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Living with Illness, Grief

The name Randy Pausch is familiar to millions of people.  Randy, who gave his "Last Lecture" at a Pittsburgh college before his death 18 months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, was a hero to many. The videotape of his lecture went viral on the internet, as others tried to learn how to live their dreams.
Dr. Michele Reiss, a psychotherapist, educator and author, was a therapist to Randy and his wife Jai, and Randy was the one who encouraged her to write her book, Lessons in Loss and Living.
The book is out now and contains the stories of many of Michele's patients over the past 30 years who, rather than remain anonymous, encouraged her to tell the world their stories of serious illness and grieving. She has done that in her book, and is also giving talks about what she has learned over the years from all of her patients.
I was pleased to be able to hear Michele talk at Hampton Community Librarylast month, and it was one of those times I am so glad I didn't talk myself out of going out into another stormy night in Western Pennsylvania.
Sitting in front of a group of about 25 people, Michele spoke softly but emphatically, offering insights gleaned from listening to her clients tell her what they were feeling and how they were searching for ways to reduce their suffering.

"They are my heroes," she says, of her clients. It's what they taught her that she wanted to share in the book, which she had no intention of writing until Randy convinced her to do it.
"This book is a tribute to these special people," she says. What surprised her about meeting with so many heart-broken people was what they had to tell her: They told her they now see the world in Technicolor, and not black and white.  They told her they had taken life for granted before their loss,  and now knew that everything in life -- everything --  is precious. They told her they see things more clearly now, and ask themselves all the time: "Why did it take dying to teach me how to live?"
Michele talked about how most of us may not "live in the moment," because we are too busy running around trying to complete To Do lists that will never be done. "In our over-stimulated world, we don't stop to think, see or smell as often as we should; we are enduring life, not celebrating it."
We should, instead, appreciate what "is", and stop and be more conscious of what matters;  of what is important to us. She suggests to the medical students she teaches that they decide what is most important in their lives, and then make these desires part of their lives right now, every day. Whether it's calling a sick friend each day to talk, or finding a way to spend more time with your children or spouse,  we need to get it done.
As people enter their 50s and 60s, it dawns on them, she says, that they don't have forever to live anymore. So we should ask ourselves: What do we want life to be about for us? What's important? Are we living with purpose?  And as we age, each chapter is a new opportunity to seek out what is important to us; to turn crossroads in our lives into opportunities.
For more information on Michele, her practice and her book, please visit her website.

By Teresa K. Fl;atley


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