On Healing 11/2/2009: Dying man can’t control ‘wondering mind’

Dear Dan,
I was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a type of cancer, in September 2008. I was told it was terminal and that I should get my life in order. How does the average person deal with this? The mental anguish is much harder to endure than any physical pain.

I am a 52-year-old married man with two wonderful grown children. I was working at what I considered my dream job and all of a sudden I had trouble breathing. And before I knew it, I learned I was dying.

As a man, I was conditioned to hide or bury my feelings. I realize that is how I tried to stay safe in a society that sometimes didn’t feel safe. Now I try very hard to live in the moment, but sometimes it’s impossible to control my wondering mind.

When I was a young man, I would just buckle up and plow through difficult situations, but I can’t do it with this one. How do I better learn how to cope with all of this in the short time I have left?
– John

Dear John,
I am deeply sorry for you and your family. The reason we get depressed and frightened around death is partly because it’s unknown, and because we are faced with losing a life that we love. Unlike you, most people are not conscious of how precious their life is until they are threatened with losing it.

A wondering mind is almost inevitable. I don’t know many humans who don’t have one. And when anxiety increases, minds tend to race faster. Anxiety is always about the future. So when your anxiety rises, you are probably thinking about difficult treatments, future discomfort or leaving this world.

Since reading your letter, I’ve been thinking a lot about emotions and time. As you know, when much energy goes to avoiding a future nightmare, you may miss what’s happening moment by moment. And since time is precious, you want to slow it down, which happens only by noticing the tiny things in life.

The anxiety and sadness will come and go like other emotions. But I imagine that with the time you have left, you want to live every minute fully, whether that minute has anxiety, sadness, love or laughter.

I would disagree with your assessment of your emotions. In your e-mail, you have already expressed fear, sadness, vulnerability, and confusion. These emotions get expressed when one’s heart is open, so you can cross that off your list of things to worry about!

Many years ago, I worked with a woman named Caroline who was also diagnosed with a terminal illness. Like you, she was in her early 50s. But unlike you, she didn’t accept the terminal prognosis. So she went to a variety of doctors and holistic healers and did all she could to cure this cancer.

One day she walked into my office after learning that her cancer had spread throughout her body. Far from despairing, she was peaceful about it. It’s as though she began living the life she had rather than fighting for the life she wanted.

One Sunday, she was visited by several friends. She told me that during the visit, she got up to go to the bathroom, which was beside the laundry room. As she looked in the laundry room, she noticed that someone had folded her laundry. When she told me that story, she had the sweetest smile on her face and said, “Aren’t I lucky?” Imagine that.

The following week, I received a phone call in the middle of the night from Caroline’s daughter, telling me that the end was near and that Caroline wanted to talk with me. When her daughter put her on, I could hear Caroline’s shallow breathing and I asked her how she was (a funny question to ask at the end of her life). But she said she was fine and “ready.” We expressed our love for each other and said goodbye. I was very sad but at peace. I have a feeling she was also.

I don’t know if you believe in a higher power or some form of afterlife. Those who do tend to be less frightened when facing death. But either way, remember that your life has been a gift for those you have loved and who have loved you.

John, we often die as we have lived. I don’t know the details of your life and I hope to learn more about you on my blog. But you have described a man who knows how to love, is conscious of his blessings, and feels gratitude for the gifts of life.

Please take care.

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