What was once unimaginable to you must now be imagined. What once seemed strange and awful—what may still seem strange and awful—must now be given its place in your life. In one way or another, you’ve been told you are dying.
Perhaps you’ve known that for quite some time and you’re no longer surprised. Or perhaps you’ve learned it only recently and it’s still a terrible shock. Either way, you’re in unknown territory now. You haven’t done this before. Those who love you are probably as unsteady and unsure as you. And the larger world around you, with a few important exceptions, will not make this time much easier for you.
Our culture does not handle dying very well. It’s no longer a part of our everyday lives as it was for our ancestors. We don’t look upon it as directly as they did. We don’t live with it as closely. Most of us don’t participate in it as personally. So when the news comes that we’re dying, we’re at a definite loss. We have so little background for knowing what to do. It all seems so unfamiliar and frightening. This can be a very upsetting time for everyone.
So what can you do at such a time?
Be who you are.
Traumatic news has rocked your life: your days on earth are limited. You’ve always known that, of course. Everyone does. You’ve been aware that anyone who is born must one day die. But now the truth strikes home in a way you’ve never realized. This is not about just anyone—it’s about you.
As you work through all this means for you, and for those around you, it’s important to keep one fundamental fact in mind. While a monumental change has occurred in your life, one thing has not changed at all: who you are. You’re the same person you’ve always been. You have the same personality, the same idiosyncrasies, the same likes and dislikes, the same memories. You are still you, and you dare not forget that.
• You are uniquely, unrepeatably you. There is no one exactly like you. There never has been, never will be. That means, among other things, that you’ll go through this experience now in your own original way. You will not conform to some rigid pattern because none exists for you. You will create your own. The best way for you to go through this time is in the way that’s true for you. How will you know? You’ll learn by doing. You’ll make your way by going.
• You are more than your illness. A disease has taken center stage in your life. Your doctors study it, measure it, treat it, and talk about it. Sometimes you may understand all this, and sometimes not. Family and friends will often want to know the details of what’s happening to you, and how you’re feeling, and what they can do for you. Your sickness may begin to feel like a deficiency or a flaw. You may be treated only as a patient, or worse, as an invalid. But the truth is clear: your disease does not define you. Your identity remains apart from your illness. Cling to that knowledge. From time to time, you may need to remind others as well.
• You are more than your body. It’s common for others to concentrate on what’s happening to you physically. You may do that yourself. These internal and external changes to your body can be uncomfortable, unpleasant, even distressing. But the person you are physically is only one part of who you are really. It is your mind, your heart, and your soul that complete you and make you a whole. During this time of your life, in fact, these other, less visible parts of you may become more important than the visible.
• You’re who you know you are, not who others think you are. You may find that people expect you to be somehow different because you’re dying. They may treat you differently, either consciously or unconsciously. However it happens, they’re acting this way for themselves, not for you. By emphasizing the differences between you and them, they hide from the one important thing you share in common—one day they, like you, will also die. You don’t have to like the way they treat you, but it will help if you can understand why they’re doing it. After all, until recently you may have done the same thing to someone else. For the time at hand, be clear about who you are within yourself. Hold fast to that essence that is yours alone.
As you proceed through this period of your life, just be you. Keep being you. And day by day, determine to become more and more that person you’re being invited to be. No one can do this but you. And no one can do it any better than you.
By James E. Miller