Live As If You Were Dying

“Write as if you were dying,” pens Annie Dillard.

My relationship with dying began in 1978, the year I entered nursing school. A scalpel sliced through the chest of the naked male cadaver. My face drained of its color. The sound of ringing bells filled my ears. Voices echoed throughout morgue’s cold chambers. My pallor prompted my instructor to grab a chair ­– before I could fall to the floor.

Since then, I have learned better responses to death and dying.

My work as oncology nurse leads me to journey alongside my patients. The pads of my thumbs have wiped away tears from another’s cheek. I listened to Karen, a 45-year-old patient confess she was not ready to die. I honored an elderly man’s decision to stop chemotherapy.

One day I noticed two women huddled over the round puzzle table in our oncology waiting room, trying to make sense of where the pieces fit. The cancer patient looked like a perfectly made-up bald Barbie, sporting fuchsia lipstick, eyeliner, hoop earrings and a large dose of strength.

She joined a puzzle piece to its home as she spoke to her friend. “I must finish my table runner tonight because after today’s chemo, I will be down for five days.”

I admired her spirit as she pushed through.

There are days when I celebrate survival with one, on the heels of sharing final days with another. My experiences beg me to live as if I were dying – and inspire me to write as if I were dying.

In her essay Write Until You Drop, Annie Dillard reveals, “After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ”Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.”

Dr. Paul Kalanithi wrote an essay entitled, How Long Have I Got Left? Despite being a non-smoker, the thirty-seven-year old Stanford neurosurgeon was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer in 2013.

He explained, “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

He writes that, in the midst of his diagnosis, he began “writing more, seeing more, feeling more” and discovered there was no other way to write, or live. (Click to Tweet)

He lived and wrote as if he was dying.

Dr. Paul Kalanithi died on March 9, 2015.

We are mortal but can discover passion in the telling of the living and the dying. In that quickening, human meaning is born.

For me, to be alive in the present moment is to actively die to my past and my future.

My only question is, “Why is it so difficult to master?”


Photo by Chris Ford, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.


  • 7 years ago

    Beautiful Sharon. Our work gives us this perspective every day, and yet it’s still so hard to remind ourselves to do. It’s a gift to do work that gives us such a deep appreciation and awareness of impermanence. It allows us to see what truly is important.

    • Sharon A Gibbs
      7 years ago

      Elizabeth, Perfectly said.
      Our work is rich in lessons, love and awareness. Now, it is for us to pass this on to others. Like Michelangelo, we wrote, Draw, Antonio, draw! People like you convey it through their actions. Thank you for being the example.

    • Sharon A Gibbs
      7 years ago

      Thanks, Elaine. Same here!

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