Just a few months ago, the world of psychological science lost a research pioneer, our esteemed colleague Dr. Roger Weissberg. Sadly, we are not alone in mourning a cherished friend, colleague, or family member as we observe the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Americans feel more pressure to prepare for health changes, including end-of-life care, and experience anxiety when thinking about their own deaths.
For Dr. Weissberg, the terrifying reality of his cancer diagnosis and approaching death was devastating, but it provided an opportunity to unlock something extraordinary: simple insights to navigate emotions and decision-making in conversations with friends and family around terminal illness. Dr. Weissberg was dying as he wrote, “When my illness has made it tough, it’s been tough, but my purpose has never wavered.” In sharing so openly, Dr. Weissberg left an important legacy: a road map to travel through the most difficult time in one’s life and face death with grace and openness.
Hard as it may be to contemplate, it is a road we all will travel, and many of us will shepherd others on the journey before we face our own death. Dr. Weissberg’s advice shows how end-of-life conversations can be characterized by transparency, heartfelt support, and meaning rather than morbidity and judgement. Here are some of the tips he left behind:
Give yourself permission to feel.
It is no secret that contemplating mortality can leave us feeling sad, worried, scared, or frustrated. We can take a step towards acceptance by recognizing uncomfortable emotions when they arise and giving ourselves the permission to feel them. It’s not a weakness to feel sad or angry in a situation you can’t control. In fact, often the only way to regain control is to accept these feelings. By doing so, you chip away at the discouraging power uncomfortable emotions have over you, creating space for the insights that follow.
Talking about health concerns can leave anyone feeling vulnerable. Some people discard these conversations because they feel too morbid. But conversations about death can be far from morbid: you can weave humor, lightheartedness, and tender care into these chats. Even when the conversations get heavy, we should recognize their usefulness instead of shying away. In doing so, you can avoid the isolation and burden of worry by giving your loved ones a better glimpse at what’s important to you, boosting their confidence in their ability to support you when your health changes.
Gather your allies.
Strong relationships will make it easier for you to cope with health challenges when they arise. Which friends and family can you turn to when you need help? And how can they help? What care provider would you want to be there for you? Remember, no one person can give you every kind of support. Having a team to help see you through end-of-life decisions can make a tremendous difference. As author Gail Sheehy remarks in her New York Times best-selling book, having a provider who can act as your “quarterback” through health challenges changes everything.
Make Decisions Together.
For many, the problem with discussing life values when thinking about health and illness is a lack of simple, helpful guidance. Especially with loved ones, these discussions can evoke fear or anxiety. But they can also involve lighthearted musing that don’t require formal follow-up: What is the legacy you hope to leave? What might you want to be surrounded by when dying? If you need help getting a conversation started, organizations such as Five Wishes and Death over Dinner offer resources which can alleviate the stress that comes with this topic and allow opportunities to discuss uncomfortable emotions as they arise.
Ground yourself in purpose.
Set aside time to consider where you find purpose. If that is hard to answer, just try looking at your everyday: What sustains you? Is it relationships? Handing down knowledge? For some, the way we live or work has been filled with purpose. Dr. Weissberg’s very life and dedication to research was a testament to this. He attested that end-of-life is not a surrender of your sense of purpose. Rather, it can be an opportunity to find and embody your purpose in life even more boldly, sustaining you and others through health challenges.
In 2022, the world has turned another page in the COVID-19 pandemic that has shrouded us in worry and loss. But a gift the pandemic offers is the opportunity to improve communication about our own health and health care values. These five insights can be helpful as you consider your health and, eventually, approach your own death. They can also be essential to supporting a loved one who is approaching theirs. When we have the conversation about our wishes, preferences, and fears, we give our loved ones and ourselves a tremendous gift: presence, grace, and support when death comes.
Just last month was Dr. Weissberg’s celebration of life. Thank you, Dr. Weissberg, for showing us how to die as well all hope to live — with compassion, authenticity, and purpose.
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Krista Smith, M.A.T. is a postgraduate associate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She is a former high school teacher and research assistant at the University of Florida.
Emily Mroz, Ph.D. is a research psychologist at Yale School of Medicine. She leads death education initiatives, and research for those navigating serious illness and end-of-life.
Robin Stern, Ph.D. is the co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a psychoanalyst in private practice and the author of The Gaslight Effect.