to them at the time have been feeling? What were they seeing? What happened right then as last breaths were drawn? Then, in hindsight, I was somewhat bizarrely shielded from it all. For my protection? Or the protection of others?

My grandparents taught me much, and shaped my views on many matters of significance. Papa was a grazier, and taught me how important it was to leave the land in better condition than we found it. He showed me first hand life and death on the land. In the end, his body had simply had enough. Before he died he took me to the graves of our ancestors. I didn’t realise it then but I think he was trying to teach me something. Nana suffered indignity for too long. Unnecessarily so. Her body let her down to the point where by the end her quality of life was sadder than death. I must be able to learn from that. Grandad was a soldier but I remember a gardener and a generous soul. My own gardening skills came too late to be influenced by anything other than memories of him. Fortunately I am unlikely to ever be a soldier. Gran outlived them all. A matriarch, from her I learnt that there comes a time in life when we need to stop looking upwards through the family tree and turn our attentions downwards to another generation.

How lucky I was to be able to learn from their collective wisdom. And yet, what have I learned about death and grief? I know I don’t much enjoy it, am not great talking about it, but that we can’t avoid it. In the end it comes to us all. It seems we spend a lifetime building up our personal resilience. As we watch our friends and family pass and we draw closer to our own inevitability we become more comfortable with it. But from what I’ve seen, the decision makers when it comes to end-of-life do not always possess such life experience.

The capacity to learn is a great human characteristic – part of what makes us intelligent. The problem is that learning is inherently biased. Why else do we block out some thoughts, refuse to acknowledge and talk about death, and then have to deal with grief in our own ways?

I learned much while they were alive but wish I’d learnt more from their lives and their deaths. We spend our own lives trying not to make the same mistakes over and again, trying to leave behind a better place than the one we found. And yet, about dying and grief we don’t seem to be doing it any better. Can we imagine end-of-life as a teaching experience for the dying? Can we imagine it as a learning experience for the living?

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

What if we could change the end-of-life paradigm and learn to see the dying as teachers?

This inspired (1)

Human Library Project


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Photo of Katherine Hill

Tim and all,

Purpose. Giving advice is nostalgic and meaningful. And, it instills purpose to those that spent so long acquiring it. If physical health is minimal, many fixate in their inability to "do". However, an ability to share, "pay it forward", and contribute provides purpose to the day and is certainly a for of "doing". My grandfather always says "as long as I have something to do each day, I'll stay young". Yes- the younger generation can benefit. But, those nearing end of life will also prosper in knowing they can still contribute. 

Also- of course, this doesn't have to be limited to the older generations. Young individuals nearing death grow and mature far beyond their years at record pace. Their outlook, insight, and knowledge can be just as valuable.

Thank you for the lovely idea!

Photo of Yury

Great contribution Tim!!! Love it

Photo of Noni Gachuhi

Tim hello,

Thanks for your contribution. As a big fan of 'stories' and details about people's lives, I think it is really important to have a sense of inquiry about people's experiences- as they are living and also as they are dying. In line with the idea that we don't always have so neat and tidy a window in which dying is obvious, the kind of exchange and conversations that we think might be important at the end to find out more about the lives of loved ones, should I think, be carried out more routinely.

How nice it would be to routinely learn what lessons our friends and families have picked up as they go through life- not knowing when they will die. How beneficial to express curiosity about the mundane and meaningful as we go through day to day.  Like you said, we find ourselves trying to avoid mistakes but getting stuck, perhaps unconvinced of the truth of one my favorite quotes from Buddha 'the problem is we think we have time'. 

Photo of Tim Golland

Thanks Noni,

I like this idea of expressing curiosity. I think sometimes that societal "norms" have suppressed our natural curiosity, we only have to look at the way our kids behave - they learn so much by being curious, then as they get older and more mature (and perhaps self-conscious) it's so easy to push it aside. Your quote sums it up perfectly.

Photo of Morgan Meinel

Tim, thank you so much for contributing to this challenge. Your personal experience and insights are so valuable!

Your opening paragraph summarizes the current challenges we face in our culture.  Perhaps if you weren't shielded from this last chapter of your grandparents journey, you could have continued to learn from them at this very profound stage in their life. I wonder now if you've thought of questions that you may have asked them, if you had been given the opportunity to participate more intimately in their end of life experience? And would their answers potentially have inspired you to live differently? 

Imagine the life lessons we could all learn from our loved ones - at their bedside, as their dying. How can we create an environment and culture that is supportive, healing, and loving, and ultimately gives us a sense of wholeness in our participation in not just our loved one's life, but also in their death? 

Photo of Tim Golland

Thank you Morgan. I do think sometimes about the questions I would like to have asked, but this feels a little bit self-centred too. I don't think that at the age I was then I had the maturity or wisdom to ask, but I do wonder if, given the opportunity, would they have been willing teachers...? There would undoubtedly have been things for me to learn, but how might this have changed their end-of-life experience?

Photo of Morgan Meinel

Tim, such a great question of whether or not your grandparents would have been willing teachers. Passing along of knowledge and values can be tremendously meaningful as individuals prepare to leave this earth. As a nurse, I've been witness to many meaningful interactions where my patients have passed on life lessons and knowledge to their loved ones - and feel a sense of positive pride and joy in doing so. Knowing that they've made a profound impact can assist positively in their dying process. Thanks again for sharing! 

Photo of Shane Zhao

Love this discussion Morgan and Tim! We're looking forward to seeing where this provocation will go in the upcoming Ideas Phase of this challenge

Photo of Morgan Meinel

Thanks, Shane! Looking forward to it too! 

Photo of kim

Tim, this is a great reminder that we need to listen to our loved ones and the lessons they have for us. Many of us are lucky if we remember that as they're dying, and we need to remind ourselves every day. Grandparents, parents, spouses and friends, even. Thanks for posting. :)

Photo of Tim Golland

Thanks Kim, I agree - just taking (or making) the time to listen is so important.

Photo of Emily

A lovely insight from your personal experiences. Definitely lucky, I barely knew any of my grandparents and I similarly agree the Grandma I did know, I felt I knew nothing about. The key point for me is in not viewing the dying as weak or "used up" but as professors in their own field. Realistically for me it's about a form of knowledge sharing not inherent in our grandparents in their generations. Imagine if we could go back and read their Facebook? What impact would that have on our perspectives of them? Would we ask them more questions?

Photo of Tim Golland

Thanks Emily - you are right, it is about knowledge sharing. Won't it be interesting to see if anything changes with the Facebook generation? Never has it been so possible to publish one's entire life in this way. Would we ask more questions as you say, or would it be just more information that we filter out of our information saturated existence?