‘On Receiving a Diagnosis of Terminal illness’

So many of us are touched in some way by the effect of a terminal illness, whether we are the carers or the one with the diagnosis. How do we all manage to come to terms with it, and what are the best ways to cope? Most of it is an internal experience.

We need one another
More than any other time in our lives, (apart from our first years of life) when confronted with our mortality, we feel a need for someone to care for us and be with us. In ‘Ruthless River’ by Holly Fitzgerald, as she is stranded with her husband on a tributary of the Madre de Dios river in the Amazon, says:
‘Oh my God, this is unbearable. I remembered the prayer I’d learned as child, and recited it to myself while thinking of my mother: ‘If I die before I wake….’
Vulnerability seeks comfort and friendship with those we love. We seek a power greater than our own, even if we don’t fully understand it, and especially we need not to be alone. If you are not used to asking for help and companionship on this path, or you do not want to be a burden to others, let them decide. The ones who can help and care will be available, because that is the way it is. And if others can’t help, have no judgement, just let them go.

We need hope
Our hearts cling to the hope that there will be an answer that resolves our problem, whatever it is. Hope is a survival instinct. It empowers us to search for answers, and to believe in someone who says they have an answer. Hope is a catalyst for healing modalities to work, because the power of the mind and the human spirit should not be underestimated when confronted with mortality.
Even those who are nearing death should be allowed to hope. In the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche says:
‘I would like to single out two points in giving spiritual help to the dying: giving hope, and finding forgiveness……..Find the most skillful and sensitive way possible to inspire the person and give him or her hope….’
And how many stories are there about hope prevailing? Many! People write books about their recovery from a terminal illness. People need to be allowed to have hope no matter what the odds are.

Meeting and knowing death
When we confront death and think about our feelings towards it, it is the first step in removing some of the fear of the unknown. It provokes closer scrutiny of our life and self evaluation.
Sogyal Rinpoche says:
‘…we have seen how those who go through a near-death experience sometimes report that as they witness their lives replayed before them, they are asked questions such as, “What have you done with your life? What have you done for others?” All of this points to one fact: that in death we cannot escape from who or what we really are…..our true nature is revealed….’
And when we have given time to considering our time in life and reflected on our true nature, perhaps it prepares us for a pathway which looks like acceptance or a pathway that looks like active engagement in recovery. Making a decision is empowering and helps us to cope.


Comforting thoughts
Even as we confront our mortality we are able to find comforting thoughts in memories of our own loved ones who have passed. Holly Fitzgerald had now been trapped on the river with her husband for sixteen days. She said:
‘Two thoughts consoled me. First, I now believed that we were being held in the hands of God. Second, I imagined my grandmother waiting to greet us, standing tall and dignified, younger again and without her cane, netted dark brown bun atop her head, her patrician face watching for us, eager to hug us tight.’
Holly and her husband thought they were going to die. They were not in control of their circumstances and had to place all their faith in hope and the grace of a power greater than their own. But even in such a dire situation, they made a choice to keep trying to stay alive. They were not ready to depart this life, and many people with a terminal illness are also not ready to depart. Comfort comes in unexpected places, much like Holly’s grandmother appearing in her mind…..and this is yet another way of coping.

American Indian wisdom

‘Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being,
They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers,
its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and
verdant lined lakes and bays,
And they yearn in tender affection over the lonely-hearted living,
and often return from the happy hunting ground
to visit, to guide, console, and comfort them.
Chief Seattle
Duwamish Tribal Chief (1854)

Erica Fotineas
September 2017

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