Given the fact that we’re all going to die, it’s remarkable how little thought most of us give to the actual process of dying. In Lessons For The Living Stan Goldberg seeks to illuminate this most universal of experiences by sharing the lessons he learned during his time as a hospice volunteer.
What drew Goldberg into volunteering was the discovery that he himself was living with an incurable cancer. Part memoir and part practical guide, this book should be of interest to us all, and in particular to those of us wondering how to best help our loved ones as they approach the end of life.
By learning how to help others in the last days and hours of their lives, Goldberg discovered a blueprint for living which applies equally well to our entire lifespan, not just the end-point. Under such headings as “Forgiveness”, “Letting Go,” and “The Dilemma of Hope,” Goldberg describes the lessons he learned and applied, not only in helping others, but also while coming to grips with his own mortality: “I no longer invest energy in hoping that the cancer will remain under control — I’m too busy living.”
As Goldberg delves deeper into his own fears and uncertainties surrounding his own future he comes to understand the often illusive nature of hope: “The absence of hope isn’t a negative state. The disappearance of hope put me squarely into the present, since I know I can die at any time.” By being present and aware, both hope and fear tend to fade away, replaced by a clear and open mind. It is just such a mind which is best suited, Goldberg discovers, to attending not only to the actively dying, but to our own daily tasks.
During the course of more than six years as a hospice volunteer, Goldberg came to know hundreds of individuals facing their own deaths. When asked by one man dying of AIDS what possible motivation he could have for doing this, Goldberg cleared up the myth of selfless service with a touch of humor: “I do it because a day doesn’t go by when after I leave you I don’t learn something about myself. I’m with you every week, not because I like you, but because I’m a selfish son of a bitch.”
The tendency to view the sick, the dying, the elderly, as somehow “other”, as “exceptions”, obscures the fact that we are all subject to falling apart in one way or another. By being of service to others we can learn to dissolve this view and to accept our common bond. “Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time … As I think about what I’ve gained by serving the dying, and how it gave purpose to my life and changed me, I realize I’m not paying enough rent.”
In closing, Goldberg describes a startling realization he has while guiding his family through the death of his brother-in-law, Tom: “We stood around him and reminisced about his life. It was only then that I realized I was wrong in thinking the goal of my journey was to prepare Tom and my family for Tom’s death. That was an offshoot. The purpose of the journey had always been to prepare my family for my own death.”
For Goldberg, the service rendered during his hospice career allowed a gradual softening of the heart, which in turn brought him closer to accepting his own eventual death. This, Goldberg realized, was truly a priceless gift, one which he generously passes on, not only to his loved ones, but to anyone willing to put aside their discomfort with death long enough to read his book . Whether your primary concern is for your own family, or for yourself in facing the eventual loss of a loved one, this book will provide a useful and poignant guide for traversing this final terrain.