The Elephant in the Room

It had been a little over three years since I had spent any meaningful time with Peter. We left message snippets for one another on Facebook, exchanged occasional e-mails and had short telephone conversations in which we agreed to reconnect as soon as we found the time, which we never did.

Peter had come in as a lateral litigation partner at the firm, which I had joined the previous year. Although he was in Los Angeles, my client work in Los Angeles and his in San Francisco got us together frequently in the five or so years we were partners.

About a month ago on a Saturday afternoon, Peter was out of state, working out at the hotel gym, when he suffered a massive heart attack. He lost 80 percent of his heart function in that episode. By the time he arrived at the hospital, there were signs that he also had lost significant brain activity. By the following day, it was clear that if Peter were to survive, his quality of life would be severely compromised. By Monday, testing confirmed that his brain had ceased to function.

His family gathered from different parts of the country and a decision was made to remove him from life support on Wednesday. Peter was surrounded by family, and a couple of close friends, as he passed to the strains of the Grateful Dead.

A few years before, I had counseled Peter on what he could expect in the last months of the life of his lovely and caring wife, Carol, who was in the end stages of metastatic breast cancer. My job in supporting Peter was twofold. First, I tried to help Peter find a way to be truly present with Carol, despite his own fears and in the face of monumental pain that Carol would likely experience from a cancer that had metastasized to her spine. Second, I wanted to transmit to him some of the lessons that I had learned, in my then limited experience as a hospice volunteer, on how to truly listen to Carol - to "hear" below the words and to discover where best to offer his support.

I'm now in my seventh year as a hospice volunteer. The years of additional practice have deepened not only my respect for the extraordinary process that dying is, but have revealed to me lessons from the end of the life process itself. I firmly believe that if we acknowledge the "elephant in the room" of our mortality, appreciate the gift of each and every day as it transpires, and live in generosity and kindness, our lives will be enriched beyond measure. We will learn to care for ourselves in order to better care for others. From that, others are drawn toward you. Your gifts of service are more than amply repaid.

That all sounds pretty "highfalutin," but it's horribly practical. I speak from my own experience. From the time that I was given my two year prognosis from a misdiagnosed melanoma, I have lived very well with my mortality. In the almost 20 intervening years, I have found my life's purpose. I have found more love and joy than I imagined possible.

In my career, I have attracted better work, (even in these trying times), and a more thoughtful, resourceful and creative clientele.

I would like to highlight the lessons that I have drawn, thus far, from my work with the dying and to encourage you to consider these issues now, because your death is a certainty. It will come to you whether or not you are prepared. And at your death, your wealth, power, and loved ones cannot help you. Truly living your life will prove your best preparation for death.

Here are the lessons:

Death teaches you to live in profound change and to accept it's inevitability.

Death teaches you to surrender what you cannot control and to flourish in the abundance of what remains.

Death teaches you to abandon those perceptions that don't serve you.

Death teaches you to discover the beauty and meaning of the universe.

Death teaches you to see your inherent goodness and inextinguishable relation to others.

As those residents for whom I care address these lessons, they engage in two processes. The first is an assessment of their particular life's meaning, conducted in a process of life review and reinterpretation. The second is a process of offering and receiving forgiveness, based on what that review has revealed.

From the extraordinary things I have witnessed, I have come to the conclusion that every life has meaning. It may be great or humble, but it is there. And, as I have witnessed, you can find meaning until your final breath. Your life's meaning arises from you and how you hold your life. It is not given to you by others.

One of the reasons that I encourage you to explore these issues now is that you immediately begin to relieve your suffering. Through my hospice work, I have learned how to see suffering and to empathize with it. Empathy allows my compassion to arise and makes me available to serve others without the imposition of my fears, my personality or my mental obstructions.

There is a downside to gaining these insights. I simply cannot discharge them at the end of my hospice shift. I go back to the rest of the world carrying them with me. As strange as it may seem, I can sit with someone and know within a relatively short period of time how that person's life might end, if no further self work is done. I feel their struggles. I witness their pain.

The upside is that I can bring that knowledge into my work as a lawyer, using my perspective on the end of life to relieve the suffering from a dispute or engagement, supplanting it with collaboration and creativity, where possible.

Peter was bigger than life itself. He engaged life enthusiastically. He welcomed everyone to the party of his existence. Peter was very self aware. Like most of us, he had a demon or two. But, I believe that when he passed, his important work was done. That's why he could leave so quickly.

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