What if I told you that you were going to die tomorrow?

Please raise your hand if you are not going to die.

If you haven’t found the fountain of youth and we haven’t perfected anti-aging technology, then you my friend are going to die. But you are not alone, so am I, and so is your mother and your father and your brothers and sisters and even little Johnny down the street.

Now that I have reminded you of your own mortality. Does this change anything in your life?

Probably not.

What if I told you that you were going to die tomorrow? Does this change anything in your life?

Probably so.

Why is this? Why does a timeline, or a “deadline” (pun intended) make a difference for us?

I believe that a deadline changes the quality of the preceding moments. Some moments in life merely pass, forgetably, almost as if unattended, but other moments are imbued with great meaning and even urgency, particularly if we know that those moments are to be our last, as with a departing friend or dying lover. These last moments are often the ones in which we feel most alive and most present.

Should we rob anyone of these meaningful moments?

No. The mere thought seems cruel and deeply inhumane.

Yet, if we do not speak of death and its reality, and especially its proximity, then we have robbed ourselves and our loved ones of the power of last moments.

When a doctor does not speak the truth and does not say the words, “Yes, you are dying,” then you are robbed of the opportunity to live fully in the present, savoring each song, each touch of a child’s hand, and the heft of your favorite book.

What human would rob another of the most touching and beautiful moments of life?

We do this all of the time, to ourselves and those whom we love, if we don’t speak the truth about death and its timing. In private, we ask the doctor “not to tell her how sick she really is.” Yet, the words, “You probably only have another month left,” could prove to be among the best therapies that your doctor could ever give you. Because of those words, each day, each hour, each second of that month would be seen in a different light than any time that had ever passed before. Each moment cherished, devoured hungrily, and deeply savored. Precious time, never squandered, but focused only on those things which matter most.

Death, the ultimate deadline, allows us to cherish both life and time more fully.

There is no reason why we cannot consciously apply the urgency that death brings to our everyday lives.  Indeed, we should.

Steve Jobs was fond of saying, “Live everyday as though it is your last … and one day, you will be right.”

And I love this quote by John A. Robinson, RN, from his book, On My Journey Home: “Make the most out of each day you have. Do not live to die, die to live each day to its fullest. Say what you need to say and do what you need to do, because at any time, that chance can become history without warning.”

In the coming year, let us be more focused on the use and cultivation of our time and our life. Let us savor it, every drop.

Monica Williams-Murphy is an emergency physician and author of It’s OK to Die.

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  • Job

    Remember, Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.
    One thing the Catholics got right.

  • disqus_HOK2N8MIDC

    im a youth and the world cant be perfect like do i lokk like jesus to you? my name is melinda and im 12

  • Suzi Q 38

    If I am dying, please say so.
    Be direct and kind.
    If would be nice if you said it softly, and repeated them for me
    if your words did not reach my brain and my heart the first time you uttered them.
    I can take it.
    I will not like it, but I can take it.

    I will make plans and say what I need to say to others, including you.

    Thank you for caring for us, and sometimes having to tell us the words we were probably expecting, but did not want to hear.

    If my family becomes distant, they need to be told the bad news, too.
    Sometimes, you need to look at them directly, and say as few medical words as possible. Be honest.

    Keeping it from them just makes them more and more distant.
    It is the fear of the unknown or the fear of illness that may lead to death.

    It is better that they know, so that they can do what they can to spend time with me before the “big day.”

    Time is now more precious than ever.

  • http://www.facebook.com/beau.ellenbecker Beau Ellenbecker

    Well said. As a family doctor I don’t have a lot of dying (soon anyways) patients. At least not ones that I am certain of, but I do think the author is very correct in his concern. As a resident I took care of patient with pancreatic cancer. A very good man, only 44 years old. I was probably the 15th physician to care for him since his diagnosis 3 months earlier, but I was the first to tell him that he was going to die, and likely soon. It was hard for him and his wife, but they both admitted they needed to hear that. It got him out of the hospital and allowed him to maximize the life he had left.

  • Bart Windrum

    Not knowing that death may be in the cards at some moment robs families. In my experience, in a typical 3-week terminal hospitalization we’ll lose the first week to complete disorientation—not believing what is happening and not believing what’s not happening. Those first 7 days unmake our world; it disintegrates over the next 14. That first week is 33% of our loved one’s remaining life—usually the best of it, where “best” means most available. I traced every significant failure during each of my parent’s terminal hospitalizations to absent communication (a form of abandonment). Subsequently I called for Communication Algorithms, a phrase I coined specifically to say to providers that you’re smart enough to do what you must do. The flip side of that coin is regret that the burden currently falls on you; it rightly belongs on each of us to know something more of living and dying. The only complex part of dying in the 21st century ought to be pain management, not the entire process itself.

    • Maura69

      Thank you Bart Windrum!

    • Suzi Q 38

      Yes. Thank you.
      My MIL died of lung cancer. It was particularly painful for her, as I would hear her cry out in pain.
      She eventually died peacefully on morphine.
      Because of her pain, I was so thankful that the doctors knew she didn’t want to suffer.

  • Margiemfn

    Thank you for this article.

  • Molly_Rn

    People have the right to be told the truth and to have the chance to get their life in order. They have things they need to say and do and to deny them this is wrong. In ICU/CCU there is a lot of dying and we need to provide those patients and their families with loving care so that they feel safe to complete their lives.

  • Dr Helen Terrell

    How true

  • katerinahurd

    As a physician you treat patients who would like to avoid death from their injury. Do you think that we live in the times of denial of death? Do you identify the death denial in the futility of certain medical interventions?