How to Cope With a Terminal Diagnosis

And why you shouldn’t wait to get started on your bucket list.

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We recently learned our 82-year-old neighbor was diagnosed with advanced cancer and was expected to live only a matter of months. A familiar site walking the neighborhood streets, he is the picture of health, and always ready with a smile and a friendly wave. Who would have thought that the seemingly innocent stomach distress he was experiencing over the past months was something so serious?

Each of us goes through life doing the best we can for our self and our family, often going without in the short term to prepare for longer-term goals. When it comes to those we love most, it is well worth the sacrifice. When we lose someone close to us there is naturally a feeling of emptiness. That is to be expected.

One other commonly experienced feeling is that of regret: Regret for not having done all we could when we had the opportunity to do so, sadness for missed chances to be together, and sorrow for not making an extra effort when we had the chance. And the frustrating thing about it is that we no longer have the power to make up for lost time.

It is not easy to put yourself in the shoes of someone given the prognosis of a finite time to live. Unless you are personally given that diagnosis, you cannot truly understand it. Some people think they would use their remaining days to make up for lost time, do everything they possibly could, and knock out a bucket list. Here are a few ideas for what you might want to do, and probably should be doing anyway:

  • Hug your spouse a bit more frequently and warmly
  • Tell your children that you love them more than anything
  • Bounce your grandchild on your knee a bit longer, even though you are tiring
  • Let an old shedding cat up on your lap for a few pats, knowing your clothes will get covered with fur
  • Be a bit more patient with all of the little things in life that typically annoy you, but you now realize are really insignificant
  • Patiently take the time to watch and enjoy a sunset all the way to its finish until it no longer lights the sky
  • Be more willingly to make a weekly call to check in with aging parents just so they can hear your voice and you can hear theirs
  • Live more in the moment rather than worrying about what happened in the past or what may happen down the road
  • Life is precious and we never know how long we have. No one wants to come to the end of the road filled with regret. There is so much we can do now while we are alive and kicking. Whether we have one year or ten or thirty, the time to live is now. The hour is upon us to do the things we should do for those we love.

    It is easy to look back on the things we should have or could have done to make life better. But it is difficult to look at today and tomorrow and discover what we can still do and just do it. Why not try to live today as fully as possible with as much passion and joy as we can, doing those little things that make life worthwhile for everyone concerned. We don’t want to wait until it is too late, and the clock is ticking.

    Dave Bernard is the author of Are You Just Existing and Calling it a Life?, which offers guidelines to discover your personal passion and live a life of purpose. Not yet retired, Dave has begun his due diligence to plan for a fulfilling retirement. With a focus on the non-financial aspects of retiring, he shares his discoveries and insights on his blog Retirement–Only the Beginning.