I try to imagine what I would feel like if the doctor told me that I would die within the next few weeks. The best way to find this out is probably to delv into your own experiences, looking for something with a similar impact, and how you dealt with it in the past?
When your car breaks down after you hit something in the middle of the night. When the apple was rotten, and you needed it for that recipe. When your lover cheated on you, or your grandmother died. In all these cases you were probably shocked at first, out of breath, felt helpless, or empty. If you have been through these experiences several times you might power on immediately after the initial shock, and if it is your first time it could slow you down to a standstill, unable to think or act. But can you compare the loss of a lover or death of a friend with the message that you soon are going to die?
The loss of a lover or death of a friend are situations outside you. These things can, and probably will happen to you. All these losses are of things that are “attached” to you, part of your life. The falling away, the separation is the part that hurts. You can even argue that the grievance over the loss of these attachments has more to do with that separation, the interruption of an assumption of continuation. You grieve over the hole that is left in your future memory. You lament that YOU can never speak to that person again, or that YOU can never touch her again. You miss the aspects of that person which were important to you, the part of that person that connected with you. The problem is that you cannot miss that person “an sich” because you never possessed the whole person. Does it make it easier that you know that grieving has more to do with the wound left in you by the loss, than the loss of the person itself? This depends on how you handle yourself, at least you can be honest to yourself and admit that you miss the connection you had with that person. You can see that connection as a separate entity wherein you have the biggest stake. That part of the bond you had, that connection, is lost. That connection is gone and leaves a wound, that person is gone but you are left with the remains. If you let that connection be so strong that it becomes part of your own direction in life, your identity, than it will be a hard fight. It can give you the chance to develop that part of you that is now empty and take responsibility for it for the future. Connections with other people are part of your own development, for good and for bad, they tie you down or propel you forward. Grief over the loss of someone close, can be seen as grief over the loss of a part of you, a part that tied you down or propelled you forward. No alter, nor fancy grave or religion will help you as good as the knowledge that you are a project or construct that can be worked on and healed if you are willing.
But what if you hear that your friend, a lover, father or mother has only a limited time left to live. What are your first thoughts? Again, this is not easy to find out, you can tell about your own experiences and write down what other people say, but in both cases its difficult. The cohesion of your thoughts breaks down immediately after bad news, and it can be minutes, hours or days later that you can describe what is left of that first impressions. Those feelings and words are like a wave breaking on your consciousness wherein every drop deserves a description, but which one was the first and does that even matter. You still have your connection, and the specific wounds attached to its loss are not there yet and hard to predict. I think it’s hard to be rational about these specific feelings of unexpected bad news, what these feelings mean and where they came from. We have art, poetry, and music to do this for us. There is no genuine reaction to a message of this kind. We all can proclaim what is socially accepted in our culture, say all the platitudes but what we really go through when you know that the one you love is gone a few moments from now, will always be tied down by the limits of our words.
“Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air.” Pablo Neruda
And what about your own predicted death! We can of course die at any moment. There are so many things out of our control that could kill us, but most of the time we don’t suffer under this notion. It’s even a thing to say that you’re not afraid of death or dying, something I don’t understand because you might as well say that you’re not afraid of unicorns, both are concepts we can only fantasize about. Death is the end of your time. After that it doesn’t matter anymore, the memory of you lives on for a while in the memory of the living but that’s it.
If you are on death row you know that you are going to die, you don’t know exactly when and maybe you will be pardoned. This manmade cancer has similarities with the cancer that kills so many of us. Reading about death row, cancer and stories from soldiers fighting in trenches or patrolling the jungle you learn that we humans are good in compartmentalizing. Simply said, we can put the parts in our mind that keeps us going in one compartment and the parts that causes distress in another. We already do this in the case of us knowing that we can die at any minute but in severe cases these compartments get more defined to prevent spillage. Remember also that the moment you are dead, your worries are gone. Its sounds cliché but think about it…you can worry, resist, be angry and cry and then comes death, you are gone and so are all your worries or you can read, write, watch tv, play a game, think, talk, eat and then comes death and you’re also gone but it seems to me a better way.
I realize that, specially this last part, is just rationalizing the memories of my own experiences. I looked death in the eyes several times. Never announced but expected sometimes. I see the compartments and lightheartedness in my behavior. There was excitement and adrenaline but not so much fear in the sense that it paralyzed me. I might say that I am not afraid of death because, it doesn’t exist, death has no beginning or end, you cannot have fear of… nothing.
If I had a choice in how to deal with terminally ill people I would treat them as if they are not sick. They have their own defense mechanism going on and they don’t want to be needlessly reminded of the “compartment” they try to avoid. They probably know the difficulty themselves in dealing with death, so they might feel ashamed that they make you suffer for it, so don’t. If I was close to the Person, in vicinity and mind, I would push them as far as I know I can go to do the things they like(d) to do and for the connection we have, if you don’t recognize it before the person is gone you might have some self-reflection to do.