Death and Dying: What If You Found Out Today That You Have Only A Few Months To Live?
Can you imagine what it would be like to hear your doctor deliver a death sentence to you? Things are going well, you may have had a little odd pain and you decided to have it checked out when it hung on and would not go away. A few days later your doctor’s office calls and tells you to come for the results of your tests.
You may be expecting to hear you need to change your diet, or exercise more, or stop engaging in some activity for a while, but instead, your doctor says, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this Mary, but you have cancer, and it’s in a fairly advanced stage. There are some things we can do that may extend the time you have, but quite honestly, you might want to think about getting your affairs in order.”
Death Is a Part of Life
At first, disbelief . . .
You, thinking you didn’t hear right: “Excuse me, but what did you say?”
Your doctor repeats her words again and you are trying to comprehend them. It is as if you are in a bad dream, yet everything seems so real. Perhaps surreal would better describe it. You try to ask pertinent questions while all the time your head is spinning and you think surely there must be some mistake.
Doc: “No mistake, Mary. I double-checked the test results myself to make sure. I wouldn’t want to deliver news like this mistakenly.”
You: “How much time do you think I have, Doc?”
Doc: “Being optimistic, maybe 6 months, barring a miracle, but I will be honest, I haven’t seen many miracles with cases like yours.
What would you do next?
The situation may seem surreal and confusing . . .
You leave your doctor’s office and when you get inside your car you just sit for a while, trying to sort your thoughts and figure out what to do next. Then you reach for your cell phone and call your best friend. “Jane,” you say in a very serious voice, “I need to talk to you. I’ve just got some really bad news and I need someone to listen.”
Your friend Jane has known you for a long time and notes the serious tone in your voice immediately. She knows something is very wrong. “What is it Mary? Tell me what’s happened,” she tells you.
“Jane, I’ve just left my doctor’s office. You remember me telling you about some tests I had run, and today I got the results back.” Here you hesitate for a few moments, not knowing how to say it, not quite ready to believe yourself what you’re about to tell your friend. Jane urges you to continue.
“Jane, the doctor said I have late stage ovarian cancer and there’s not much she can do to make it better. She, she said I have maybe 6 months to live,” you stumble through the words.
Jane hears your words and suddenly does not know what to say to news like that. “Maybe they made a mistake on your tests. Maybe they got them mixed up with somebody else’s. I’m sure that can’t be true, Mary. I’ve known you for a long time and you look so healthy. I wouldn’t worry about something like that if I were you. Just get a second opinion. I’m sure everything is going to be just fine. I’m in the middle of something and I really can’t talk for long. Get a second opinion, Mary, before you get all upset about it. OK? I have to go, but we can talk about this more later, OK?” And with that, Jane hangs up the phone.
You feel isolated and alone . . .
Over the next few hours that turn into days, you find you have never been more lonely in your life. No one, but no one, will talk to you about this latest development in your life. Everyone makes light of it if you mention it, and you notice that people seem to always be in a hurry, and do not have the time to talk like they used to. It is almost as if you have a communicable disease.
On those rare occasions when you have a captive audience, your companion will say something like, “Oh Mary, let’s not talk about that right now. Let’s be optimistic. Let’s hope for the best.” And then they change the subject.
As time gets shorter you find yourself more often alone in various treatment facilities. People stop to visit for a few minutes, but do not stay very long. While they are willing to discuss whether or not you are comfortable and how well you are managing the treatment, they do not want to discuss anything having to do with, or even hinting about, death or dying.
There are things you want to say to the people you care about, to let them know how much they mean to you, but they pooh-pooh your words and change the subject. They do not seem to realize how serious and important it is to you to convey these feelings.
For some reason, there are certain subjects many people do not feel comfortable thinking about, much less talking about -- subjects that affect everyone, and usually profoundly.
You may think that regular attendance at church or believing in the hereafter is all one needs to get through a situation like this, but once you are yourself in a similar situation, I think you will find that a friend or relative who will allow you to voice your feelings about what you are facing would be a great added comfort.
Preparing To Die
Most people prepare for major milestones and changes in their lives. Leaving home and going off to college, getting married, getting divorced, accepting a job thousands of miles away from the place you’ve always known as home and leaving everything you know, getting ready for a new baby.
When you know in advance that you are going to die, how you are likely to die, and approximately when you are going to die, there is emotional preparation you will need to do in order to get through the waiting period, and to be ready when that final moment comes.
When you know that you are going to die and approximately when, you have the advantage of being able to say good-bye to loved ones, of being able to put your affairs in order, of being able to try at least to make up for wrongs you may have committed and that you have been putting off dealing with. People who die unexpectedly do not have these luxuries. If no one will let you talk about these things, it will only make your passing more difficult. Talking with important people in your life will help you prepare to face what you must, if they will allow you that comfort.
Like it or not, death is a part of every life.
Thinking about death is not morbid. It is being practical. Not wishing for death or obsessing about it, but thinking about it much as you would think about planning any other major event in your life.
One difference between planning your career or your lifestyle, and preparing for the time when you will not be here anymore, is that your death is definite. It will happen. It happens to all living things eventually. You may change your mind about your career several times over your life, but death is a certainty.
Be positive and pragmatic about your death. Plan how you are going to use every minute in the meantime, to live. Let it be your reason to stop procrastinating and to do the things you want and need to do. Let it be your reason for not wasting the precious time you have, because that time is limited. It is also valuable. Once spent, it is gone forever.
Use your time wisely to help other people and to enjoy the opportunities this world has to offer. Keep in mind that when you move on, you’ll be taking with you exactly what you came with -- nothing but your spirit and your soul. The knowledge and memory of experiences you have gained in this world are yours, but no material acquisitions will go with you.
Come to terms with your own mortality and then reach out to someone in need
Once you have come to terms with your own inevitable death, think about how you can help someone else in your life who may be facing imminent death. Do you have a friend, coworker, or relative with a terminal disease? Let them know that you are willing to listen. Often that is all dying people need and want -- just someone to listen, someone who can validate his or her feelings and offer some compassion.
Imagine if you were told that you were going to die and that you had only 3 months to live. How would you feel? What would be your concerns? Your fears? Is there anyone in your life you could talk to about these things? Or would you find yourself emotionally isolated like so many dying people do, because death is a taboo subject in our society? Be the first person to help change this situation.
On Death and Dying
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross did extensive research on death and dying. Many people are familiar with her 5 Stages of Grief. When facing a serious loss, whether it is the loss of a loved one, a marriage, a job, a limb, one’s own life, or any number of other serious losses people may experience, most people do go through the Stages of Grief outlined by Ms. Kubler-Ross. Everyone who has suffered a loss, and anyone who is dying, may not go through the stages described by Ms. Kubler-Ross in order, and may not progress through them smoothly, but they do almost without exception, experience the stages of grief Ms. Kubler-Ross has identified through her research, interviews, and observation of hundreds of dying subjects.
For anyone wanting to become more comfortable with the subject of death and dying, either for their own peace of mind, or to be of comfort to someone else who is having to deal with a terminal illness, I recommend Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s book, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have To Teach doctors, nurses, clergy, and their own families.
Not thinking or talking about death will not prevent it. You can prolong your life through healthful safe living, but you cannot prevent death forever. Be a comfort to someone who knows their time is very short. Help them make peace with what they cannot change. Find a way to make peace with death yourself.
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