Claire Willis has spent the last two decades working with people diagnosed with life-threatening cancers and other illnesses. As people near the end of their lives, she said, most face a series of questions: “How do we want to be remembered? What difference did our lives make? Did we feel that we were known?”
Confronting these big questions in a way that brings “peace and coherence,” Willis said, is one of the goals of her book, “Lasting Words: A Guide to Finding Meaning at the Close of Life.” Trained as a social worker, Willis is also a lay Buddhist pastor, attentive to the spiritual and psychological aspects of dying, death, and bereavement. Words, she said, help.
“I’ve really seen the power of the written word, and the power of people being able to reflect back on their life and close it with a minimal amount of loose ends,” she said, adding “the book is not just for writing, it’s for reflecting. For some people the reflections won’t translate into writing and for some it will.” For many, though, writing is the best way to reach “the unencumbered truth” about a life lived and a legacy to leave behind.
Informed by her experience leading writing and support groups, the book’s chapters cover topics such as gratitude, wisdom, and forgiveness. And then there’s hope, because, Willis said, “even when you’re facing your death there’s always something you can hope for — that you’ll pass without suffering, that your children will know they were loved.”
The last chapter is on endings. People who are dying may want to help plan any memorial services, Willis added, “so they have a part in the formal closing of their life.”
This book speaks to patients and their families, to health-care workers and spiritual advisers, but also for anyone entering the last third of their life. Even without a terminal diagnosis, Willis said, “these are the same issues that people who are aging tend to think about.”
Willis will read from the book at Brookline Booksmith at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 25.