A colleague of mine received a call one evening from his brother, telling him that his aged mother was dying and that he should come as soon as possible. He was very close to his mother, and scrambled to find plane tickets to get him there as soon as possible. He was able to secure tickets for the next morning, and just before he boarded the flight his brother texted him: “It may be too late.” He was heartbroken, but boarded the plane and prayed that she might still be alive when he arrived so he could say goodbye.
He arrived at the hospital and she was still alive. Unconscious, but alive. He held her hand, spoke to her about how important she was in his life, how much he loved her and was grateful to her. He said a prayer and said goodbye. She died almost immediately afterward. He said to me, “It was like she was waiting for me. Like she knew she couldn’t die until I held her hand. I know it was for me that she held on. She knew I needed it.”
Right to the very end, her life was sustained by the love they had for one another and by the hope that her son would come. For her, it was love that provided a sense of hope that kept alive in her the will to live. After loving everything else – even consciousness – she was left with love as the enduring ground of life’s meaning.
Without hope, life loses all meaning. Hope is confidence that the future holds good for me and for those I love. Hope is the bedrock on which a meaningful life is built. We are future-oriented, goal-making beings who discover meaning in the present moment by planning for what lies in store in the future. Though it’s not healthy to live in the future to the detriment of the present, like when we worry obsessively about what bad things might happen, it’s important to prudently anticipate the future to ensure we do all we can to protect and promote the good we have. Whether those “good things” be finances, employment, relationships or health, the future requires preparation if it is to be a hope-filled future.
When sickness and the prospect of death confront us, we can be shaken to the core as they threaten many of the things that make life beautiful. They present us with a personal crisis, a moment of decision, forcing us to ask questions, like:
- What and who is most important in my life?
- What will I have to let go of?
- What do I want others to know?
- What legacy do I want to leave behind?
As many of the good things we have built our hopes on throughout life are threatened, the future becomes uncertain and our sense of life’s meaning demands clarification. Here, planning for a future full of hope is not just a matter of deciding on advance medical directives, but of bringing into focus life’s essential meaning.
The mystery of human life is far greater than can be addressed by medical problem solving, and to ignore this as we anticipate the future is to invite a future full of hopelessness.
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Tom Neal PhD