Cathy Gatto Brennan

Apr 19, 2022

Dying and The Art of Living

She said “it was a life well lived” the smile on her face was genuine, filled with joy, despite the pain that I knew was running through what was left of her body. 

This simple statement from a 37-year-old woman with 2 young children, a husband who adored her, a career she loved, and a terminal illness she was dying of, changed me….forever.


I was a busy mom of 4 working, shuttling kids to various activities, feeling overwhelmed and like life was careening out of control.

She entered my life one Fall having spent the previous 14 months on the cancer carousel of chemo, radiation, testing, doctors, and healers.

She was tired, not defeated mind you, but tired of having her body poked and prodded, of the invasion into her life, of the sad looks and awkward silences, of her life not being her own.

She knew what no one wanted to admit.

Her days were numbered the disease would not be cured.  I was there to help her move through the process of dying. We talked about everything from pumpkin carving to child-rearing to spirituality and death. Her heart was wide-open, curious, and kind.

One morning after a Reiki session I asked her what the most important thing in her life was, she didn’t hesitate “All of it, everything in my life is so intimately connected that to choose one would be like asking me to choose which molecule of air was most important.” 

I was fascinated by her and she by me though I couldn’t understand why.

She told me the story of how a friend invited her to a guest lecture her freshman year of college and 2 weeks later she had changed her major from business to anthropology – her passion.  

She giggled, joy filled and sweet, as she told me how one evening while waiting for the bus a stranger shared his umbrella with her and that stranger became her beloved husband.

She shook her head in wonder when she shared her heartbreaking experience of being told she couldn’t have children. A few days later she met a colleague for casual coffee who made connections for her to adopt a brother and a sister.  

You know she said  “That’s the way life is it unfolds in the most beautifully unusual ways if you let it.

I understood in my bones - it wasn't about the doing, the stuff, or the idea of success.

I asked her if she was ever afraid and she laughed “All the freakin time!” But my mom always told me life is something you experience and you can’t do that if you’re hiding under your bed.

So even if I’m afraid or pissed off or unclear or feel betrayed I try to open my heart, experience life, and not hide under my bed, because of that I’ve succeeded, I’ve failed - boy have I failed, I’ve loved, I’ve been hurt, I’ve been my best and my worst and it’s landed me here…..my life well lived.

She looked at me for a long time and said “You do that too….you just don’t know it yet,”

She died a few weeks after I met her, the same way she lived, heart wide-open, surrounded by love with her husband and children by her side.

Life changes in a blink, is this the life you truly want?

I was in my late thirties at the time and had nursed many patients, but none touched me the quite the way she did. I will be forever grateful to her.

Her words, her way of being, have inspired me to fully embrace who I am, to make changes big and small, to take chances, and to be more open to new experiences in life.  

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her credo and ask myself ‘Am I living a life well lived?’

Cathy Gatto Brennan

Mind-Body researcher & RN exploring how thoughts, beliefs, and the human biofield influence our lives. I love walking the beach, good coffee, & traveling.