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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dr. Pegs Prescription

Don’t put off living your life and connecting with others

“The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.” -Harriet Beecher Stowe 

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” -Mark Twain 

Two people in my life died this week. One was a family member, the other an associate’s husband. Both had terminal cancer and were expected to die eventually, but both went sooner than expected. Sooner than I expected, anyway. Even though I knew the call was coming one day, I was still shocked when it did.

My associate’s husband was diagnosed just two months ago. I had called once since his diagnosis and kept meaning to call again, but never did. I thought about him and his wife often, each time telling myself I needed to call them, but each time letting myself get distracted with something else, forgetting, putting it off. I wish now that I had just picked up the phone.

My family member lived in another state. We went to see him over the winter holidays. He was already quite frail and I suspected it would be goodbye forever when we left. I am grateful now that we made the trip. I will miss him. And I wish I had called more.

Are we ever prepared for death? Some are. Most of us prefer to pretend everyone we love is going to live forever, including ourselves. We don’t think about it, don’t talk about it, don’t plan for it. Goodness knows those of us in medicine aren’t inclined to accept death — we are trained to fight it tooth and nail.

And yet, not one of us is getting out of here alive. We can ignore the grim reaper with all our might, but that won’t stop him from coming. That is about the only thing I know for sure about life.

I know many of you reading this are young and decades away from your own demise, I hope. But I submit that it is never too soon to let the prospect of death enter your awareness. I’m not trying to depress you. Quite the contrary. Philosophers far wiser than I am recommend regular contemplation of the end of life. Why? Well, for one, it can help you appreciate people and treat them well.

Remembering that someone you care about will not always be around might prompt you to be kind now. Kindness is always a good thing, for both recipient and giver.

Secondly, it can help you appreciate life. Keeping death in mind gives you perspective on your life and reminds you to live well now. Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” If you knew you had one week to live, would you really stress about the little stuff? Or might you elevate your viewpoint, reach out to people you love, take a deep breath of fresh spring air?

Death can improve your life. Think about it. As for me, next time I have the urge to call someone, I am picking up that phone.

Peggy Spencer is a student-health physician. She is also the co-author of the book “50 ways to leave your 40s.” Email your questions directly to her at pspencer@unm.edu. All questions will be considered anonymous, and all questioners will remain anonymous.