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Lessons from the Dying: Marie-Jo Cleghorn (Transcript)

Marie-Jo Cleghorn at TEDxQueensU

Here is the full text of Marie-Jo Cleghorn’s talk titled “Lessons from the Dying” at TEDxQueensU event. In this talk, she discusses three lessons that have given her a unique perspective on why your words matter and how sometimes there is no tomorrow.

Notable quote from this talk: 

Life is not a competition. Life is not trying to hide your flaws and your faults and pretending to be something that you’re not, so that you look better compared to somebody else.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Lessons from the Dying by Marie-Jo Cleghorn at TEDxQueensU


Hi, my name is Marie-Jo. And I guess this is a bit of a confessional for me.

I’m a wife, I’m a mom, I’m a nurse, and oh yeah, I’m turning 50 this year.

If you were to ask me to describe my professional self, I would tell you I’m a palliative care nurse. This despite the fact that I’ve been away from the bedside for nearly two years.

I’ve worked both in the community and in the hospital setting. Palliative care is where my heart lies. It’s where I feel most at home as a nurse, and it’s probably where I’ve done my best work.

If you don’t know what palliative care means, it means I chose to specialize with working with the dying. The patients I’ve worked with… well, they’ve taught me more than any textbook could ever impart. These patients… they raised me as a nurse.

Three years after I graduated, someone I thought I knew, someone I’d gone to high school with, someone I found myself working alongside had died. Carolyn died suddenly and she died tragically. She wasn’t a palliative care patient.

Carolyn died at the hands of a drunk driver. Her death was a seminal moment in my life. So I decided to call this presentation: Lessons from the dying.

So why did Carolyn’s death have such an impact on me? Why do I still think about her after all these years? I guess, I took a snapshot of her. I compared her to myself and I judged her to be lacking.

Carolyn was quiet; I’m loud. Carolyn was shy; I am NOT. Carolyn appeared to settle. I have always pushed myself; someone called me driven, and probably still I am.

I wondered how Carolyn could be satisfied with her life. I was arrogant. I was later to find out that she was humble.

When Carolyn died, she was newly engaged. She and her fiancé were celebrating and they were riding on his motorcycle when they were struck. He died at the scene. She died on the ferry on the way back to Kingston.

All of us who worked with her, we were devastated. I think we all went to her funeral.

Carolyn was 24 years old. I thought I knew her. I didn’t.

I learned during the church service that she volunteered with the homeless and the disenfranchised. She’s been on mission trips; she was a prolific poet. She advocated for the broken and people who had less in this world than herself.

Carolyn had added to her community: she’d made a difference to friends and strangers. If I were honest, I don’t know what if anything I’d added to my community other than my excellent sense of humor.


Carolyn and the death of many of my patients taught me the value of self-reflection. You have to be honest with yourself, before you can be honest with others. I took a look into my cerebral mirror and I didn’t like who was looking back.

Now before you think I’m telling you I was a terrible person, I don’t think I was a terrible person. Yes, I was selfish and I was self-absorbed. But I think a lot of 24-year-olds… a lot of people in their 20s are selfish and self-absorbed.

My self-reflection started with me looking at my strengths and my weaknesses. I had to accept where I was, but it shone the light for where I wanted to go. I learned I can and should learn from others. Rather than try and beat or be better than everybody else, I needed to take stock of my life and then determine what I wanted to make of it.

I’ve learned to surround myself with people who have the skills that I lack and hopefully I’ll learn from them.

Life is not a competition. Life is not trying to hide your flaws and your faults and pretending to be something that you’re not, so that you look better compared to somebody else.

Life is about striving to be better, not materialistically, but in ways that add to and don’t take away from our time here. It is because of Carolyn that I do a self-check from time to time. Self-reflection is an ongoing process.

I’m not yet the person I strive to be; I probably never will be. But I hope I’m a better person than when Carolyn knew me.

So I have a question for you: If you die tomorrow, did you make a difference?

Gary was one of my first patients. His wife and him welcomed me into their home. They enjoyed my energy, my youth, my quick wit. I had the privilege of witnessing his spiritual, emotional, and physical struggles. They hid nothing from me; they were bare before me.

Gary would tell me about his wife’s accomplishments; he was proud of her. His wife would tell me about his skill as a lecturer and his secret passion for art. Their walls were covered with his drawings and paintings. Their rooms were bright and vibrant, long before those impact and feature walls.

They would sometimes get frustrated with each other… but who doesn’t? They always found a way to show or tell that they forgave. Their house was filled with love. I don’t remember when there wasn’t a gentle touch, a word, a glance that showed what they meant to each other.

On the day that Gary died, his wife phoned me. I was off. She asked me to come. So I went. It was grade A. Gary had not been responsive for many days. We were truly into comfort care.

I was bathing him when he stopped breathing. I expected him to come back. He said we all needed to say goodbye. He took in a breath.

His wife, his sons, priest, me… we were all in the room. He opened his eyes, he looked at each one of us and then he turned. And he looked at a cross he had designed. The Sun broke through the clouds… he smiled and then he was gone.

I was forever changed. In that moment, I knew I’d chosen the right career, I was doing the right thing and that I could make a difference.

Gary’s death was the seminal moment of my nursing life. Gary’s gift to me was his legacy of love. He taught me that love is real and it is tangible.

He also taught me about the power of forgiveness. When we forgive, it releases us.


Saying I love you is important. Showing I love you and I care is just as important. It sounds corny but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t try and show and tell my family what they mean to me.

And I haven’t kept it to just my family either… strangers, friends, I try and say words like thank you. I try and acknowledge people, show that they mean something to me that they have value, I appreciate them. We are so dismissive, curt. It takes very little energy to be kind, but for the recipient it means everything.

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