If you had only a short time to live – a year, 6 months, 3 months, a month, a week – what would you do? There are as many different responses to a terminal prognosis as there are individuals and points of view, much less beliefs about death. Individuals can feel angry, get depressed, go into despair, blame self, or others or the world or God or all four, feel guilty or totally unprepared for death. Some others go into fear and terror and there are some individuals who end their own lives before the illness takes their last breath away. There are others who feel they have not lived but they often miss the essential point that death is only another opportunity to enter life wholeheartedly.
From the moment of conception, life is terminal, a reality that we powerfully ignore or deny or we create the delusion that this life goes on forever. It is often the case that when I explore the fear of death with individuals who are seriously physically ill, that it is the fear of living that needs to be explored first. This reminds me of a young woman who came to see me following the terrifying experience of being told that she has a terminal cancer and had a maximum of two months to live. I do have difficulties with the word ‘terminal’ being used in medical diagnoses and prognoses. We have all come across individuals who were given death sentences of one or two or more months, but who are still living twenty or thirty years later! It is important to be authentic regarding the seriousness of a disease process, but, it is not wise to put a time limit on a person’s life. Some individuals ‘turn their heads to the wall’ and die within a shorter time than predicted.’ Others can go into despair and deep depression and these responses will speed up the course of their illness.
The young woman I am speaking about said a very moving thing to me during our first meeting: ‘why is it that both my father and my mother have, for the first time ever, told me that they love me since the diagnosis of my serious cancer?’ Why, indeed! When you consider that the deepest longing of both child and adult is for unconditional love, a serious illness may become our last ditch attempt to gain that love and be free to express the wholeness of one’s self. The physician and philanthropist, Georg Groddeck, who died in the 1930’s, and who was the Founder of Psychosociosomatic Medicine, claimed that when a person is alienated from self, the last act of creation may be an illness. The young woman lived for another six months. I happened to phone her on the day that she died and spoke about how much I would have wanted to have done more for her. She responded by saying that ‘the last six months have been the most important months of my life. I have experienced the wonder of being loved and of giving love.’ I asked her how did she feel about dying. Her answer was remarkable: ‘Tony, she said, ‘death for me is the space between the in and the out breath.’ She passed away peacefully a few hours later.
It appears to me that the young woman had completed her birth before dying. The serious life-threatening cancer she had provided the opportunity to examine closely her relationship with self and others, particularly, her young husband and her parents. She certainly managed to experience her wholeness and to bring that fullness to others and, indeed, to me, before she died. She was so grateful for the opportunity. To have six months or even two months to examine one’s life consciously in the context of approaching death is a fairly rare human experience. But why wait for a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness before doing this essential work of experiencing fully and truly our unique wholeness? None of us can afford to ignore this work any longer for ‘you know not the day nor the hour’ of your death.
I do believe that there is some part of us that denies that it will die because it never does. Freud believed that such a sense of immortality was just a delusion, but, in the words of the author of Who Dies, Stephen Levine, ‘Freud missed the point that perhaps the reason something within feels immortal is because it is.’
I would hope that what I have written will bring some solace and hope to those suffering from serious illnesses and I cannot let down the pen until I quote some lines from John O’Donohue’s book, Benedictus. John’s sudden death would suggest he had no lead-in time to death, but his writings do indicate that the cycle of life and death were part and parcel of his daily lived experience. He recommends:
‘That the silent presence of your death
Would call your life to attention,
Wake you up to how scarce your time is
And to the urgency to become free
And equal to the call of your destiny.’
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology, including The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.