LIVE BY DESIGN | If you only had a few weeks to live, how would you spend your time?

Sixty-five days ago, on 11 June, colleagues from the TV programme Carte Blanche took a short video of Derek Watts reclining on a hospital bed.

Derek, investigative journalist and television presenter, speaking in a strong voice, tells us: “Another short hospital stay, but I am fine. I will be out of here soon.” He didn’t sound like a man who thought his death was around the corner.

He’d been ill for more than a year. In 2022, he was diagnosed with skin cancer, which later spread to his lungs. In March 2023, he was hospitalised for severe sepsis. The body goes into shock when fighting an infection, which can cause organ failure.

This week, he died, and the messages of tribute and condolences were many. I hope these offer comfort to his grieving family. I found myself thinking about the timeline, and it is only a few weeks since I watched that video clip.

I wondered how he chose to spend the time. We are all so very different – the choice of how to engage with imminent mortality varies hugely.

Eugene O’Kelly was 52 when he was diagnosed with cancer in May 2005. He was CEO of KPMG, the US accounting and consulting firm. By early June 2005, he had resigned. He tried a medical intervention, but it was soon clear there was no hope of remission. He’s described as a planner, and he proactively started to work out how he would spend the time remaining.

His book, Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life, published posthumously, describes his intent. My recall of the book is that he thought about all his many relationships and categorised them – nearest and dearest, close friends and relatives, colleagues, acquaintances. He mapped them out and decided who he wanted to spend time with, while writing a memoir at the same time! His mapping seemed to start from outside circles, working towards spending the last period with the nearest and dearest in the middle. In my recall, his decline happened sooner than he’d expected, and he ran out of time. He died on 10 September, three and a half months after diagnosis. As I read his memoir, I noted, start with those closest to you; you must be prepared for the unexpected.

My coaching client, Adna Elba, had a very different approach. She arrived in my office saying: “I have breast cancer, I am currently in remission, but I do not know what time I will have, maybe a few months, a year, maybe two. But whatever the time is, I want to think about how I will live that time, and what I need to do to make sure that my affairs are in order.”

As she explored her innermost thoughts, it emerged that travelling with her 20-year-old was a serious wish. But illness for the self-employed, and Adna was self-employed, is often economically devastating. Her creative solution: “I’ll ask my mother for an early inheritance.”

I remember she also thought very carefully about her bequest list and made a list of her possessions, including paintings, jewellery, linen, and crockery. She wanted friends to have mementoes. She wanted her domestic worker and gardener to have household goods. The conversations were never morbid. They were fun to have, and there was an increasing sense of peace as more was discussed.

My late husband was in the death denial category of persons. Over almost four years from diagnosis to death – the focus was always on trying to outlive death, or at least ignoring it. However, it was not completely possible to ignore because days three and four after chemotherapy were awful. But my husband would have chemo on a Thursday so that the worst two days would happen over the weekend, and then he could go back to work on Monday!

His one acknowledgement, when told that all treatment avenues had been tried and henceforth, there were only palliative treatments to pursue, was when he very generously said: “Well, at least I’m leaving you while you are young enough to build another life.”

My memories of his last month (his end precipitated by a fall that broke his shoulder) were of a man becoming physically weaker, moving restlessly, not speaking much, sleeping sporadically, and not making much distinction between day and night. I wondered about his restlessness. Was it a symptom of “unfinished business?”

One of the professionals who had been treating him commented: “Too much focus on living – not enough focus on dying.”

That comment stayed with me. Dying is a rite of passage that lies ahead for all of us. In her poem, When Death Comes, Mary Oliver writes: “I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering…”

When a new life is about to arrive into the world, it is more and more common for people to hire birth doulas, post-partum doulas, and lactose consultants. It behoves us to consider that our departure from this world should receive similar careful support.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a friend’s mother’s funeral. She described how peacefully and wholesomely her mother, Nomtuse, had prepared for her death. She wrote of how her mother had made everything so easy. Her mother had conversations. Everyone became aligned with what she wanted from family, from mothers’ union choir, and friends – and she even gave a letter to her priest.

Let’s loop back to the beginning: Derek Watts, Eugene O’Kelly, Adan Elba…

If you, the reader, were to contemplate having less than 100 days left on this earth – and that you could reasonably consider that for the last days you wouldn’t be in great shape or have an abundance of energy – then how would you choose to spend your time?

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