Fear and the Reality Check — Part Two
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.
As discussed in the first part of this article, as a Stage IV lung cancer patient, it is difficult to escape the looming shadow of death, the constant reminders of my own mortality. I discussed overcoming the fear of death and some practical aspects that can be taken care of to remove some of the pressure we might feel knowing our time may be short. Here, in part two, I expand the discussion to coming to terms with our individual mortality and the prospect of not being around much longer.
Tools for coping
After getting past the fear of the process of dying and its aftermath, there is still the lingering sensation that death is hanging around, watching and waiting. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and undue stress — both as an individual and with regard to relationships. Finding the means to cope with these issues is essential for not letting death be a negative guiding influence on a patient’s life.
Opening up a discussion
Among the greatest demystifiers is the tool of discussion. The more openly and honestly we can talk about issues that distress us, the less negativity we will associate with those issues. Much of the anxiety that we feel about death is rooted in our cultural disdain for talking about it; after all, death is often considered something better locked away, as if it is an embarrassment, rather than dealt with openly. Some cultures celebrate death as a natural part of our existence, but Western civilization has built up a culture that worships youth, tucking our elderly and infirm behind doors to keep them from being an uncomfortable intrusion into our lives. Yet, when we face a terminal illness, our objective is to focus on life and living and being present in the moment. It can make our mere presence a cultural disconnect.
Especially with children, it may be beneficial to examine the way other cultures approach ceremonies surrounding death and dying. Talking about how they are different with pervasive Western notions could shed light on new ways to view the process.
Discussing what death means, to us as individuals and to our family and friends, helps to remove that disconnect. And the more openly we discuss it, the less of a burden it is to carry. One aspect of a Last Will and Testament (discussed in part one) is where a person lays out his or her wishes for any special considerations after death. This may include whether one is cremated or buried, but it can also extend to things such as a wake or celebration of life. I have used this as a jumping-off point to find ways to approach death on a more personal level that helps me feel it is less of a burden and simply a means of assessing the life I have lived.
My last party playlist
One thing I discovered is that, when something reminds me overtly of my health struggles, I can take it as a cue to work on a favorite project: my last party playlist. While I know that any celebration after I am gone will be somewhat out of my hands, I hope that at least this ultimate “mixtape” of mine will be available for those who want to share in my vision. There are times I feel nostalgic or emotional about the process, and songs reflect that accordingly, but there are also times I revel in the joy of the life I have lived and that mood — hopefully — dominates my chosen tracks.
While some people have suggested that my ideas for the final fling I imagine in my honor are a bit morbid, I remind them that it is all part of dealing in my own way with the prospect that I most likely will not be around as long as I had hoped. Not that any of us truly know that we will be alive as long as we hope, but most people are at least able to continue many years with the illusion of a long and healthy life ahead. My partner has indicated that it is a luxury to be able to spend time on things like my playlist, pointing out cases where people are killed quite unexpectedly. And while the end result may be the same, a person is dead regardless, those unexpected deaths did not have “mortality” emblazoned upon their shirts.
Coexisting with our specter
So I turn my playlist into a means to connect to the greater world. My love of music, the poetry of lyrics, the connections I find between songs that make them just right to put into the mix, are all things that ground me in my own experience. They make the notion of death lighter, and more tenable. It becomes something not to be feared, something no longer oppressive, but something that is simply a part of my own reality — even a reminder of the life I have been living.
The concept of death and how it affects us is a very individual thing, we all must find our own way to coexisting with it. Once we have demystified it, we need to make friends with it. Because the specter does not go away; it may lose its scythe and dark hood, but the presence will still make itself known from time to time. When it does, we may not want to shake hands, but we should at least be able to smile “hello” and move along.