People facing a terminal medical condition are sometimes given an unusual prescription from their doctor: go out and have fun.
At first, it seems challenging to fulfill this kind of directive: how can you enjoy yourself when death is imminent? You need to be finalizing your affairs and comfort your family and being serious and maybe even a bit stoic about what’s ahead, right?
It turns out you can do actually both, and even better, successfully balancing the sadness with the joy can be a good thing for your well-being along with those around you. It can be strange for them too: they may be going through their own path of grief due to the upcoming loss of you from their life, so it will be strange to hear you talk of “trying to enjoy things more.”
But as some mental health people will tell you, it makes a certain kind of sense.
Certainly you should acknowledge that serious, un-fun times are ahead, and death and loss are both difficult topics for our current culture to talk about.
But that doesn’t mean that the person who is going to be dying automatically has to be sad all the time. There will certainly be a whole spectrum of feelings and emotions, including sadness, fear, and anger. There’s also some procedural things to take care of to make sure those around you are taken care of, including updating financial and legal details. Experts also say finalizing details like your funeral and resting place can allow your family to focus on grief instead of trying to make those tough decisions without your input.
But in between that, you can still look for ways to do things that bring a smile to your face and create some wonderful final memories of your time together.
- Take a trip. If there’s a special place where you’ve spent time in the past, or a place you’ve always wanted to visit, go for it.
- Preserve your memories. Whether it’s writing a full narrative, answering fill-in-the-blank questions or making an audio/video recording, this task might be enjoyable to chronicle the highlights of your life and be a good keepsake for your descendants.
- Eat and drink. If you’re receiving hospice care, you may have fewer dietary restrictions. Which means it might be fine to eat your favorite meals.
- Bring people together. It’s a perfect time to connect with people from your past. Even if there are old tensions or unresolved issues, you can be the one to say, “forget about all that – let’s enjoy our time together.”
Time to celebrate
Part of working on one’s fast-tracked ‘bucket list’ should include an opportunity to celebrate.
Traditionally, friends and family gathered after someone’s passing to toast their memory and wish them well in the beyond. This can be after or even in place of a funeral or more somber memorial service.
But the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s changed the celebration dynamic a little: many people who knew they were dying soon asked, “why wait until I’m dead for my party?” so their loved ones gave them one. This still had the trappings of a memorial, with speeches, toasts, photos, and tears but with a very much alive guest of honor. This gave people an opportunity to say good-byes, resolve any differences, and come together with more joy instead of regrets that they didn’t get to connect before it was too late.
Today, there’s elements of both in our current culture. No matter the religious culture, it’s still tradition to gather after someone’s loss. But people with terminal illness still will likely welcome the opportunity for a party in their honor.
Or, if death comes too quickly to put a formal party together, a memorial service/celebration after a funeral can still be a time for people to come together and share memories. Even if a person has requested “nothing special” to mark their life, coming together still can provide closure and mutual support.
In fact, mental health experts say every day should be celebrated, no matter your condition in life or how many days you have left. This can even include things like enjoying the wine or other luxury items you may have put aside “for a special occasion.” Look for opportunities to spend time with friends and family, even if it’s just sitting around the table having food or playing board games together.
Pending death doesn’t have to be the only reason either: there’s never a bad time to create good memories.
It’s a holiday
You certainly can celebrate your life – or anyone’s life – anytime. Just making it through a tough week or even a tough day is worth celebrating. In fact, not everyone knows that January has been designated as National Celebration of Life Month. Whatever your culture, religious denomination, or background, you can use the month as a time to commemorate making it through another year and getting yourself psyched for another one.
The good thing about this particular celebration is that it’s up to individuals to define what sort of rituals take place. Maybe you and friends can have certain food, certain drinks, or take certain actions, and try to repeat these every year. It can be something everyone looks forward to and you can also invite others to join you in future years as people come and go from your life.