It should come as no surprise that when you are told you have a life threatening injury or illness, you can’t help but face your mortality. Those thoughts that we all have about death become much less subjective. It may not creep into your consciousness initially, but at some point it will. And it probably won’t be in the form of a “bucket list”, frankly that feels like a fantasy of the healthy because I could not have contemplated a trip around the world in my condition. (so in other words- don’t keep things on a bucket list- just do them as you are able) Anyways, it probably isn’t a surprise that you would think about death, but what may surprise you is how deeply you contemplate and face LIFE in those moments- your life, it’s circumstances, the people who are in it, the decisions you have made, etc.
Erik Erikson, an ego psychologist, wouldn’t have been surprised as he developed a psychosocial model of development through the lifespan- culminating in the final stage of ego integrity vs despair. This stage is characterized by reflecting on our accomplishments and determining if we have lived a life which feels purposeful and complete, leading to wisdom and integrity; or if have we lived in a way which feels incomplete or unfinished, leading to despair. While he intended that stage mostly for the elderly, if you are facing a life threatening condition- you likely will go into that reflective place, and with any luck have the ability to make changes, so that your life is more in line with your values.
For me, this happened in the 5th month of chemo, when my body was battered and we kept having to delay chemo treatments because the white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets were in trouble. While I still was working, I pretty much was in bed any time that I could be. Having my platelets drop to the low 40s and ending up in the ER because of heart palpitations, caused me to deeply reflect about what I wanted for my family if I did not make it. I’m not sure that I truly felt like I was going to die, but certain priorities became paramount and my attention focused onto what I needed to do. This was one way of coping with that death anxiety.
The changes we made were significant, but when I think about the other women I met in support communities and their stories of going through treatment and getting divorced, changing careers, losing or leaving significant relationships with family and friends, all because these circumstances were toxic to their health. Having cancer meant that they could no longer afford to sacrifice themselves in the way that they once had. They had come to that moment of clarity and said, “the cost of staying in this situation is too high”. I was awestruck by what a catalyst cancer could be for taking a stand and valuing themselves, and while the changes were often filled with emotional pain, fear and challenges- the boost to their own self worth, dignity, and integrity was a beautiful thing to observe.
So while it may seem shocking to family and friends, don’t be surprised by the impact having a life threatening condition may have on your life. Seek the resources and supports you need to think about what your needs are and what you wish to do about them. As I wrote in the prior post, having a life threatening condition asks us to live more boldly than we have lived before. The one thing we know we have is this very moment, and it has the ability to be one of the greatest teachers you may ever have the honor to meet.
“When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of of the heart.”