Two days ago, I went to a funeral. The privilege of experiencing a snapshot of a person's life, at the very end of their life, is something of extreme significance and value to me.
Eulogies teach us how to live. They highlight how we're perceived by others, what they value about us, what they've learnt from us and what they will take from us into their own lives.
I met a lovely elderly man and his dedicated wife through my volunteer work for Hospice in the Home. On my very first shift about a year ago, I fronted up to his home to sit with him for a few hours while his wife attended some appointments. Irrespective of being bedridden, he greeted me with the biggest, warmest grin and then he fell promptly to sleep!
I'd planned the whole afternoon, both idealistic and naive.
When he awoke the first time, I got excited. Right, here we go. Now I can be helpful and life-altering.
"I bought a fabulous book to read. Would you like me to read out loud to you?"
"What is it?" he asked. My heart swelled with joy.
"It's a classic! Pride and Prejudice." I was already moving my seat closer.
"Pride and Prejudice?" His nose screwed up.
"Yes. It's a classic. I think you'll love it!" I'm sure my enthusiasm was sickening.
"No," he said. He did not want me to read to him.
I still haven't finished that book!
So instead, we talked inbetween his dozing. We reminisced about his life. Photos of his family covered the fridge and walls, so it was easy to find topics for conversation. His eyes sparkled and he laughed out loud at times recounting the stories he'd lived and retold countless times, this time to a stranger.
I'd learned about reminiscence therapy before and have used it in the hospital many times when someone is at the end of their life and it can be very beneficial for a person's psychological wellbeing.
At every visit following my first, his wife would remind him of who I was.
"Jodie Foster," he'd exclaim with the cheekiest grin, every single time.
I helped his wife bathe her husband with such tenderness it was a symbol of pure love - something to behold. His skin so cared for, it remained healthy and supple right up until his death.
I marvelled then at his still muscular torso and legs as I did every time I held this octogenarian's limbs in my hands figuring he must've maintained his fitness throughout his entire life.
I didn't know it at the time, but I bathed him and helped settle him for sleep the night before he died.
The pieces of the puzzle fell together at his funeral when his adult children rose to give his eulogy. They painted the picture of a man who despite the poverty he grew up in, worked hard, knew true love and raised an ever-growing loving family. They spoke of a man who helped others and was passionate about his family, community and his own individual endeavours. He hand-made kayaks and would frequently go kayaking - the secret of the toned muscles!
A very detailed photo presentation told a story from birth to death, culminating in a final photo of his entire family surrounding him, the family he'd created. Both fitting and poignant, it added to the sense that after helping to care for him over the past year, I now knew the whole man. I can't think of a better way to feel after a funeral and I walked away inspired by his life.
This man's life and the way he lived it reminded me to maintain a balance in my own life's activities; to think of others and be helpful; to move my body and use my mind; to love and surround myself with those who love me; and to smile and accept things for how they are today.
Seeing him the night before he died and then experiencing the love at his funeral and hearing the words of his eulogy also reminded me that death can be gentle and death can be beautiful.
I've been to a lot of funerals because of my work in a previous life and I guess at times because of the work I do now, this plus having had cancer means that I've thought a lot about death and about my own funeral. I think about my eulogy sometimes - Who will read it? What would they say? How will people remember me?
In fact, often in therapy, I know several psychologists who use this type of strategy to help people bring about meaningful changes in their lives now. Imagine you are 90 years old, looking back on your life. What would you wish you'd done more of? What do you wish you'd done less of? Go ahead, ask yourself those questions now. They're well worth thinking about.
It's a work in progress for me to overcome my fear of dying, but I know that as we commence another year, I can remember what I have learnt and that each day is an opportunity to embrace life and live it as if our time is limited, because guess what, it is!
If each day is a new page to write in your story, what do you want yours say?