Facing death personally can often feel like an emotional rollercoaster, with grief, love, fear, anger, hope, peace and despair all finding a place at one time or another. A range of emotions is normal, but if you find yourself feeling constantly numb, help is available.
The process of coming to terms with a life-limiting condition is as unique as your fingerprint. It might sound obvious, but when facing death everyone’s experience is different. As a result, there are no rights and wrongs to how you ‘should’ be feeling or behaving.
You may have good days and better days. Some days, it may feel like one step forward and two steps back. On other days, you may not even be able to explain how you feel. That’s OK.
It’s not surprising that the prospect of dying or facing death will have an effect on the way you feel and on your mood. The process of dying marks the end of a journey: your life on this earth. That inevitably involves sadness, grief, and a sense of loss.
Research into grief has shown that people’s reactions to loss may not just be in feelings that come and go but can even be felt in every fibre of their being.
The Handbook for Mortals, written for people dealing with terminal illness, puts it this way:
“Grief, like other emotions, can make its presence known both in body and mind. You may lose your appetite, experience aches and pains, sleep too long or not enough. Feel depressed, melancholy, hopeless, feel angry at the world, yourself or your loved one. Feel guilty for things left unsaid or undone, or feel unable to concentrate.
“All of these feelings and sensations are grief’s way of making its presence known. These reactions are the normal, human response to loss.”
And in fact, you may feel like you are experiencing a series of losses – of your independence, social life, activities and so on. Grieving those losses will take time, but is a necessary part of coming to terms with death.
It’s perfectly understandable to find, as an illness or conditions stops you from doing things that were important to you, that you will feel sad. Many people feel that the loss of going to work, or being able to play energetically with children in the family, or drive the car, or move about freely, are big changes to deal with.
These changes can be like bereavements, and sometimes they come one after another, which can make people feel very sad and frustrated. This is all normal – it’s normal to feel emotional and to take time to adjust to the changes.
Amid the ups and downs, however, you may find that there can be moments of happiness too.
For several years, science journalist Ivan Noble blogged on the BBC website about his ongoing battle with a brain tumour. When he realised he was facing a losing battle, in one of his last entries he wrote:
“I do not have the life I want. I would love to be able to plan for birthdays and Christmases to come. My daughter is almost three and I still cannot believe she will share her third birthday with me very soon. But I have hope and joy in the uncertainty. I have great hope and faith that I have much to achieve before the end.”
He added: “I reached the age of thirty-five without calamity and only a freak accident of genetics blew me off course. My life now is hard but it is fulfilling and I am happy in my short-term way.”
One of the surprising discoveries of research into the process of dying is that many people who are in the last weeks and months of their lives feel emotionally comfortable.
In other words, it is entirely possible to feel contented and to enjoy life, right up to the very end. Of course, getting to that place is by no means straightforward, nor is it something that everyone is able to do.
There are many reasons for this. One of them is that people who are facing death can sometimes find that their mental health is more seriously affected. Research has shown that while many terminal cancer patients suffer from depression, most don’t receive any kind of treatment for it.
It’s important to know that help is available, including counselling. If you’re really struggling, it’s important to both ask for – and to accept – such help.
If you find that you are feeling numb or feeling indifferent to life, it’s worth asking for help from your doctor. Among other things, he or she may be able to refer you to a psychotherapist or, in some cases, prescribe medication.
Psychotherapists may offer cognitive behavioural therapy – or ‘CBT’ for short – which many dying people have found helpful. Cognitive behavioural therapy involves talking through the way you think and act with a trained professional.
Palliative care consultant Dr Kathryn Mannix sums it up: “I have been offering CBT to palliative care patients for 25 years. At first, other professionals thought I was crazy – surely it’s normal to feel depressed if you are dying?
But I knew from my hospice work that most dying people are not depressed, and in my clinic many depressed people have made themselves better, and lived to enjoy the last weeks and months of their lives. It’s wonderful to see them regain their enjoyment of life again, when they simply expected to remain miserable until they died.”
It is possible to calm your fears by understanding more about what may happen in the final weeks and days. Read more here.
In the Catholic tradition, devotion to the emotional life of Jesus – known as the ‘Sacred Heart’ – has a special place. Writing about the inner life of Christ, Pope Pius XII spoke about his natural fear of death and how – when dying on the cross – Jesus’ Sacred Heart “was strongly moved by different emotions – burning love, desolation, pity, longing desire, unruffled peace.”
In a moving prayer which demonstrated Jesus’s agony, he said: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew: 26: 39)