Several years ago, Patti Pansa, a professional engineer and life coach, contacted me to assist her in her journey towards death.
When we met she had taken care of all the literal preparations for death: she had spoken to her family members about her wishes for end-of-life care; her last will and testament, advanced health care directives, and medical durable power of attorney were all signed and delivered to the appropriate people; a list of her important accounts with passwords sat in a folder next to her computer.
But Patti wanted more. She wanted to leave a legacy for her family and friends. Perhaps most of all, she wanted to discover ways to celebrate life while she still had time.
I shared with Patti several articles on the regrets of the dying, chronicling how many regretted working too much, spending too little time with family, or living a life that was not their own. These articles made quite an impression on Patti; all she could hear was “I wish… I wish.” But with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, Patti didn’t want to wish. She wanted to know how to live life with no regrets.
Out of Patti’s vision and sense of urgency, the No Regrets Project was born.
Between radiation treatments, spinal surgery and a bucket list trip to Alaska, Patti wrote essays, talked with anyone who would listen, dreamed and created. In the end, she developed five simple, personal practices to help herself live life more fully: be grateful every day, trust – take the risk, courage to be me, choose joy, and love myself & share it. While the phrases may be simple, accomplishing them is not. The development of the No Regrets Project is Patti Pansa’s legacy to all of us.
Be Grateful Everyday
“I have a choice to focus on gratitude. Some days the pain is almost unbearable. If I focus on the pain, it will intensify like a tsunami. When I concentrate on what I am grateful for, I am more peaceful.”
– Patti, May
Each day, Patti wrote in her gratitude journal. The simplest things caught her attention. “I am grateful for a little bird sitting on a branch outside of my bedroom window,” “I love to feel the warmth in the sunlight crossing my bed,” and more. This practice of gratitude helped her to focus on the things that she appreciated most, rather than on her declining health and the difficult medical procedures that she endured.
Patti wanted to live. She didn’t want to leave her family and friends. She would always thank her friends for the favors they performed. But, perhaps more importantly, she also told each one of them the unique gift they brought to her. I do not know what she said to others, but she often thanked me for not being afraid of her illness.
Trust - Take the Risk
“When I trust and move forward into a new adventure, I am amazed at the support that the universe provides for me. The No Regrets Project is a good example of this. The idea came to me as an inspiration during a morning meditation. I shared the idea with friends and they wanted to help.”
– Patti, June
A week after writing this, Patti visited friends in Santa Fe, NM. In casual conversation, one friend mentioned a jewelry designer who produced marvelous pieces. An hour later Patti was in the studio of Douglas Magnus, a designer of embossed, metal bracelets. She wanted to interest him in designing bracelets with the No Regrets phrases on them. Instead, he encouraged her to design the bracelets herself.
In the last months of Patti’s life, she designed the bracelet, hired a mold maker, and found a manufacturer. Patti trusted that the help she needed would appear. And it did.
Patti learned that trust requires an element of surrender. Not the surrender of defeat, but rather a sweet surrender. With diminishing energy, she simply followed the flow of suggestions and referrals to find the resources that were needed in a short period of time. Patti trusted and took the risk and a legacy was created.
Courage to Be Me
“I am dying. This makes some people uncomfortable and sad. It makes me sad sometimes too. When I show up as the person I truly am, it creates a space for others to step into the fullness of their being. Our conversations are more authentic. The masks fall away.”
– Patti, July
Patti was courageous in her life and in her death. Often, she saw people choose to be invisible or masterfully reflect what others wished to see. For Patti, who stood six feet tall, being invisible was never an option.
In June, Patti underwent radiation treatment to alleviate some of the symptoms of bone pain, treat a fractured vertebra and shrink a tumor in her neck. To precisely target the areas for the radiation, a radiation mask was built for Patti’s torso. The process of creating the mask was excruciating and frightening. At the end of the radiation treatments, although her sister wanted to run it over with a car, Patti wanted to take her mask home. She then stepped into ceremony with her friends to create transformation.
With some imagination…some glue…and a sense of fashion…the radiation mask was transformed into a symbol of strength and beauty; a beautiful bust of Patti was created. Patti’s friends then took the mask on adventures that Patti herself could no longer manage. It was photographed at sunrise in the high mountains. It was spotted in a sporty, red convertible. It was seen sipping a strawberry margarita. The mask even posed for an advertisement in a national magazine.
Patti’s radiation mask now resides at the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Denver, where workshops are held to assist children with cancer to decorate their own radiation masks.
“Happiness is a choice that I can make no matter how grim circumstances might seem. The joy of being alive is always attainable at some level.”
– Patti, August
Over the summer, Patti talked about grief and how it connects us to those we have lost. She knew that the greater the joy, the greater the grief. She often talked about grief and joy as if they were threads from the same fabric, the warp of joy inexorably interwoven with the weft of the grief. Patti’s fabric was a coat of many colors, rich in texture, and deeply alive.
As Patti’s disease progressed to its final stage, she asked her friends to throw a goodbye party for her. She looked for opportunities to express joy and share it with others. At this party each friend brought a flower that represented an aspect of Patti that they loved or admired. There were tears and there was laughter. In the end the vase of flowers overflowed with the vibrant colors of Patti.
Love Myself & Share It
“For me it's about choosing how you want to live your life, really choosing...loving myself enough to free myself to be fully me...in all of my expanded potential.”
– Patti, September
Patti spent the last months of her life celebrating, sharing, creating, loving, and living. She knew her energy was limited. As a caretaker of family and friends, she could easily give herself away. Instead, she developed a practice of nourishing herself first before caring for others. But Patti discovered that loving herself first was not easy; her friends wanted so much more from her than she could give. As she continued her meditation practice and writing in her gratitude journal, she also added a new practice: releasing regrets.
Patti defined regret as an action taken, or not taken, and now regretted. Or it might also be an action someone else took, or one they failed to take, that she regretted. Each day Patti released a regret, only to discover that there was a lesson embedded in each one. She recognized that each regretted action or inaction actually held a gift, an insight, a strength. She came to understand that these pearls were ways she had loved herself throughout her life. Spending time reflecting on her strengths, compassion and wisdom gave her the space to nurture herself.
On October 23, 2013, under hospice care, Patti died at home with her family.
She died with no regrets.
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