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Wisdom at the end of life: Hospice patients’ reflections on the meaning of life and death

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The processes of aging and confronting mortality are often accompanied by unique psychological challenges. From the perspective of positive psychology, such challenges can yield opportunities for growth, including increased wisdom. This qualitative study explored 15 terminally ill hospice patients’ perspectives on wisdom, the dying process, and the meaning of life using consensual qualitative research methods. Most participants cited humility as a key component of wisdom, emphasizing that “Wisdom is when we realize ‘I don’t really know much’.” Other components of wisdom included self-knowledge, rationality, experiential learning, listening to and learning from others, and sharing knowledge with others. Participants also suggested that the process of facing illness and death presents opportunities for positive growth, including changing priorities and learning to appreciate life more fully in the present moment. In considering the sources of meaning in their lives, participants emphasized relational connections, personal growth, spirituality, vocational fulfilment, and living a full life. Participants also shared their reflections on important past experiences and regrets. Lastly, participants offered advice to others based on their experiences facing illness and mortality. Implications for psychological care of the dying and future research are discussed.
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Keywords: end-of-life; hospice; meaning; positive psychology; posttraumatic growth; terminal illness; wisdom

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Division of Counseling Psychology, University at Albany, State University of New York, Albany, NY, USA 2: The Center for Hospice and Palliative Care, Cheektowaga, NY, USA 3: Department of Psychological Science, Canisius College, Buffalo, NY, USA

Publication date: April 3, 2018

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