Coping with a terminal illness can be exceedingly difficult, but new research finds that it also offers a unique opportunity for growth and wisdom.
Most people would define wisdom as the accumulation of all the knowledge, lessons and experiences at any given point in one’s life.
Researchers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine were curious to see if the nature of wisdom changed for those people who knew they were nearing the end of their time, such as those diagnosed with a terminal illness or in hospice care.
“This is an extremely challenging time, a confluence of learning to accept what’s happening while still striving to grow and change and live one’s remaining life as best one can,” said Dilip V. Jeste, the senior author. “It’s this paradox that, if embraced, can lead to even greater wisdom while confronting one’s own mortality.”
The study was published in the journal International Psychogeriatrics.
For the study, 21 hospice patients ages 58 to 97 in the last six months of their lives were asked to describe the core characteristics of wisdom and how their illness had affected their definition of wisdom.
The participants were interviewed by mental health professionals and asked questions about how they define wisdom. The interviews were taped and later analyzed by the researchers.
The components of wisdom as defined by the patients were prosocial behaviors, social decision making, emotional regulation, openness to new experience, acknowledgment of uncertainty, spirituality, self-reflection, sense of humor and tolerance.
After speaking with the patients and evaluating the interviews, the researchers found that the nature of wisdom changed for the patients and that growth and acceptance had become a central part of their lives.
Acceptance and learning to cope with the challenges while still embracing opportunities for growth and change was often discussed in the interviews.
“It wasn’t passive ‘giving up,’ but rather an active coping process,” said Dr. Lori P. Montross-Thomas, the study’s first author. “They emphasized how much they appreciated life, taking time to reflect. There was a keen sense of fully enjoying the time they had left and in doing so, finding the beauty in everyday life.”