Reflecting on the meaning of life at the end of life

Last week, the team in Southern California brought a wonderful photography project to my attention. It captures the stories of 20 patients served by our hospice program at Providence Holy Cross in Los Angeles. Facing terminal illness, these individuals reflect on life’s biggest questions. They talk about regrets, offer advice and share what they’ve learned about love and happiness.

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Josefina

In writing about the project this week, the Huffington Post used the perfect quote from Hippocrates. “It’s more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.”  I love that line because that’s exactly the way we strive to see each person we serve at Providence – not as a number or diagnosis, but as a whole person.

Thank you to LA-based photographer Andrew George for having the vision to tell these stories and to hospice and palliative care specialist Marwa Kilani, MD, for recognizing how meaningful a project like this could be to everyone at Providence and beyond.

I invite you to meet the patients who were featured in Right, Before I Die. View the full online gallery here and let me know what stories resonate with you. Here are a few excerpts that stood out to me. Note: This photography project was published with permission from the patients who participated.

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“It’s a blessing just to wake up and see a new day, to see the daylight and know that even though I’m in the hospital right now, as soon as my youngest child is out of school, he will either stop by or call, and that keeps me going. … I like to spend every minute of the day in the best way I can.” -Ediccia

 

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“Just do the best you can. I can’t imagine any other meaning to life than that. And we have to make ourselves happy. We can’t expect that from others. …Before I go to sleep, I say, ‘happy, health, love, content and grateful’ 108 times. … Every day is a better day to me because I get to breathe.” -Irene

 

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“First, you must learn to love yourself. Only then can you truly love others. … You think you have friends but when you get sick like this, people run. And the people you wouldn’t even think you’re friends with are the ones who are here helping you.” – Kim

 

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“My faith, I didn’t get it from my family. It came to me from circumstances that have happened in my life. I cling to this faith in times of trouble. … Now that I am sick, I am noticing that there are a lot of people willing to help me. I never asked for help before but maybe I should have. My neighbor’s gardener is the one who saw me and said you’re getting too thin and we have to get you to a doctor. He took me to the doctor, paid for the doctor, and now here I am getting help.” -John

 

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“I believe in heroes because there is such a tremendous fulfillment in having done the right thing. … My mother used to always say, you cannot build happiness upon someone else’s unhappiness. … The most important things in my life have been discoveries of things from people of whom I would have never expected. And some of my favorite moments in my life were having discovered that I was not all that important.” -Abel

 

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“I am a whole, content peaceful man right now. Not scared, not afraid, just excited, all bubbly inside, like I’m going to get married. I’m reaping what I’ve sowed all those years. I’ve sowed love. I built eight missions in the 10 years I spent in Mexico. That was my purpose in life to help people less fortunate than me. I fought the good fight. I’ve run my course, and I have nothing to hold my head down on. I can walk out of this earth with my head held up high and just go the way I came, naked.” -Michael

26 Comments
  1. This is so beautiful. As a cancer survivor myself, I know what it feels like to see the end. It doesn’t matter how much education you get, where you worked and what your title was. It all comes down to friends and family who love you and wanting to spend every second with them!

    I am so grateful that 17 years later I can write this and I can give hope and comfort those in their final journey!

  2. So many great comments! I really appreciate everyone who took the time to share their thoughts and their own stories. I’m glad this project resonated with so many of you as it did for me.

  3. A wonderful post reminding each of us at Providence that health care is so much more than just treating disease.

  4. My wife, a cancer survivor herself has been supporting her sister’s battle with pancreatic cancer for the last month, and knows from first-hand experience how hope, faith and courage can help ease her sister’s pain and fear of dying. The stories shared by the hospice patients in the article resonate deeply for us at this time.

    • Hi Loren – I wish your sister-in-law all the best. It sounds like she has a strong family behind her. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Amazing stories and so very touching.
    I am also a cancer survivor.
    These stories remind me everyday, that life is short and very precious.
    Each Morning I thank god for today and pray for tomorrow.

  6. This is a wonderful article. Both my Mother and Sister were on Hospice, two years apart from each other. My Mother had Alzheimers and my Sister had liver cancer. I really enjoyed Abels’ outlook on life and Michaels’ strong faith in the Lord.

    I support Hospice work and feel it takes a very special person to provide such care. I believe there are two important events in everyones life that will never be duplicated again; physical birth and physical death. To be a part of either of those events would be an honor.

    • I agree completely. Hospice is a very special time for families to have with one another. It’s such an important service that Providence offers, and we are fortunate to have so many compassionate and dedicated people doing that work on behalf of the community.

  7. As a former oncology nurse and sister to a cancer survivor, these stories all resonate with me.

    What a touching tribute to these lives. In our daily lives, where we are so busy, whether dealing with important things or things we deem important, these messages certainly puts the sacredness of life into perspective.

    Thank you for sharing this with us……

  8. I appreciate that Andrew, the photographer/interviewer, realized that the person’s disease and their profession were not really relevant in terms of defining them or their life. Also interesting how few times death is mentioned. “Dying” in the present tense never is.

    You can have all kinds of people in your life advising you to take a breath, smell the roses, enjoy the nuances, and focus on what’s really important – but it’s really powerful coming from these folks.

    • Hi Dave – I like what you said about how the interviewer didn’t mention people’s professions. I noticed that, too. It’s a poignant reminder that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what our job titles are. Thanks for your comments and insight.

  9. I really enjoy hearing these people be so optimistic. My life in general is optimistic and I try my best to share it with everyone. Keep on fighting the battle and keep your head up high, that’s the best way to live! Thanks for sharing these stories, they’re very uplifting.

  10. I dont know how/where these beautiful people get their strengths from… its amazing to see their perspective on life; There’s a lesson here for all of us.

    Great publication!

  11. These stories keep up mindful of how Good life is and yet how short life is. I’m touched to continue in the spirit of Providence by showing respect, compassion, justice, excellence and good stewardship to all I meet in the hospital and to affirm that our patients are #1. peace shalom shalom

  12. This really puts everything into perspective very quickly – what most of us deal with on a day to day basis is nothing compared to these individuals and they are so positive. Much to learn from them. Thank you!

  13. I am a 43-year survivor of a cancer that had a 5% cure rate at that time. Each day I wake up to love the people around me and be loved by them, at home, at church, in my neighborhood, and at work – what an amazing blessing! I may not be in a patient-facing job, but I can show each person I contact that God, Providence, and I love them. The people who have shared their stories are beautiful and have touched me today. Thank you for giving this gift!

    • Wow. You are truly a survivor, and you have such a great perspective. Thanks for sharing, Cyndi. I’m glad this post resonated with you.

  14. Beautiful and moving. Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

  15. Each of these stories is deeply moving and I’m so glad our patients agreed to allow their photos to accompany their thoughts. They are heroes as are their caregivers. I really liked the quotes about peace and contentment, which is so important when facing death. While I cannot choose between the stories, I agree with Cher. When battling a life-threatening illness some years ago, I discovered amazing things about the people around me. Some ran. Some came alongside and were my personal heroes. I was 43 years of age and yet my dad and his wife actually moved to my city for six months to be close by and support me. And the chemo nurses – inspiring and dedicated people! I’m not in front-line health care but I’m grateful that I can indirectly support all of our ministries and affiliates. Every day is rewarding.

    • Louise – I agree with you about the photos. It makes a big difference to have a face accompany each story. And I love what you said about your dad coming to help you. Thanks for sharing and for all you for Providence.

  16. Wow! So powerful and moving. Each story is equally inspiring and touching.

  17. These posts make me appreciate how precious life is and how we should all stop and tell our loved ones how much we love, care and appreciate them. Tommorrow is not promised for any of us.

  18. Very touching. Thank you for sharing.

  19. Kim’s message resonates with me, I have battled cancer and won, found love and support from the most unlikely places, let go of old worries and angers and believe my struggle with the big C has made me a happier, more content, more aware person. I am thankful for the experience it has aided my ability to understand and comfort my patients here at Providence St Peter Hospital.

    • Cher – Thanks for sharing your story. You have a great perspective, and I’m sure it means a lot to our patient to have someone like you on their side. We’re very lucky to have you at St. Pete’s.