Monday, December 16, 2013

We Become More Of Who We Are As We Are Dying

"We become more of who we are as we are dying," I heard Teri Turner, Director of Home Hospice Services at Arbor Hospice say in a presentation at a state symposium for hospice volunteers and staff.

I wasn't sure what that meant, and I wondered if that observation precludes the growth and learning that I thought I observed in patients I spent time with as a volunteer. Or, were they simply becoming more of who they already were?

 So, at my first opportunity, I put that question to Teri.

"This is not an original thought on my part," she told me. "It's more of an observation as I have spent time with people who are dying. I see those who are dying become more of their essential core. The things that are really important become even more important, and the trivial things fall away."

I asked Teri for an example.

"Dying patients who previously had been very busy in their day-to-day lives may let those activities fall away."

As a result, she said, "It is sometimes hard for family members who want to tell patients about events of their days and what family members are up to are met with disinterest. The patients are now focusing on other things."

"The focus at the end of life is on the quality of life, not the quantity of experiences or material things that now seem trivial."

What does it mean "to become more of who we are?" I wondered.

"My basic theory is that people die pretty much like they lived," Teri said. "If you have been a difficult person all your life, you are probably not going to turn into an angelic presence. If you've been a pretty nice person much of your life, you will probably be that way as you are dying."

"Sometimes, though, people who have been very intense or demanding are able to let much of that go and become calmer, almost totally different people."

That lead me to ask Teri if she believed that learning and change were possible in the last months and weeks of life.

"I think there's always room for growth at the end of life," Teri said.

"In some ways, it is a gift to know that we are dying. It makes it possible to pay attention to things that we may have neglected, to mend fences, to see things in ways we couldn't before."

This blog entry was written by Dennis Sparks, Arbor Hospice Volunteer. You may contact Dennis by commenting below or emailing him at


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. Takes me back to graduate school and learning about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Self-actualization is at the top. I think it's a lovely notion that at the end of life, we become just who or what we are supposed to be. So maybe our essential character remains the same (as in the case of the very nice person) or we use the opportunities presented to us at end of life to do something different, to do something better and mend a relationship, for example. Very thought-provoking!

  2. When faced with challenging and stressful situations at any time in life it seems like we basically have three choices… To be our best self, to be less than that, or to learn new things that enable us to step up to the challenge in a different way. Most of us probably alternate between all three responses. Your comment, Becca, helped me to think more deeply about the experience of death and dying for both the patient and his or her family, which is deeply appreciated.