What death taught me about three things that mattered most in everyone’s life
As a doctorate student in my graduate mental health program, I was tasked with finding a clinical internship. I looked down the list of suggested placements and was excited to explore all the options except for one: the one that triggered a red blinking light in my head and the message "avoid at all costs!" It was the Center for Grief and Loss.
As fate would have it, all other placements fell through, and I found myself walking across the parking lot to the entrance of the hospice wing. That walk across the parking lot was the longest walk of my life. Every fiber of my being wanted to turn around and RUN the other way. My body and my brain did NOT want to step into a building filled with dying people. It was terrifying.
Little did I know that the dying would ultimately teach me more about life and living than any other person or experience had so far.
So, I made it across that parking lot and into the building. My duty was to enter each hospice room and offer counseling support to the patient and their family members.
At once, hospice taught me an important life lesson.
No matter who the family was, what resources they possessed, what color their skin was – at the end of life – only three things mattered:
· Relationship with others
· Relationship with Self
· Relationship with one’s spirituality
Not degrees, not accomplishments, not financial security, or possessions.
Since Maryland has the same mortality rate as any other place, 100%, we all need to come to terms with the fact that we will die one day and that only three things will matter to us then: Relationships with others, relationships with Self, and relationships with one's spirituality.
As mentioned before, death tends to teach us about living. It awakens us to the preciousness of all moments and shocks us out of the illusion of time. It forces us to recognize what matters most.
What I discovered from my meetings with death is that relationships can save humanity and restore this planet.
Oxford defines the word relationship as a state of being connected or bonded. let’s take a look at the three relationships that matter most.
Relationship, connection, a bond to oneself.
What constitutes Self? Do we need to improve our relationship with Self? Let's start with the body. The body is part of one's Self. How's that relationship going? Most of us are pretty disconnected from our bodies. We spend so much time in our head entertaining worse case scenarios and solving problems that we often override real bodily needs like hunger, rest, and the need to stretch. Someone once said to me, "My body's purpose is to carry around my head." However, other schools of thought believe that greater wisdom lives in our bodies and not in our brains.
Perhaps, Self also includes our feelings? We've found a way to distract ourselves from any type of uncomfortable feeling.
Feeling blue? Turn on more Netflix.
Feeling angry? Rage at the next dude cutting you off in traffic.
Feeling stressed out? Thank God for wine.
Maybe Self is made up of past memories. Past memories can include uppercase and lowercase traumatic events such as death, divorce, a physical accident or injury, a move, and job loss.
Trauma is the great puppet master. Though a puppet seemingly moves on its own, it is really controlled by invisible strings connected to the wooden handpiece. Past trauma often calls the shots and can control behavior, thoughts, and emotions when left unprocessed. However, a healthy relationship with Self would pay gentle attention to past events of pain, not stuffing it down and hoping the rawness of it fades over time. It doesn't fade - it usually comes out later in ugly ways.
Lastly, what if Self includes an ecological dimension? Our ancestors did not see land and Self as separate entities, but rather as an interdependent relationship. What if we could return to a time when the more-than-human world is incorporated as a part of ourSelves?
When we fully comprehend that the tree outside the window has a lot more in common with us than the computer on our desk, we may see nature as an echo of the soul.
To repair the relationship with yourSelf: Listen to your body, feel all of your feelings pay attention to past pain, and consider nature as an extension of Self.
Relationships, connections, and a bond with others
In behavioral research, it is notoriously difficult to successfully complete longitudinal studies because this type of research follows the same group of people over long periods of time. One of the most successful long-term studies is what is known as the Good Life Study. It began in 1938 with the recruitment of nearly 300 Harvard sophomores. The study was interested in isolating any factors that predicted happiness and life satisfaction. Variables such as health, financial success, and career satisfaction were observed. But one variable superseded them all: relationships. Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed.
The Good Life study points to a unique characteristic of the human being: the need for a relationship with others. In utero, a fetus will begin bonding to pheromones, to the sound of the mother's voice – in psychology we call this attachment behavior. The human child is exceptionally dependent on caregivers; human babies do not survive a day without help. We do not even walk on our own until close to 12 months. However, in the animal kingdom, we do not see that kind of long-term dependency.
So, relationships are key to our very survival as human beings. We need a new motto; “survival of the fittest (rugged individualism)" – which does not really fit the homo sapiens. “Survival of the nurtured” does.
Consider this: when engaging in a 20-second hug with someone you love – your body releases the chemical oxytocin, which creates feelings of safety and well-being. What if the natural world were a friend or family member to spend time with? New research has discovered that hugging a tree increases the levels of oxytocin. That means that our own body perceives nature as beloved.
To nurture connections, spend time cultivating relationships, help and serve others, find your tribe AND hug a tree.
Relationship, connection, and a bond with your spirituality
Lastly, a meaningful bond to one's spirituality is a key element to saving ourselves and our planet. I'd like to add two conceptual ideas to the common understanding of spirituality. First, I'd like to invite you to add values to your definition of what is spiritual. I believe a life lived according to your values is a spiritual life. In the field of psychology, we know that the more we follow materialistic values and extrinsic goals, the more likely we are to experience anxiety and depression. Yet, most of us spend time chasing extrinsic goals; our whole culture is set up to reinforce this falsehood. Get the right grades, hustle for the best paying job, rise through the ranks, and display your statues through clothes and cars. The happiness those pursuits bring will only last a hot second.
It's Friday at 4:00 pm; do you stay at work and get that last project done? Or, do you go home and play with the kids before dinner?
I can't do both. If my materialistic values are more important, then I stay at work. It doesn't mean your kids are not important to you. Certain values simply trump others.
I encourage you to pause and reflect. What gets most of your attention? How do you spend your time? What do you spend your money on? Those answers may provide a clue to where your values lie.
An experiment showed that if people find 50 dollars on the street, they experience prolonged happiness if they use that money to help others rather than spend it on themselves.
Lastly, an often-overlooked element of spirituality is the experience of awe. A moment of encountering wonder and a felt sense of touching something bigger than ourselves. 9 out of 10 people report experiencing awe when connecting with nature.
A radical idea in the realm of growing your spirituality is to spend your money and time on what matters most by helping nature restore itself. While doing that, you are highly likely to experience awe and wonder.