How Caring For the Dying Taught Me What Really Matters
Dr. Karen Wyatt, a family physician who spent much of her career caring for terminally ill patients in their homes, explains how caring for the dying allowed her to learn what really matters in life.
by Karen Wyatt MD
The day I graduated from medical training I had no idea that teaching and writing about death, dying and spiritual transformation would be part of my future. On that day I was filled with idealism and dreams of helping patients heal and change their lives. During my years of schooling, while being taught anatomy, pharmacology, and the pathology of disease, I had cultivated my own personal curriculum in the power of love as a healing force. I had learned to practice this healing love for my patients by listening deeply to their stories, seeing their unique beauty, and reflecting that beauty back to them.
So, when I opened the doors of my own medical office, I planned to be a doctor who used the power of unconditional love to help patients heal their emotional wounds and thereby improve their physical health as well. Apparently I was onto something good, because I very quickly filled my practice and had a waiting list of 6 months for new patients who wanted to see me. Things were going well and I had no reason to question my belief in the power of love… until everything turned upside down.
One fateful day, three years into my budding career, I received a phone call which informed me that my father had died by suicide. That news absolutely devastated me, both as a daughter and as a doctor. Ultimately his death shattered my belief system in the power of love, for he was one of the people I loved most in the world. Obviously my love did nothing to save him, so how could I believe that I could help anyone else?
I floundered in extreme grief and guilt for three years, on the verge of giving up medicine altogether because I could no longer practice with confidence or conviction. I saw myself as a bitter failure and lost all connection to my earlier idealism and positivity. There were no answers to my questions about my father’s death and I wondered each day how I could survive without those answers.
But then another event occurred that changed everything in an instant. While sitting in my backyard on a sunny summer’s day I heard a voice in my head that said, “Call hospice.” At that time I knew almost nothing about hospice and the role it played for patients at the end of life. In fact I knew very little about death and the dying process, since no such training had been included in my medical school curriculum. But, trusting in the voice I heard, I looked up the number of our local hospice and called them to ask if they needed a volunteer.
As luck (or fate) would have it, the hospice director told me on the phone that day that their medical director had just resigned and they were desperate to fill the position. She told me it was a miracle that I had called at that moment and, in the blink of an eye, I became their new medical director. I spent the next weeks in training, following the wonderful hospice nurses on home visits, reading books, attending classes on pain management, and discovering a wealth of knowledge that had shockingly been totally left out of my previous education. The day I made my first solo visit to a hospice patient in her home I knew without a doubt that this is the field where I had been meant to practice all along. These people who were journeying through the last days of their lives were the patients I had been preparing to work with from the beginning.
And so I gradually spent more and more time working for the hospice and caring for their growing roster of patients, until I ended up closing my primary care practice altogether. As I sat at the bedsides of these patients with my own broken heart, I was able to connect deeply with them not only in their sorrow and pain but also in their experience of joy and peace – which came as a surprise to me at first. Over time I found myself healing of the grief and guilt I had been carrying for several years. I came to accept my father’s suicide and to be at peace with all of the unanswered questions in my mind.
Finally, when my heart was mended, I could once again return to my practice of unconditional love – but I had a new and much deeper understanding of what that meant. I no longer viewed this love I shared with patients as something generated from within myself, but I recognized that there was a much larger, divine source of love that surrounded and filled each of us.
One patient articulated this lesson of love very simply for me when he spoke from his deathbed: “I finally learned what really matters in life. It’s love… there’s nothing more important.” He went on to bemoan the fact that he wouldn’t be able to share what he had learned with others because he would only be here for a few more weeks. Then he asked me if I would tell his story and spread his message. In that moment I made a promise to him that I would one day write a book that would include his words.
After I returned to my practice of unconditional love, I soon began to learn many other spiritual lessons from my patients as well. As they shared with me their journeys through the dying process, I had the privilege of observing their struggles to forgive and be forgiven, to find meaning in the lives they had lived, and to accept the fact that life is uncertain and fragile. They taught me that there is always joy to be found in the present moment and that every breath of life is precious and to be cherished.
These profound lessons from my dying patients changed not only how I viewed life and death and grief, but also how I lived from day to day. I began to make forgiveness a daily practice, to focus my attention on being present to life as much as possible, and to let go of my attachments to how I thought life should be unfolding. I became lighter, freer, more loving, more spontaneous and more creative as I gradually incorporated these lessons into my life.
Eventually I felt ready to put these stories and spiritual lessons from my patients into writing, in order to fulfill that promise I had made several years before. When my manuscript was partially completed, I sent query letters to agents and publishers to see if I could find a partner to help me usher the book into the world. But I was met with one rejection letter after another, with some advising me not to waste my time because “We don’t need a book about death — no one wants to read that!”
“I began to make forgiveness a daily practice, to focus my attention on being present to life as much as possible, and to let go of my attachments to how I thought life should be unfolding.”
Sadly I became discouraged and put my writing away in a box at the back of my closet. In another twist of fate, my husband had taken a new job in a different state and I had to leave my hospice work behind when we moved to a new community. Once again I saw myself as a failure because I hadn’t been able to fulfill my promise and share the messages of my patients. Dejected, I accepted the only medical work I could find in my new location, in a clinic for low-income patients. My dream of writing a book had faded and my soul’s work of caring for the dying was out of reach for me too.
At that time I attended a writing retreat where my teacher and mentor told me that I wasn’t ready yet to write the book I had envisioned. She said I would need to live all of the lessons from the book before I could write or teach about them. I was still depressed about letting go of my dream, but her words made sense to me. Life is always a journey that unfolds with its own timing and that rarely matches our own desires. I understood that I would just have to keep working on my spiritual lessons and growth until something shifted in the future.
Several years later my box of stories was still packed away in the back of my closet, and I had nearly forgotten about my writing project. I was deeply engrossed in my job and my spiritual work, along with some occasional visits to patients as a volunteer with our local hospice. However, once again I was taken by surprise by an unexpected occurrence that would change everything in my life.
At a local fundraising event I was introduced to a woman who is known to be a psychic, though I didn’t put much stock in such a skill at that time. When she shook my hand she gave me a curious look and suggested that we talk some day soon. A few days later I encountered her at a restaurant where my husband and I were dining and again she said, “I need to talk to you”.
I agreed to meet her for a coffee, and she told me that she had received a message on my behalf that she felt compelled to share. There was something that I had been waiting a long time to finish, she told me, and now was the time when I needed to drop everything else and get it done. Stunned by her words, I knew instantly that she was talking about the book in the back of my closet. I felt energy rushing through me as she went on to say that if I didn’t willingly make a shift to this important work, I might find my current life interrupted anyway by illness or some other turn of events.
Her message felt so true to me that I made the decision over the next few days to leave my job and start writing the book that I had carried in my heart for so many years. While my clinic staff was disappointed to see me go, several of them told me they knew in their hearts it was the right thing for me to do. They supported me fully throughout this sudden life and career change.
Though I had been practicing the spiritual lessons for years that the book would address, I had not thought about how to express them in writing for a very long time. When I looked at my old notes and early manuscripts I discovered that my teacher had indeed told me the truth. I wasn’t ready to write the book before because I hadn’t fully understood or grasped the lessons from my patients: suffering, love, forgiveness, presence, purpose, surrender, and impermanence. All of the years that had passed since then, with all of life’s experiences and challenges and disappointments and changes, had taught me a great deal and taken me even deeper into this spiritual wisdom I was meant to share.
Suddenly, I could see the perfection of everything that had taken place over this long journey — from my early innocent belief in the power of love, my father’s suicide, finding hospice work, learning powerful lessons from dying patients, being rejected in my first writing attempts, losing my beloved hospice work, practicing over and over again the lessons of my spiritual path, and exposing and healing the wounds of my shadow. Everything had happened with perfect timing and all of it had fallen in place, even though I couldn’t see that while I was living through it.
The entire book flowed through my fingers over the next year, and I found truths in the words I wrote that hadn’t been obvious to me before. Something larger and wiser and more loving than me was infiltrating every page of the book. I didn’t know who it was being written for, but I understood that it might change everything for some of those who read it. The seven lessons I learnt from my dying patients are truly what matters for all of life and it is my privilege to share them with the world, especially now as we face a global pandemic. May these words bring healing to all who read them.
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Dr Karen Wyatt has spent most of her career as a hospice medical doctor, homeless shelter physician and caregiver. In 7 Lessons for Living from the Dying, she shares the 7 lessons she has learned from the dying and gives a daily spiritual practice to help live them.