On Impending Death

(For people who have incurable cancer and for those who love them.)

Today you've got the strength of a bull in your neck
And the strength of a bear in your arms,
But some 0' these days, some 0' these days,
You'll have a hand-to-hand struggle with bony Death,
And Death is bound to win.
James Weldon Johnson, "The Prodigal Son" in God's Trombones

There is little that I can say to someone who is facing impending death that will ease his burden. I usually come back to what my father used to say to me (and what I now tell my children) when I was faced with an impossible and painful situation. He would tell me "Yes, it's terrible and it hurts --but that's the way it is."

I have given a lot of thought to how one deals with death. I always come back to the same conclusion: you do not deal with death; death deals with you. I conclude that, since there is no way of avoiding the tragedy, then one might as well do a good job of dying. As Shakespeare said,

And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

It has been a long time since the first person who was dear to me died. I tried to escape. I have since learned to deal with death and dying. I no longer run, because I know that running only makes the pain last longer and adds guilt to the pain. I know that I can do something to make it easier for the person I love, and for me. I have learned to comfort others and myself.

A parent can make his child feel better when he is hurting with a kiss, a band-aid, a pat on the head, and words of comfort. Since, psychologically, hurt seems to happen to the "child" part of the self, the same things can be done for an adult. While the grown-up child is treated somewhat differently, the same principles apply. Gently massaging a person's body does wonders for the patient and the therapist. Words of love and comfort also help, but touching seems to feel better. For some, a shoulder to cry on and someone who cares goes a long way toward relieving anguish.

George Groddeck says,
A yearning is in me: when I am sad my heart cries for my mother, and she is not to be found. Am I then to grumble at God's world? Better to laugh at myself, at this childishness from which we never emerge, for never do we quite grow up; we manage it rarely, and then only on the surface; we merely play at being grown up as a child plays at being big. So soon as we live intensely we become children. . . Do but look upon someone in his moments of deepest sorrow .. . his eyes glisten or cloud over. . . . No one cries any more after he is grown up. But that is only because it is not the custom, because some silly idiot or other sent it out of fashion.(Groddeck, Georg, The Book of the It, page 20, (New York: New American Library, Mentor Books, '96).

The long lasting pain is reserved for those who are left behind. The dying person has his moment of agony and then it is over. The people left behind feel the loss for much of their lives.

Life holds two great terrors: one is the terror of ME dying and the other is the terror of losing someone whom I love. Both the terror and the attendant grief are things that do not happen to "other people," but to the self. When my father died, I wept mostly for ME. I cried because I was lonely and I knew that I would never again hear his voice or feel his touch. For me, the world was a lonelier and diminished place when he left it. I was also aware that HE was not in pain.

I have learned to cope with death and dying. Regrettably, I am almost getting to be proficient at it. I suppose that I shall have to deal with death several more times before my own turn comes to die. Dealing with death is the part of life which I find the most painful; yet, I would rather be the person who has to deal with death than be the one experiencing it.

Many people have pointed out that it is important for people to say their "good-byes." Why it is important is hard to define, except to point out that people who do not say their goodbyes are profoundly troubled by it for a long time.

After someone dies, the only way of venting grief is to "cry it out." Again, there is only the empiric observation that people who do not vent their grief are troubled with it for a longer time than those who do. In contrast to people who do not mourn, who carry the scars of death with them for a long time, those who do mourn find that after a time the grief is replaced by wistful memories.

I have dealt with the death of someone dear to me by both running away from it and by facing it directly and dealing with it. The effect of running was emotional disaster. All of the people I know who have dealt with death and dying agree that facing it and mourning is far better than avoiding it; and that the price of avoidance and denial is, in the long run, a much greater one.

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