Finding life in every breath

People tend to keep the subject of mortality at the back of their minds until the situation demands. But when a terminally ill person knows that death is imminent, it's an overwhelming and a dreadful epiphany impossible to shake off.
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There is no coming back intact from a terminally ill disease. Neither for the patient nor the loved ones. When death comes naturally, life ends in a snap of fingers. The family members mourn, and move on with their lives keeping the memories of the departed alive. With a terminal illness, on the other hand, a person dies every day. They lose their appetite and their ability to function normally, while the body degenerates until there is no strength left in the muscles. After months of pain and difficulty in breathing, when there is nothing left in the body, except the pulsating veins, terminal illness delivers its final blow. Yes, natural death is equally but with a terminal illness, each day feels like a funeral, filled with helplessness and grief.

Dying Matters Coalition is an NGO that works on raising awareness of mortality. A survey taken up by the NGO reveals that thousands of people in Europe don’t know what their partner’s end-of-life wishes are. Quite a sobering thought. Generally, people tend to keep the subject of mortality at the back of their minds until the situation demands. But when a terminally ill person knows that death is imminent, it’s an overwhelming and dreadful epiphany impossible to shake off. The unbearable pain of leaving the loved ones behind, sleepless nights thinking about ‘should have’ and ‘could have’ and coming to terms with death—how can a person endure all these at once? The stress that fumes, when a doctor breaks the terrible news of terminal illness, split into different emotional barriers such as fear, anger, guilt, and regret. These emotional states consume a patient’s mind, which, on the contrary, should be focused on making every minute count.

The fear of death is one such barrier that keeps the patient awake at night. During such testing times, a terminally ill person should ask themselves what scares them the most about death? Is it the unfinished bucket list? Or emotional and physical pain? Fear of dying? Or the fact that everything will cease to exist as nothing lies beyond death? A dying person’s mind is often left crippled with such thoughts, making them anxious and afraid in their last moments.

The questions vary as per the mental state of a patient, but in the end, it all boils down to attitude and perspectives. Counselling psychologist with The British Psychological Society,  Dr. Elaine Ryan writes on her website: “The only difference between an intrusive thought that pops into your head and then leaves, and an intrusive thought that is distressing, is how you respond to it.” For instance, if someone is afraid of being alone, they should share their fears with their family and friends. On the same lines, when someone is sharing their fears, people should remember to listen more and speak less. Grief counsellor Len Auclair writes in his blog: “You share their loss, simply by being with them and not thinking of what to say next. It is not necessary. Your presence is enough. You can selectively reflect back their own words… less is more.”By doing this, loved ones can also prevent any wrong ideas from springing into the mind of a dying person, helping them see things in a new light.

The feelings of anger and fear are easy to cope with if a patient decides to involve their loved ones. But what about thoughts of guilt and regret? They are emotions that don’t easily leave a person’s mind as it’s something where they don’t blame others, but themselves.

A dying person has a gamut of emotions at play. If it’s anger and not fear that is giving them a sleepless night, there are countless ways to manage it. Over 40 years ago, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in near-death studies, identified anger as a natural emotion of a dying patient. Obviously, no one wants to die and leave the precious gift of life behind. It’s unfair, and people with terminal illnesses have every right to be angry. But they need to rise above these emotions. They can talk about their anger with a person they trust. Talk about it. Let everything out. And when the resentful thoughts are taken over by a feeling of calmness and peace, shut the door behind the angst forever.

The feelings of anger and fear are easy to cope with if a patient decides to involve their loved ones. But what about thoughts of guilt and regret? They are emotions that don’t easily leave a person’s mind as it’s something, where they don’t blame others, but themselves. For not caring much about the people they love, for not visiting their dream destination due to work or for not living the life they always thought they would. The list of regrets and guilt is endless.

Life coach Christine Hassler’s take on guilt and regret is something that anyone can apply in such a predicament. On her personal blog, she explains: “Let me break it down: something happens. You react, you make a choice, you take an action. Then … you take all this awareness and information that you have now and beat yourself up because you did not know it then … Please understand, you really truly did the best you could at the time! Trust me. And until you really take in this truth, you will stay stuck in regret.”It’s okay if an individual didn’t do what he intended to do earlier. They can still do those things today. Today is what they have with them; life is in the moment.

When days are numbered, a person values their life even more and wishes to do something that they always wanted to do—perhaps, write a book about someone they met when they were 30 or stand on a cliff and feel the sun on their face, or dive in the Great Barrier Reef or lunch at Le Cinq in Paris. There is life in every breath, especially when it is fleeting.

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