Fear and the Reality Check
I don't want to die and I don't necessarily want to think about dying. But as a Stage IV lung cancer patient, the thoughts are inevitable, even after years of successful treatment. I might not talk about it much, I might even choose to avoid talking about it altogether in lieu of focusing on the act of living, but that cannot make the thoughts themselves disappear.
Death, the lingering specter
Death sits in a comfortable chair toward the back of the room, always watching from the shadows. As a patient, I have had to both come to terms with that lingering specter and also find my own coping mechanisms that will allow me to coexist happily with its presence. Sometimes this process is complicated by those we share our lives with, partners and children, family and friends.
Many people are frightened by the prospect of death, whether rooted in fear or the unknown or the more business-like and direct aspects of what is left unfinished when they are gone. There are ways to mitigate such fears, some practical, some a bit more esoteric.
Last Will and Testament or Living Trust?
One of the great tools we have for mitigating the fear about what we leave behind is the document called a Last Will and Testament. It is surprising how many people continually put off creating this relatively simple document, and how much it simplifies things for those who are left behind to pick up the pieces when someone dies. Another option for this is a Living Trust, which goes a step further by providing for a person's wishes while still alive, but allows their implementation to be delayed until death or incapacitation. The difference is subtle, but for people with complicated assets, the latter option may prove much easier to administer and help to avoid issues with probate. If you have a family lawyer, it is never too early to sit down and discuss these options.
Living Will and Power of Attorney
But when it comes to the fears associated with the process of dying itself, having a Living Will in place along with proper Power of Attorney paperwork, can take away many concerns. The Living Will expressly lays down a person's desires about end-of-life medical care, while the Power of Attorney ensures that a trusted individual is there to oversee such care with full decision-making authority. These documents ease both the patient's burden and those of loved ones who will be involved with the process.
Getting the practical concerns out of the way, patients still need to deal with their core spiritual and emotional fears. While this is highly personal, it is a clear area where some find solace and peace in their faith while others might discover an open acceptance of whatever lies ahead. Scientific studies have indicated that the brain triggers feelings of euphoria during the transition from life to death (backed up by anecdotal stories of near-death experiences), but there are still many ways in which palliative care is available to mitigate pain and suffering for patients. For those patients who are afraid of dying, identifying the source of those fears and addressing them one at a time may take that fear away.
And then, it is okay to accept that you will be sad about the process. We all, ultimately, miss out on something when we die. My biggest "fear" was not seeing my daughter grow up -- but I realized that is not really a fear at all. I'm not afraid of missing out on her experiences, I am sad and disappointed about that prospect, and as such I have done the work to come to terms with focusing on the enjoyment of being involved with her in the here and now rather than a future over which I have no real control. Isolating and working on these issues is hard work, sometimes harder than it seems, but the payoff can be tremendous in how it affects our day to day existence.
In part two of this article, I will discuss coping with the constant reminders of our own mortality.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
Do you find that staying zen through your lung cancer diagnosis has helped you in your journey?