The Narratives of our Lives

In the last three days I attended a psycho-oncological conference that happened in Invercargill right in front of my doorstep. The topic was the art of collaboration as health professionals.

The most important talks in this conference were about the stories of our lives. Our lives as human beings, as patients and as health professionals too. What constitutes a good and fulfilled life? What makes the life of a doctor, a psychologist, a palliative care nurse a successful professional life? It is connectedness. Being connected to people. To family, friends, colleagues. And to patients and their needs if you are a health professional. 

What makes a doctor in Palliative Care be a better doctor? What makes him a doctor that makes a difference for patients and families? Among a few other things it is probably him recognizing the need and reality of people to be connected.

In health we often assume that everything concerning a patient’s disease circles around how we, the professionals organize care. That we give the tact. That we make the decisions. But this is so far away from reality as it could ever be. Peoples’ lives circle around their social network, their Whanau (the Maori word for wider family), their lives in the context of being social beings.

And of course this is just a reflection of how everybody’s life works. We are all connected. In our private life, with our hobbies (for example the Flickr community for photographers), with our families. When you become a patient with a severe illness this is not changing. You remain connected. Your social life continues. It will be different. Something falls off and you need to grieve for it. Something is being added that might give you strength. But after all you remain a social being with social connections.

And in this social context the story of our lives unfolds. Our life is a narrative. A story that we can tell. That we live and tell at the same time. About past and presence and maybe future. A story that links us to our ancestors. To our grandparents and the people that lived before us long ago. And our children and their children will continue this story even long after we have died.

Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand live this narrative very consciously, very intensely. They draw the essence of life from these life narratives. And they are attached to life through the narratives that link them with the past and future.

Life is a story. A story that we write. Each of us has his or her own, unique story. We are storytellers. We are story-livers. And we are embedded into the story of this life, this earth, this history. This is beautiful. And it gives consolation. We are not alone. Even if we feel so. We can relate to what was. And to what will be. However long or short that may be.

Palliative Care

I was wondering if I should write about Palliative Care in my blog. This is a private website. This is about art, taking pictures, about writing, poetry and finding expression. And now Palliative Care? Why should I write about that? 

It is true that I make a clear difference between my private life and my profession. I try to leave my work at my work place. But working in Palliative Care  has an impact, has an influence on my art. Not in the way that I find my artistic topics in that field. But working with dying human beings enhances your sensitivity. It tells you about the worth of life, how precious it is and how fragile. And this influences your artistic expression, if you want this or not. 

What does dying mean? What is happening when we die? We are in one moment. And in the next moment we are no more. What happened? Physically it seems to be clear. The heart stops. The breathing stops. The brain stops working. But can we really explain what is happening? Why is this "machine" arresting on that very moment? Not sooner, not later. What makes all this happen? What is cancer doing on our body, what old age? And no, we can't explain this.

And what happens to our mind when we die? To all the knowledge that we accumulated over the years. What happens to our memories, to our feelings and to our soul? (Soul - what is that?) Is it all over? Extinct? Gone?

Every person has his or her own opinion about this. We call it believes. We call it religion. Or we call it philosophy when we are a little more matter of fact. We believe. We disbelieve. We find answers in believing because we don't know.

It is a mystery. Huge, impermeable mystery. And even if you have seen many beings dying you still don't understand what is happening. 

I am realising that I am writing question after question. But no answer. The quintessence after 15 years in Palliative Care is that I don't know about the mystery of death.  And I am probably not the only one who doesn't know. 

Let's return to art and photography. Does the fact that I create very often dark images have to do with my work? Maybe a little. I have ever been interested in the dark side of life, in our shadows, our ghosts that haunt us. Palliative Care has not changed or enhanced that. But it has sharpened my sensitivity. And it has helped shaping my personality. So this is my way of expressing myself. 

This was a first attempt of writing about Palliative Care. About death. About the borderland between life and death. Maybe I will write more one day.