With terminal illness comes newfound, and profound, wisdom, researchers report.
They uncovered this silver lining of terminal illness as people in their final months tried to strike a balance between accepting their fate and making the most of the time they had left.
“The end of life presents a unique perspective,” explained senior study author Dr. Dilip Jeste, senior associate dean at the University of California, San Diego’s Center of Healthy Aging.
“This is an extremely challenging time, a confluence of learning to accept what’s happening while still striving to grow and change and live one’s remaining life as best one can,” Jeste said in a university news release. “It’s this paradox that, if embraced, can lead to even greater wisdom while confronting one’s own mortality.”
The study, funded in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society, involved 21 men and women between the ages of 58 and 97 who were in the final six months of their lives and receiving hospice care. About half of the patients were dying of cancer.
The researchers asked these people opened-ended questions about wisdom, such as “How do you define wisdom?” and “What experiences have influenced your level of wisdom?” The patients were also asked if their illness had altered their understanding of wisdom. Each of the interviews was recorded, enabling the researchers to analyze and interpret the responses.
The participants ranked traits associated with wisdom. The most important quality listed was having prosocial behaviors, followed by demonstrating social decision-making, emotional regulation, openness to new experiences, awareness of uncertainty, spirituality and self-reflection, as well as having a sense of humor and being tolerant.
The patients admitted that facing their own mortality and imminent death dramatically changed how they viewed wisdom. “My perspective, my outlook on life, my outlook on everything has changed,” said one of the patients. “It’s grown tremendously.”
One common experience among the terminally ill was their desire to find peace or acceptance as their health declined and they lost their ability to function normally.
According to study first author Lori Montross-Thomas, “It wasn’t passive ‘giving up,’ but rather an active coping process. They emphasized how much they appreciated life, taking time to reflect. There was a keen sense of fully enjoying the time they had left and, in doing so, finding the beauty in everyday life.”
Montross-Thomas is assistant adjunct professor in UCSD’s department of family medicine and public health.
One study participant said: “For all my life, being a Southerner and having been in beauty contests, I got up in the morning, put my full makeup on and did my hair every day. A lady was never in her nightgown unless she was giving birth! Now all that is very, very difficult for me… I’ve accepted it, and I’ve realized that I have to let it go… I try to take all this with as much graciousness as possible and I’ve realized that my friends really don’t care that I don’t have makeup on or I’m in my nightgown. They are just happy to see me out of bed sitting on a chair.”
The patients also found that living with a fatal disease stimulated growth, leading to more determination, gratitude and optimism. The researchers noted this path to increased wisdom ebbed and flowed as the patients struggled to find balance, peace and happiness at the end of their lives.
Many patients focused on looking for the positive instead of the negative. “I want them to remember me with a smile, laughing and giggling and doing some of the silly things we do,” one person said. “Why do you want to leave on a sad note? I do not want to be remembered being sad.”
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about the end of life.
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