How A Terminal Illness Can Change Your Perception Of Time

Last week, Paul Kalanithi – a writer and new dad, who recently completed his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford – died from metastatic lung cancer. In this video, released last month, Kalanithi addresses the "strange relativity" that accompanied his diagnosis.


The video is full of insights about how Kalanithi's diagnosis altered his relationship with time. These insights are of course all the more affecting in light of his various roles as a doctor, patient, father, and husband. But one observation in particular, about the importance in acknowledging the reality of death, stood out to me:

The way hope functions for me now as a patient is a careful balance. If you don't think about the bad case, that ending is going to be very rough on you and your family; but if you don't think about the good case, you're going to miss the opportunity to really make the most out of your life and time.


A lot of contemporary discussions about end-of-life decisions tend to hinge on this very balance – the weighing of the immediate state of one's condition against a foggy and, often, medically impenetrable horizon. These discussions have emerged out of the concern that modern society's lack of familiarity with the dying process interferes with our ability to achieve a stable equilibrium between these two perspectives, and die the way we'd like.

As sixth-generation mortician Caleb Wilde, who maintains the blog Confessions of a Funeral Director, has said: There is "perhaps no greater freedom... than to live life with a healthy relationship to death."

If you're looking for additional reading, Atul Gawande's new book, Being Mortal, deals at great length with the importance of confronting the realities of death, and is one of the better treatments of the subject I've read in recent memory.

Via Susannah Breslin, who is guest editing this week at

Contact the author at


Share This Story

Get our newsletter



"What wouldst thou be found doing when overtaken by Death? If I might choose, I would be found doing some deed of true humanity, of wide import, beneficent and noble. But if I may not be found engaged in aught so lofty, let me hope at least for this—what none may hinder, what is surely in my power—that I may be found raising up in myself that which had fallen; learning to deal more wisely with the things of sense; working out my own tranquillity, and thus rendering that which is its due to every relation of life. . . .

"If death surprise me thus employed, it is enough if I can stretch forth my hands to God and say, "The faculties which I received at Thy hands for apprehending this thine Administration, I have not neglected. As far as in me lay, I have done Thee no dishonour. Behold how I have used the senses, the primary conceptions which Thous gavest me. Have I ever laid anything to Thy charge? Have I ever murmured at aught that came to pass, or wished it otherwise? Have I in anything transgressed the relations of life? For that Thou didst beget me, I thank Thee for that Thou hast given: for the time during which I have used the things that were Thine, it suffices me. Take them back and place them wherever Thou wilt! They were all Thine, and Thou gavest them me."—If a man depart thus minded, is it not enough? What life is fairer and more noble, what end happier than his?"

— Epictetus, The Golden Sayings of Epictetus, CLXXXIX