Why Are We Shocked at the Idea That This Could Be it?

Is there much in life you can imagine that’s worse than receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis? Probably not.

Somehow, we all know intellectually that we will die one day. That our physical lives will not continue forever. But yet when that reality confronts us, we are often shocked and taken aback. How can it be true? Why now? I didn’t expect this so soon or in this way. But I live a healthy lifestyle.

Denying the reality

I think our culture has nearly perfected the art of denying the reality of death. We are not reminded as children to enjoy our lives and the people around us because their time here is limited. Everything about our medical system is geared towards fixing illness and prolonging life. We are not encouraged to view death as part of the larger cycle of life. And this, I think, causes death to feel even more painful to us.

Certainly, it’s understandable that we don’t want to think about death as we live our daily lives.

But would we live a better life if we did think about it more often? And by better, I mean more peaceful, more relaxed, and more attuned to the people and activities that are most important to us. I think we might.

Bleak prognosis

When my first husband, Ahmad, was diagnosed with Stage IV bladder cancer (in the era before immunotherapies), the prognosis was extremely bleak. I could barely eat for a week. I could barely get out of bed. It felt as if I had punched so hard and I didn’t know how to get back on my feet.

It was as shocking and as devastating – emotionally and physically – as it likely is to every person who receives such news. He died 11 months later and during those months, we scrambled continuously to gain our footing and keep our heads above water.

We didn’t do very well

It’s now been nearly four years since he died. I dread and fear cancer in a way I never did before having that direct and intense experience of it. But I also think often about how lovely it is to walk without pain. To be able to go swimming. To be able to run or sit or turn over in my sleep without pain. We don’t appreciate a pain-free life and a functional body until we’ve witnessed or experienced a failing one.

I don’t feel smug about eating well in the hopes it will keep me healthy. I know that day-to-day, I feel so much better if I exercise and eat nutritious foods. But I am not under the illusion that this will ensure I have a long life. Death will come for all of us. Illness will come for many of us.

Returning to "normal"

My life has returned to “normal.” I get aggravated with traffic and lines at the coffee shop. But I am better at catching myself and wondering, is this really worthy of aggravation? Most of the time, the answer is no. People are facing cancer and pain and wars and famines. Perspective reminds me there is little in daily non-crisis life that merits getting upset about. And actually, there’s little during a crisis, too, that merits anger or frustration. It just doesn’t help.

Capacity to see the good

When you walk your dog today or you walk to the mailbox, take a moment to appreciate your functional legs. When you see flowers and inhale their perfume, think about how wonderful it is to have the power of smell. We have to develop the capacity to see the good.

It will still be painful and bad news when an illness or other sadness arrives. But you will at least be to reflect on your gratitude for the many relaxed and healthy days you’ve had.

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