Thoughts on Life and Death
A friend of mine died a few weeks ago. He died suddenly of a heart attack in his early 60’s. He was a kind giving person who had dedicated his life to healing others. Even though I didn’t spend a lot of time with him, I cared about him, and felt sad that I hadn’t been able to let him know more, how much he meant to me.
When I went to his celebration of life service I listened to the minister say – that death is merely a transition – from one form to another. That it’s meaningless on the grander scale of things. I agree on some level it may seem to be meaningless. On a human level when you’ve lost a person you love, it isn’t meaningless. That person is no longer there in your life. We go through all sorts of grief, sadness, and pain when someone we love dies. His family will never be the same again.
One thing I’ve noticed when a person dies is that my own life becomes more meaningful right away. We have no way of knowing what is going to happen tomorrow. It makes me begin to ask myself, what in my life makes me happy? How can I live my best life, most fully?
When I was six years old, my great grandmother collapsed in front of me, and a week later, died of a stroke. After they lifted her on a stretcher into the ambulance, I never saw her again. When I found out that her heart had stopped beating, I wanted more than anything to save her life, to find a way to bring her back. I even imagined a machine that would make her heart beat so that she could live. I wanted a miracle. That moment in time shaped my entire life, it woke something up in me – a seed that believes healing is possible and will look for it where-ever it can be found. It led me to become a doctor, surgical resident, ER doctor and now an integrative doctor who does acupuncture.
As a high school student I read the books by Carlos Castaneda about his spiritual journey. I remember one line from his book that stuck with me through many years. It was to live your life as though death was on your left shoulder all the time. Because you never know when it will take you away. I often found myself asking that question. If I died tomorrow, what would I be doing today? My answers led me to make many changes, which included leaving my surgical residency and starting to study acupuncture.
If you ask yourself that question, is there anything you would change right now if you could? What would that be? Would you try to figure out how to travel more? Get your dream job? Maybe finish the book you’ve been dreaming of writing? What would it be?
In my more than twenty years of working with patients, I’ve walked with hundreds of people as they navigate a terrible diagnosis. Often when they reflect on their lives, they don’t change what they’re doing for work or who they are with. They change their outlook on life. They begin to live more in the moment, enjoying what they have more, appreciating their joys, their jobs, and their partners more.