A 24-Hour Life and Death Discernment

stopwatches with reflection - photo by Alla Eddine Taleb from Pexels

“We have two options. We can do our best to keep the disease at bay and just treat side effects, leaving you days or weeks to live, or we have a sliver of time now to start a very challenging regimen of chemo and radiation with a small chance a bone marrow transplant will buy you more time, maybe less. We need to know by tomorrow. There will be no option to turn back either way.”

This was the prognosis from my doctor after eight months of trying to treat my cancer to no avail. My husband and I sat, hand in hand, trying to process the reality of the month that lay before us. It seemed an impossible discernment. We had 24 hours to choose a path of peaceful, certain death or painful extended life, for how long no one knew. Only with the tools of Ignatian discernment that we had practiced for years could we begin to process that moment.

Call my spiritual director.

For the last seven years my spiritual director, a Sister of Mercy with wisdom untold, has helped unknot my temptations and ego-fallacies from my deepest yearnings and callings. Even via phone she could read me without judgement and gently guide me to a healthy place of connection with God. I broke into tears at the sound of her voice, knowing I was finally in a safe space to let it all out. In response, she offered true compassion but remained firm in her role as my guide. She asked me my gut reaction. There was no clarity there. I want to live; I want to die with dignity. We walked through the pros and cons of each path forward. She reassured me there was no right or wrong choice here. I was completely free to follow my heart. Different people in different circumstances would make a different choice. This was my discernment to make. She affirmed how hard this was. She heard my concerns for my family and reminded me to trust that God will be with them too, so I need not try to control what is best for everyone else. She didn’t give even a hint of what she thought I should do. She affirmed that God and I together will walk either path. I will never be alone. That gave me the peace of heart to think and feel more clearly.

Embrace “Thy will be done.”

In my prayer, I searched desperately for the will of God in that moment. I have come to know the will of God not as some expectation of a Being out there in the heavens orchestrating a particular future that I am supposed to figure out, but as the constant calling from the Power of Infinite Love that resides deep within me, to know what will fulfill my soul and give me peace. This was my Suscipe prayer for only love and grace. It might not come in the moment of prayer itself, but I trust it will come, somehow, in the remaining time I have.

Be aware of internal movements.

Even in an immediate discernment, daily living had to go on: dinner had to be made, messes had to be cleaned up, medications had to be ordered. In some ways those distractions helped me to just be aware of what was going on inside while my hands busied with other tasks. Was it fear of pain or death? Was it anger or desperation? Was it relief or agitation? What was certain and strong in this shaken-up existence? As I sorted the silverware, I observed the tumult inside.

Get information, not opinions.

My doctor had given me as much info as he could about what to expect, the odds, and other similar cases. He too was clear that no one would fault me for choosing either path. We only shared the news with our grown children. Perhaps it was having grown up in an Ignatian household, hearing the language of discernment offered to them as parental guidance for so many years, but each of our children was clear this was my decision and, rather than try to sway me to the path they wanted for me or themselves, they just offered their unconditional love and promised they would be OK either way.

Was it anger or desperation? Was it relief or agitation? What was certain and strong in this shaken-up existence?

Walk down each path a little way.

Throughout the evening we leaned hard in one direction. It seemed to fit, though not completely. During the night I had trouble sleeping and continually felt the desire to choose the other path. When I told my husband in the morning, we each went into our day as if the choice were made. By lunch, I admitted it left with me with emptiness and angst when I visualized what that coming month would look like if we chose that path. Yes, it felt like whiplash going from one path to the other, but we had given each true consideration. We were both emotionally exhausted, still not knowing how to proceed. But we knew enough not to make a decision in desolation.

Look for peace in safe spaces of relationship.

My husband ensured we didn’t retreat into our individual angst. Together we rooted ourselves on what we knew was true and foundational to our lives together. Somehow, a glimmer of light came for how to proceed. It started very softly from my gut but seemed to blossom with his reassurance that I would not be alone. I made the phone call to the doctor with an hour to spare.

Observe the aftermath.

In the days following, the affirmation of the discernment continues and allows me to live peacefully and in consolation in this moment. The train has left the station, and I am on board for the ride.

I write this reflection not for sympathy or even prayers of support, but as testament to the tools of this practice of discernment. The path I ultimately chose isn’t the point. Rather, I want to help others recognize the daily living of Ignatian spirituality brings us to a place of trust in God that enables us to hear the deepest callings of our lives, especially to hear the call to come home.

Photo by Alla Eddine Taleb from Pexels.

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Lisa Kelly is a wife, mother, and Ignatian Associate living in Omaha, Nebraska. She works to help organizations integrate spirituality into their planning and systems. She and her husband, Tom, completed the 19th Annotation in 2005, just prior to spending two years living in the Dominican Republic with their three young children, supporting the work of the Jesuit Institute for Latin American Concern. Additionally they have lived in El Salvador and Bolivia for extended periods.


  1. Through your experience, you have touched my life with your courage and ability to discern God’s warmth and love in the midst of challenges. Your story transcends your particular challenge as it serves as a model for all of daily living.
    May you and your loved be exceedingly blessed!

  2. It’s nice to see the process explained. Is this the right choice? Or that? I was told years ago that you couldn’t expect any feeling that said right choice. Increasingly I think the page is intentionally left blank for us to fill in . Like God says,”tell me a story”

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this. We are so blessed to have an Ignatian community where we may learn from the experiences of our dear members. With grateful love.

    • As a very young person I used to know a Daphne Stockman in Calcutta. She was a very determined and committed young person, not much older than I was, who played the organ at our Jesuit parish of St Ignatius. My deeply pious mother, Emily, loved and admired her immensely. Life has moved on over many decades, my mum is in Heaven and I now live in Australia. However, what unites us is the highly dedicated group of Jesuit missionaries, who gave us the spiritual tools through which to discern God’s place in our complex global lives. I thank God for such people and the gift they brought to us and spread through our complex world. Lisa Kelly’s testament adds touching tribute to this extraordinary gift that Inigo gave us.

  4. Dear Lisa,

    I am moved by your faith and witness.
    I pray for you and yours and that you always feel God’s presence.

    Thank you so much.

    Katy xx

  5. Thank you so much for sharing that testimony. Your whole process has been very supportive for my mother and me to return to talk about my father’s case and remove, heal some wounds that we still need to recognize and release.

    I am a friend (sister) of Walkiria and I have experienced your process very closely. My family went through the same case as you and my father only lasted 4 months after diagnosis. I connected a lot with your family because I am very convinced that we are all united. A few weeks ago I was talking with Walkiria that I had a repetitive dream all night where you wanted to send a message to your husband.

  6. Sweet Lisa, you are in my heart, sealed with the love of Christ who walks beside you. Bless you for your courage to share this part of your life with us. I feel encouraged by your example to dedicate more practice to the process of Discernment with the details of every day life. God Bless Lisa.

  7. I am incredibly touched by this sharing Lisa
    Your relationship with God and your trust in Him is inspiring
    Even in your journey with illness your sharing is giving incredible witness to Him
    May God continue to bless and keep you
    May the light of His face shine on you
    May He fill you and your family with His peace

  8. Thank you for this essay. Thank you for sharing your experience. I’ve been a student of Ignatian Spirituality for almost 15 years. You have just taught me so much about discernment & letting God lead us in difficult times. You are in my prayers.

  9. I have read this three times and each time I am struck by your tremendous faith and courage. You have inspired me to dig deeper into Ignaitian Spirituality. I will keep you and your family in my daily prayers as you go through this ultra difficult time.

  10. I am so touched in my spirit by this reflection. This is the first I have read of your illness and the beautiful way that you invited Ignatian discernment into your journey in such a beautiful way. I think I just learned more from you than in 2 years of training to become a spiritual director. May you always have God at your side and within as you continue on this journey of faith and love.

  11. Thank you for sharing. What an inspirational piece. My prayers are with you and your family regardless of the path you take, I know God will be with you and them through it all and beyond.

  12. Lifting you and your family up in my prayers, Lisa. Thank you for sharing your story, and the the reminder that God walks with us in whatever path we choose in discernment.

  13. You have touched me so deeply with your honesty. This is such a profound & powerful affirmation of God’s promise to liberally provide His wisdom in our times of need. My own faith is boosted by what you shared. I shall be praying for you & yours…asking God to infuse you with His peace & comforting love.

  14. Dear Lisa, you have been in our daily evening prayers since the first time we read about your news. You have impacted us in ways you cannot realize through your reflections. We shall continue to pray for you and your family. Thank you for the strength you have passed on to us. Your trust in our God is palpable and we desire that trust too. Please accept our gratitude and love for you on this journey. God bless.

  15. Thank you for inviting us to share your journey. Our Lord is close by to you, and so are the thoughts and prayers of your readers. Take consolation from this certainty and from the love and encouragement we send you always. Your devotion and courage inspire us!

  16. Ever since you wrote “Fitting In or Standing Out,” I have looked for your next blog every morning when I start my day. I often find myself thinking and praying for you and all those suffer with cancer. I am incredible touched by your journey and inspired by how you have walked this journey through with Ignatian spirituality. Thank you for sharing this intimate space with us. Sending you so much love, peace, healing and rest.

    • Thank you to Mary Ann for referring this blog post to me. What a powerful example of discernment. Thank you Lisa for telling your story so completely and honestly. My prayers are with you.


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