Joan Trinh Pham is an artist, modern palmist, and palliative care nurse. With over 10 years of experience working with the dying, Joan shares what she has learned about choosing our path, working with others, and living our best lives. 

When I work with people who are dying, I witness this interplay of body and spirit very dynamically. In the last months, weeks or days of life, our physical abilities are always on a deteriorating trajectory. In contrast, our capacity to experience the world and impact others powerfully continues onward, even if we are bed-bound. Here are the five most powerful things about living that I learned from being with people who are dying:

Your Attention Is A Powerful Flashlight
I have witnessed tired people with persistent, gnawing pain light up when surprised with an unexpected visit from a loved one. I have listened to stories that immerse the raconteur into a completely different way of feeling. Both phenomena may only last a moment but it has shown me repeatedly that what we think of and pay attention to on a moment-to-moment basis can immediately affect our state of being. A distraction can be a powerful adjunctive analgesic by shifting where we shine our awareness.

Gratitude is Energizing
This amplifies the skill of learning to control our flashlights. What we devote our attention to gives us feedback that impacts our experience. This is not a matter of ignoring frustrating things in our line of sight; this is the decision to see everything—the good, the bad, the ugly—then deliberately choose to focus on what we sincerely appreciate. I have noticed that people with a strong gratitude muscle also possess contagious smiles and energizing resilience. They are able to mourn losses while celebrating new possibilities, simultaneously. Being able to appreciate any aspect of a terrible situation brings the gift of changing how we live through it.

Trust Your Tiny Subtle Crazy Voice of Wisdom
One of my favourite aspects of my work is hearing all the colourful, different life stories. The apex of excitement in many stories is the choice point between the common or divergent path. The off-path travellers shared that they moved forward based on their own internal wisdom which often seemed “crazy” in contrast to conventional cultural norms. I witnessed repeatedly that rewards for courageous navigation based on subtle, insistent gut feelings included internal peace and few regrets.

You Are The Boss of You
Nobody knows you better than you know yourself. There is tremendous power and responsibility owning the fact that you are your own boss. I have witnessed many people divert from disease trajectories and medical prognosis based on their own internal authority. The most memorable of these is the woman who made a pilgrimage to the Himalayan mountains while nursing a fungating breast tumor that covered a quarter of her chest. She and many others have taught me that this kind of power in creating one’s life in the face of contrary narratives is a function of mastering one’s attention and trusting yourself.

Sharing Is Magic
There are many emotions that are present as people approach the natural end of their lives. During this stage silence and isolation often leads to brittle tension, misunderstandings and fractured relationships. In contrast, when people and families share the big feelings they can also experience the dissipation of heavy pressure between them. In this way, sharing is magic. There is an alchemy in sharing stories, joys, fears, sadnesses and vulnerabilities wherein both people have an opportunity to paradoxically grow stronger and closer.

Sharing many moments with people who are living through the intimacies of dying has gifted me these five highlights of learning. May they ripple far and wide.


Photo by Rachel Pick.

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