The Fear of Dying

20111224-222302.jpgA good friend’s mother died last week. But we went to the footie together on Wednesday, as we’d planned despite – and because of it.

We didn’t talk much about it, but talking to others, one of the things in anyone’s head when parents die is: who will I turn to when I need some help? Some advice? Some love? Someone to be unconditionally proud of me?

Then there’s the realisation – I’m next. No-one can bear the thought of burying their own child, so the inescapable conclusion has to be that the least worst outcome is – I go next.

When I was worried about cancer 18 months ago I read David Servan-Schrieber’s excellent book Anticancer. Since then I’ve recommended it to four people – two diagnosed, one with a brother diagnosed and one with a terminal friend.

There’s a chapter I’ve mentioned to all four which describes the six worst fears about dying. I found it hard to read – it made my heart beat faster and feeling of anxiety rise in my chest. I knew I’d want to read it again – but couldn’t bring myself to do it, until today, remembering my friend.

Servan-Schreiber himself died this year, which feels strange. In a way he was speaking in the abstract when I read it last – now he’s been there and done it. This time though, the chapter didn’t make me anxious at all. The cloud of cancer has lifted from over my head. But also writing and reading Montaigne and others on death has defused the bomb for me – at least for now.

I feel calmer at the prospect of death, not least because I now have some answers for the six greatest fears:

1) The fear of suffering: as Montaigne convincingly tells, Mother Nature gives us all we need to cope at the end – dehydration, delirium, distance, departure.

2) The fear of nothingness: people and increasingly science concur: Oxygen depletion automatically creates a welcoming white light to which we are drawn, leaving only an eternal moment to reflect on the unique trace on the universe we have left with our lives.

3) The fear of dying alone: Servan-Schreiber quotes someone else’s advice: ‘Escape the prison of positive thinking’, accept time’s up and make your peace with those around you so they can cope with being near.

4) The fear of being a burden: Servan-Schreiber makes a good point, that in death rather than being ‘useless’ we become pioneers and guides for everyone close to us – we’re all going on this journey.

5) The fear of abandoning your children: an enormous amount of resourcefulness has already been carefully placed there – love, confidence, care – which they will draw on their whole lives.

6) The fear of unfinished stories: as Mike Oldfield says in ‘The living years’ – say it now, say it loud. Say the things you always wanted to say and do the things you wanted to do – or get over them. I reckon I’ve already had a good knock and said most of what I need – so far – to say to those who matter the most.

‘Pretty, act young, be fearless’ – as ‘Scorpios’, my choice of funeral music goes. I still have my folks though, so perhaps I’m kidding myself.

Servan-Schreiber

I was sad to read today that David Servan-Schrieber lost his battle against cancer the other day. But although he lost the battle, I think he won the war. He lived nearly twenty full and vivid years post diagnosis of a brain tumour. His cancer spurred him to develop as a human being and to write. Reading his books and fearing the big ‘C’ did the same for me.

His writing combined a rock solid scientific foundation with an interest in the whole person. As someone wrote in an obituary, he was tete, coeur et corps – head, heart and body. All I have to say is read his books: ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’ for the head and the heart and ‘Anticancer’ for the body.

A good man, who it is tempting to say died too young. But reading about his full medical, research, writing, speaking, travelling and sporting life, perhaps at 50 he managed as Aristotle recommends: ‘to rise from life as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken.’ I hope so.