Dr. BJ Miller, a palliative care doctor and Executive Director of San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project, shares insights about end-of-life care in the recent TED Talk “What Really Matters at the End of Life.” Beyond his medical training, Dr. Miller’s unique perspective was shaped by a tragic near-death accident that took his feet and arm, but left him with an understanding of suffering and a deep desire to provide a new approach to the way our society cares for the dying. Here are a few things we learned:
Priorities change at the end of life.
“We know from research what’s most important to people closer to death: comfort. Feeling unburdened, and unburdening to those they love.
Over Zen Hospice’s nearly 30 years, we’ve learned from our residents in subtle detail [that] little things aren’t so little. Take [a resident named] Jeanette – she finds it harder to breath one day to the next due to ALS. Well guess what, she wants to start smoking again… not out of some self-destructive bent, but to feel her lungs filled while she has them. Priorities change.”
“Seriously, with all the heavy-duty stuff happening under our roof, one of the tried and true interventions we know of, is to bake cookies. As long as we have our senses – even just one – we have at least the possibility of accessing what makes us feel human, connected. Imagine the ripples of this notion for the millions of people living and dying with dementia.”
Death can give more meaning to moments in life.
“There’s always a shock of beauty and meaning to be found in what life we have left. If we generate and love such moments ferociously, maybe we can learn to live well not in spite of death, but because of it.”