The end-of-life perspective: A key to finding meaning

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on May 28, 2012 at 7:00 AM

“Do every act of your life as if it were your last.”

-Marcus Aurelius

During my years of work in hospice, I recognized that many of the dying patients I met exhibited a certain freedom to do and say whatever they thought was important, without fear of the consequences. Being close to death seemed to help them figure out what really matters in life and empower them to act from that knowledge.

Expressing a similar sentiment, one year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Steve Jobs said during the 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” For Jobs, doing every act as if it were his last opened the door to incredible innovation and productivity as evidenced by the success of his company Apple, Inc.

From my hospice patients I learned certain spiritual lessons that became apparent to them as they were facing the last moments of their lives. They taught me that these lessons can be learned at any time during life as long as we are able to stop and look at ourselves and focus on the things about life that really matter.

As a result of doing my own end-of-life work now, before it’s too late, I have discovered the following benefits that are available to anyone who can appreciate the view from the end:


  1. Patience. From the perspective of the dying, it becomes clear that life unfolds on its own time schedule and we cannot rush or slow down the process. We simply must wait and be attentive as the events of life take place and make the most of each moment that we are given, even when it is painful.  
  2. Compassion. Once we accept that everyone must endure suffering during this life on earth, it becomes much easier to reach out to others with loving-kindness and compassion. When we share our sorrow it becomes easier to bear.  
  3. Tolerance. Recognizing that we are similar to all others in our suffering we become much less judgmental of them. We can see more clearly that others, like us, have difficulties and disappointments and yet are doing the best they can.  
  4. Creativity. As Steve Jobs discovered, when you live your life as if it is ending soon, you can tap into your own creative energy without fear. You can take risks and be bold because there is nothing to lose.  
  5. Clarity. The end-of-life provides a magnifying lens through which to view everything in your life. With this new clear vision it becomes much easier to see what activities really matter and are worthy of your time and which things you should let go.  
  6. Equanimity. When you know that life is coming to an end, there is no reason to worry or stress about anything else. An incredible sense of peace can ensue as you focus only on the things that matter and refuse to waste precious energy worrying about anything.  
  7. Integrity. The ultimate benefit of this end-of-life view is the ability to live a life of wholeness and integrity. When you have done your spiritual work throughout your life there will be no significant parts of yourself that are hidden away in the shadow or undeveloped. As a complete person you can fulfill the purpose of your existence and follow the path you are meant to take with fewer stumbles and errors.


While these are seven lessons that many dying individuals recognize at the very end of their lives, I believe that each of us has the opportunity right now to view life from its end and contemplate what would really matter to us if this were the last moment of life.

To some it seems depressing or frightening to focus on the end of life. But if we were to remain, like Steve Jobs and Marcus Aurelius and my hospice patients, constantly aware that we are going to die, we would not waste time or energy on anything unimportant. We would find a new freedom in our lives to express ourselves, be creative and do meaningful work. And as life teeters on a delicate balance here in the 21st century, isn’t that freedom exactly what is needed to help this planet survive?

Categories: End-of-Life, Spirituality, Transformation

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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