What the Dying Have Taught Me about Living

I have always been intrigued by death, especially in the context of murder and true crime. However, I never imagined seeing death in the circumstance or frequency I see it now. I work in long-term care and sub-acute rehab facilities (so nursing homes). In the short 8 months, I’ve been working, over thirty of my residents have died. Death usually visits in waves – some expected, some out of the blue. Each resident with a unique journey to death’s door, but also a unique lesson to leave in their absence. I could never have enough space to share all I’ve learned from these residents – but there are a few overarching lessons the dead have taught me about living.

  1. Attitude is everything.

Regardless of the situation, you are in, there is an opportunity for happiness – it all depends on your attitude. The residents I encounter range from short stays after hip replacements to end-stage cancer with hospice care in place. Every resident I encounter with a positive attitude has a (relatively) better outcome, despite their situation. Sometimes that means going home sooner, other times it means dying at peace after an enjoyable day.  Either way, the resident has control over their experience – so do you.

  1. Denial Doesn’t Get You to a Better Place

In short, “The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist.” Zig Ziglar. From my experiences, problems only worsen when they go unaddressed. When problems are addressed early, the solution can be a small sacrifice compared to the sacrifice of waiting. From my professional experience, it can be summarized as life over limb. I’ve seen residents that need something as small as a toe amputation, but are in denial and end up losing their entire leg, or worse, their life. While this is drastic compared to the situation we face in our everyday lives, the principle still applies. Accepting and addressing a problem early is always the best option.

  1. You cannot be helped unless you first help yourself.

You can be your own worst enemy when it comes to inhibiting your progress, regardless of where you are headed. No matter how many times someone offers you help, it will not be successful unless you support their help with your own efforts. Many of my residents come in for short stays after an acute illness like pneumonia or a fall. Their goal is to get stronger and eventually go home. Unless those residents help themselves by participating in rehab, taking their medication, eating the recommended foods, etc. – they aren’t successful. In most case, these result in minor setbacks, such as longer stays in the facility or not reaching potential in rehab. However, in some situations, it’s ended in the resident dying in our facility due to continually deteriorating conditions, which had the potential to improve. All it takes is trying – you will always find people to support you.

  1. Goodbyes Can Be a Good Thing

Some lessons are learned from my residents, others are learned from their family members. This one is from the family members who struggle with letting go. There is nothing easy about a loved one dying, however, I have seen many residents in pain or with an extremely low quality of life, because families weren’t ready to lose their loved one. Hope is a great thing, but going back to lesson #2, denial won’t get you to a better place. There’s a very fine, grey line between choosing hoping or accepting that letting go is better. Whether this is taking someone off life support, or removing yourself from a toxic relationship – goodbyes aren’t always bad. Delaying the inevitable does not make the pain go away. We have to let go to move on, and often times holding on doesn’t only hurt you but the others involved too.

  1. People Need People

We need each other. Whether it’s to encourage a better attitude, open our eyes to the things we are denying, offering us help or comforting us through goodbyes – we need each other.

Kara Carter

Kara is a originally from Gordonsville, Virginia and is a recent graduate of James Madison University. She is now pursuing her career in Nutrition and Dietetics in the D.C./Maryland area. When Kara isn’t thinking about, talking about, making, photographing or actually eating food, she enjoys adventuring outside, running half marathons and spending time with her chinchillas, Milo and Asher.

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