September 2, 2011

Fears of Dying.

I'm not afraid of dying. Not now anyway. But I do think I'm afraid of experiencing the fear of dying as my time gets closer. When I start to feel that cold breath on the back of my neck, then I will be afraid. And I'm not looking forward to it.

I started thinking about this the other night. I was watching a TV show (Flashpoint, if anyone is interested in good cop shows) and one of the characters rushed to the bedside of his dying father. When the old man saw his son, he looked at him and said, "I'm scared!". It was a nice scene, very heart-warming, but I found myself contrasting that with my own father's death a couple of years ago. While my dad never said he wasn't afraid, I am convinced that he was very much at peace with the prospect of dying. He had a good life (92 years) but his last few years were not kind to him. He was ready to go and I think he was feeling good about what he had accomplished and what he had experienced during his long life. It was time to go and I truly believe he welcomed it with open arms. Perhaps he felt the fear of the unknown but I don't think he feared death itself. I like to think that he welcomed the relief from pain and the end to a downward spiral that wasn't going to stop. Perhaps for some, it is that sense of relief and release that overcomes the fear. I hope that's the way it will be for me.

On the TV show, the dying man's son said, "Don't worry dad, I'm here.". What he meant, and what I would want to hear from my family if I was in the same situation is something like, "It's okay to be afraid, but it's also okay for you to go now. You've earned your rest and we'll be right here with you for as long as it takes." They can't perform medical miracles, they can't take the fear away, but they can provide the kind of moral support only family can give and perhaps make it a little easier.

I titled this post "Fears of Dying" because death brings out different kinds of fears in the person who is dying and those around them. Lets start by looking at exactly what we are afraid of.

For most of our life, we make choices that help us to avoid thinking about or dealing with death. The biggest fear I think we all have is having to leave behind the wonderful life we've spent so long and worked so hard to create. For all of us, to varying degrees, this includes the material things that seem to mean so much at the time. I mean, who wants to lose that high-end Beemer and the grossly oversized house we've worked so hard to obtain? Those "things" that tell the world we've made it! Hopefully, as we get older, we learn that these things are really not that important and that we can't bring them with us anyway. Life is not a competition where the one with the most toys at the end wins! By the time we are on our death beds, hopefully we are thinking more about the people we are leaving behind, which is the real loss we should be feeling. For nothing is more important than those we love and those who love us.

A lot of fear comes from the fact that we can never know what comes after. We can guess. We can hope. Or we can "believe". We can accept as fact the story that our formal religions tell us based on interpretations of the Bible, the Koran, the words of the Buddah, etc. If you truly have faith, the kind of faith that leaves no doubt in your mind, then you have nothing to fear and, for your sake, I really hope you're right. But regardless, your belief allows you to die in peace and that is a great and wonderful gift.

I don't pretend to know what comes after. I just don't have enough faith. I'm one of those people who need proof and this is not something for which proof is readily available. And even if I chose to accept a particular story, I could never be 100% sure, so I would always be worrying to some degree. For me, I'm not afraid to admit that what I fear is the dying process itself. I am already dealing with chronic pain, which is severe at times, and I know that it will get much worse. I definitely fear that! And along with the pain, I expect increasing difficulty breathing and anxiety - lots and lots of anxiety. I suppose I could be drugged up so completely that I wouldn't notice these things, but that's really no way to spend my last days.

I also think that many people, if they have the time to think about it, may be afraid that their lives have not been fulfilled. That they haven't done enough or been good enough. Maybe that is enough to fear in itself - the fear of not being all you hoped you could be. Or maybe, in some extreme circumstances, they fear that not doing enough condemns them to hell, a very scary place in most people's minds - if you believe in that, of course. Or maybe even if you don't. Cuz you never really know, do you?

Personally, my biggest fear is for my family. For my children who, while grown up, are losing their father and the emotional support and guidance that I can't provide when they are faced with the difficult decisions and crises that life can bring. I know they will be okay, but a father can't help but worry! But Dianne, my dear wife of 34 years, my soul mate, my best friend. I am terrified of losing her and I am terrified for her when I am gone. I know she is terribly afraid of being left alone and of growing old without someone at her side who really understands her. I feel so badly for her but I know in my heart that she will be "okay". She is smart, people love her, and she has the ability to be very independent when she needs to be. And most importantly, she has a strong and caring daughter and future son-in-law who are committed to being there for her. But we have been together for so long, and it's been so good, that its gonna hurt real bad.

And while I have my own fears of dying, my death will also arouse fears in others. Clearly, my family has to deal with their fear of losing a husband and a father and I am so, so sorry to be doing that to them. Perhaps not so obvious are those people who feel uncomfortable talking about my death. For them, thinking about my mortality makes them think about their own, long before they want to. It scares them. It arouses fears that they wish they didn't have to deal with. Well, I'm sorry about that. Please use it as an opportunity to really appreciate what you have today and make yourself a promise that you are going to make the most of every second you have. If my death can help you do that, then I've accomplished one more good thing.

While it's impossible to avoid the fears you have for your loved ones, I wish we could learn to not fear death itself. I wish that we all could think about death as part of life. As the beginning of another journey rather than the end of all things. But that requires belief, and faith. And I'm afraid that many of us just aren't there yet.

20 comments:

Doug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dianne Brown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dianne B. said...

Hi Doug,

I first heard of your experiences on CBC this a.m. I quickly went to my computer to find out if the Doug Gosling I know of was the guest on Mary Ito’s show. But I knew already because I recognized your voice. My thoughts have been swirling, and I’ve been reading through some of the links, remembering when you were diagnosed, feeling that I was too dependent on Dianne as I slowly melted down with what was going on in my life, and unable to cope.

Hope – I’ve had to look closely at that a few times over the past 10 years. It’s impossible to sum it up here except for questions such as, “When is hope healthy and beneficial, and when is it enabling and addictive?” After a 10 year journey dealing with Julian and schizophrenia, hope, and learning everything I could about this disease kept me driving him, his health team and myself to move forward. At my father’s side as he took his last few breaths I mourned because he hoped until the very last few days of his ife that a miracle cure would be found to save him and he did not have time to find peace with his mortality. Hope kept him from dealing with reality, saying good bye to his family, and releasing the anger that was in his heart. Hope for myself as a single Mom, barely making enough money to support herself and her 2 children, one of whom was in the midst of a major psychotic break, took the form of a new career in teaching.

I finally found peace from reading Buddhist dharma. Part of my hope was that I would die and I read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (available free online, http://www.holybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Tibetan-Book-of-Living-and-Dying.pdf.) I contemplated taking my own life many times, even suggested to Julian that we do it together. Past that now. But I found peace with dying. I’m ready when it happens. I won’t like it! But I won’t fight it.

I look forward to reading your blog. I hope that all the pain that those around you feel turns to joy and rapture with each moment spent with you. Their lives no doubt are better because you were part of it.

Jane Noles said...

Doug - I learned of your blog from Lori Hope and her blog on CarePages. I have terminal rectal cancer (mets to lungs), and I so appreciate your words and courage in sharing them. Your blog is accomplishing what you hoped it to, or at least one of the things: that feeling of shared experience and emotion with another person facing death (though my timeframe is not a clear-cut). Because as you said in an earlier post(maybe the first one...I just read them all at one sitting), no one, no matter how much they may love us, can understand the processes we are going through.

Thanks for being a kindred spirit. :)

Peace,
Jane

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