I can still feel Ian’s arms wrapped around me, grasping me tightly — almost desperately. The tears stream down both of our faces as the doctor’s news settles in. We hold each other as if we are holding on to this one moment in time — the only certainty we have left.
Ian’s terminal cancer diagnosis propels us into the world of the unknown — where tomorrow is never guaranteed and each milestone, each good-bye, each “I love you”, could be your last.
Death is imminent.
I fear for my husband’s life. Will he make it? Will he live to see Theo turn one?
I fear for my life. How will I survive without him? How will I raise a two young children by myself?
My mind wanders. I fear for my future without him.
Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, months turn into a year. Ian is still alive. It’s been 15 months since his cancer metastasized. He’s beat the odds, but his time is running short.
I can still see the hospice nurse’s heartbroken look as she makes eye contact with me. I know what’s coming and I can feel her proceeding with caution — fearing my reaction. She starts to cry as the words leave her mouth. I wrap my arms around her; lifelessly comforting her as the air is sucked out of my lungs.
Ian will pass tonight. Ian will die.
For a second the room feels like it’s spinning, but then a new sensation takes over.
It’s relief. It’s calm. It’s peaceful.
I no longer fear my husband’s death. I’m ready. I’m ready to surrender — to stop the suffering, the fighting, the uncertainty and guessing. It’s his time.
Ian passes away in the early hours the next morning.
Days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, months turn into a year. I feel numb, disconnected, then angry, and sad. The fear returns — but in a whole new way.
I fear this new life without my husband.
I fear for my children’s life.
I fear for mine.
I fear that I’m not strong enough to do this by myself.
I fear for my heart — that if I open it up it will break again.
I fear that there is no going back — no return to “normal.”
I fear my own grief — it’s power to trap me or transform me.
I fear what other’s think about my grief — how I’m handling my loss.
I fear for my children’s grief — for their life without their father.
I fear that this is all too much.
I fear that I can’t survive.
I fear that I’m losing him.
I feared Ian’s death, and now that my worst fear became my reality — I find myself fearing my new normal without him. But what I’ve learned (and grief expert David Kessler puts so well) is that fear doesn’t prevent death. Fear only prevents us from living!
Luckily, Ian knew this secret all along because in the month’s leading up to his ultimate death, he chose life. Death was already certain for him — so why fear it? He chose life and made the most of it.
Same with my hospice nurse experience. Once she told me that Ian would die that night, all of the worrying, the waiting, the guessing, the speculation — the anxiety — was gone. It just was. Ian was going to die. So what could I do with the remaining time I had left with him?
Death is the ultimate change, the ultimate end. It is a change we think we can’t understand and an ending we think we can’t survive. But although the change happens whether we want it to or not, we can find freedom in accepting it., and in understanding it as a prelude to something else. – David Kessler
We fear death. We fear for the day that we will die. We fear for the day that our loved one’s will die. We fear for what our lives will be like in the aftermath of such a loss.
We fear death in an anticipatory sense — like in the case of Ian’s terminal illness — or even right now, as the whole world fears the potential risk of COVID-19.
We fear death both for its finiteness, but also for the unknown aftermath. What happens after someone dies? — for both the person dying, as well as their survivor.
Yet, much of our fear surrounding death is attributed to how we perceive it.
Fear is an emotional response induced by a real or perceived threat. – Psychology Today
Fear is valid — it’s a response — meaning, we don’t always consciously control it. Yet, what intrigues me about this definition is also the word “perceived”.
Yes, death is an ending. A painful ending. An ending to someone’s life. A life we don’t want to and can’t imagine living without. The threat is real — no one wants to say goodbye to someone they love, or feel the hurt of loss.
But the threat of death is merely a fact of life. Our perception of death is what makes us truly fear it.
Kessler explains that the way our society views and even talks about death — he lost the fight to cancer, heart failure, he left us to soon (ie. Like abandonment), she didn’t make it — adds an element of choice to the experience of loss. Like if he tried harder, we would still be here — he would have beat it!
Death is not a choice. In fact, death is a certainty! It’s not something that we can opt-out of or defeat. Death, just like birth, is another phase of life. Yet, society positions death as the ultimate enemy. Something to be feared, conquered and destroyed.
So if a loved one dies we — death wins. We lose.
This perspective does a major disservice to anyone facing a terminal illness or for survivors of a loss.
For those facing death, it ignites fear. If shifts the focus to fighting a battle that cannot be won (in some cases, not all); instead of focusing on how to live more in the remaining time left. For survivors of loss, it sets us up for regrets and blame — for getting stuck in all the should haves, would haves, could haves; for finding a doctor, a person, or higher power to blame; or for asking “why me?” as we try to make sense of the loss when most of the time it’s senseless. It’s an uncontrollable outcome of life.
Once we accept that somethings just are, that there are no choices to make, no winners or losers, and that life will unfold in a meaningful way despite the meaningless nature of such tragedies — it takes away the element of fear.
Now, I think it’s important to point out that I never would have considered this perspective or written these words before Ian died. But, the experience of his death and the grief that has followed has taught me how to surrender. To let go of control. To stop fighting and accept the gifts and challenges that each day brings me. I’m still learning, but this mindset is honestly my survival mechanism for navigating life without him. (I even dedicate an entire module on Surrender in my new moveTHRU Grief course — it’s that powerful!)
So if you are facing a terminal diagnosis, supporting someone who is, or have lost someone and are wallowing in the darkest depths of grief asking yourself what just happened to my life? — please remember that your fear is valid!
My advice is to lean into your fear — FEEL IT! My safe place for experiencing emotions is through movement — yoga, hiking, or jumping on a spin bike.
Then once you’ve felt it, challenge it. Ask yourself:
- What are you truly afraid of?
- What is the threat?
- Is the threat real or perceived? (It can be a combination of both!)
- How much control do I have over this threat?
- And most importantly, is this fear potentially limiting me from experiencing life fully?
Fear isn’t about avoiding death. It’s is about missing out on life.
Thank you to my late husband Ian who inspired me to live fearlessly even though there are days I’m scared shitless of my new life without him, and to his mom Leslie who sent me David Kessler’s book Finding Meaning – The Sixth Stage of Grief. It’s helping me make sense of the senseless.