I am approaching the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. Her diagnosis of cancer and decline was swift. My memories of her illness are swollen with confusion, guilt, doubt, anxiety and fear.
A colleague told me that the death of one’s mother paves the way to thinking about our own mortality. Though I felt supported by many people during the initial months of my grieving, this comment rang more true than any other I had heard.
Thinking about death can be terrifying. However, thoughts of our own demise can give way to appreciating what life holds now; it can also help us plan for the future.
I have made a number of changes in the last year. I gave up many professional activities that caused me more frustration than pleasure. I spend more time doing what I love both at work and at home.
It would be both cliché and disingenuous to say that I appreciate every single day, but my life has certainly changed, and for that, I am grateful.
I have been aware for a long time that we are living in an unprecedented time of longevity. Many of us can expect to live long lives, and this fact is novel for baby boomers and future generations. More of us will be confronted with the task of managing one or more chronic illnesses. If we are not ill ourselves, we will be given the choice to help people we love cope with the ramifications of medical disease.
Helping people cope with illness is not easy. It goes without saying that illness reminds us of death. Earnest Becker’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Denial of Death, points out that one way we deny death is to focus on the desire to be a hero. Being a hero, in this context, refers not only to our own basic need to feel powerful and the biological desire to preserve ourselves, but also to the power to cheat death.
One way some of us deny death is to focus on success, gratification, love, sex, money, and all the things that make us feel powerful and in control. It is as if we are saying to ourselves, “Only the weak can die. If I can be powerful, than I can live forever.” Though many of us spend a lot of time trying to develop power and control, we are often reminded of our limitations. People we love die. Friends and relatives get sick and we cannot save them.
After my own mother died, I became worried that I too would die suddenly. Yet, I am still here and have some ideas about what we can do to manage anxiety in this scary and ambiguous time of a longer life.
When we can talk about illness and death it allows us to integrate something that we can’t really escape anyway. When people we care about are sick, being able to manage our anxieties about bodily vulnerability allows us to provide support.
Perhaps the most important reason for us to overcome difficulties in talking about illness is that it allows us to be connected to others. Human relationships and feeling close to others are important aspects of physical and mental health.
Over the years, many people struggling with illness have explained to me how emotionally pained they felt when a friend or family member said something that was not helpful. I experienced this as well. When I was talking with a friend after my mother died, she stopped me mid-sentence, to explain to me which stage of grieving I was in! Though the comment may have been well intentioned, it sent the message that this was not someone I could speak to about my emotions.
We all get anxious when we think about illness. This should not stop us from thinking about what we want and need in our lives now. We also should consider planning for the future. If we live a long time, whom do we want to grow old with? Are there things we can do financially to plan? Are there things we do which are risk factors for disease that we may feel ready to give up?
We only get one body and one life. We can choose to take care of ourselves. If you are like me, there are many things we can all do better to hedge our bets regarding the likelihood of becoming ill.
However, in my opinion (and there is a great deal of research to back me up on this) relationships have the potential to be healing. It is worth taking the time to think about how to nurture those we know who are ill. If the relationship is meaningful, then it behooves us to show up emotionally.
It is equally important that we think about what we need from those who share in our personal and professional lives. At the end of the day, taking care of others and ourselves is what gives most of us pleasure and joy. Relationships are what make life worth living. They are worth the time and energy.
(This article originally appeared on Maria Shriver’s website, November 9, 2012.)