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.

Breathing

David Servan-Schreiber wrote about the power of breathing in his book ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’. Basically if you can breathe at 6 breaths a minute you automatically convince your body and mind that all is well. Your ‘limbic system’ selects neutral and goes into a state of relaxation – and quietly puts into gear your immune system to do routine maintenance. Your head convinces itself that all is in good order too.

So steady breathing is clearly a good thing to do. It fixes your limbic, tunes up your endocrine and settles your cognitive systems. But what’s interesting about breathing 6 times a minute, is that it’s very hard to do. If you are agitatated, active or at all anxious you can’t do it.

I was reminded how hard it is watching ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The film is slow, often majestic but but frequently claustrophobic and disquieting. And nowhere is it more claustrophobic then when you are virtually ‘in’ the spacesuit with Dr. David Bowman, breathing steadily, but strenuously as he prepares for and makes his lonely space walk in the sequence I’ve just watched.

The astronauts set out to fix a malfunction set up by the rogue on-board computer HAL. They surreptitiously discuss the potential need to disconnect HAL’s higher ‘brain’ functions to enable them to use his basic systems to run the space ship. Bowman wonders momentarily what HAL might ‘think’ of that – HAL’s single red ‘eye’ compulsively scans their mouths to lipread. We conclude HAL might not like that.

The combination of Kubrick’s perfectionism and Arthur C Clarke’s imagination is still a powerful one. I challenge anyone to watch this sequence and calmly breathe at 6 breaths a minute. Breathing both signals and drives the state of our nervous system. Even if the head says it’s fiction, finding yourself alone with HAL 9000 listening to the strenuous breathing of Dr Bowman makes the nervous system very nervous indeed.

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.

Heart

With a heavy heart my partner and I agreed today that we would have our old retired racing greyhound put to sleep next Tuesday morning. He has a tumour which has grown to the size of a half football on his side which hasn’t bothered him much until now. But he’s in pain today, I can see it.

I spent the day with my son, who’s very small, but quite wise for one so little. We took a bus, a train, a boat and a taxi and then went out for a scoot together. Two nights ago he asked me if I would die. I didn’t really know what to say. I put my hand on his chest and said I will live a long long time and that we all live on through the people we love. His hand rested on top of mine sandwiching my hand on top of his little pumping heart. Since then he’s raised the topic of dying several times with me. Tonight we decided we would both live forever and this made him happy. I can save the truth for a bit.

I was talking on Friday to a friend who lost his father quite quickly and painfully. His demise hadn’t been a good one – messed about and messed up by the health service. His mother has developed a heart condition in the process. This got us talking about cardiac coherence – a concept I picked up in David Servan-Schreiber’s book Healing without Freud or Prozac. Cardiac coherence is when the physiological systems which accelerate your heart are perfectly balanced with those which brake it – you are in balance and your immune system is fully optimized.

He writes about a boy and his dog who happened by his lab and for fun they tested for cardiac coherence. Sure enough when the boy and his dog were together the electrocardiogram showed each of them to be in the state of chaotic balance which is cardiac coherence. When they were moved apart they kept a healthy heart rate but came out of coherence. Brought back together and the coherence returned.

I’m not sure my dog ever did that for me. He’s a lovely old chap, but he doesn’t bring me inner peace. One person that does though is my little boy. Like the boy and his dog, I have become aware that simply being physically close to him often swings my heart slowly but surely into perfect coherence – I am happy, at peace and have a full heart.

Day one

Where to begin. I’ve blogged elsewhere for a couple of years now, so I know the score. Write what’s in your mind and go with the flow. It’s the day before my 42nd birthday and I’m typing (a little clumsily) on my brand new iPad which I’ve waited over 9 months for. Lovely. As Arthur C Clarke said the only thing which differentiates any sufficiently advanced technology from magic is the ability to understand the technology. The iPad like the iPhone is magic.

I decided to start writing because I’ve been thinking about it for a year or more. But I feared starting and in any case could never get my hand on the laptop – an iPhone is too fiddly for WordPress. So today is day one and what is in my mind? Mainly cancer.

Just thinking the word is enough to create tension in my chest. I had malignant melanoma over 15 years ago and had a big chunk of my left thigh chopped out. Strangely I can say melanoma more easily than cancer – I’ve said it more often to explain covering up in the sun or the large scar I have which shows in shorter shorts. Cancer riddling me is the sum of all fears. And one I’d long forgotten. But David Servan-Schreiber has reawakened my angst with his excellent book Anti Cancer. I think everyone over 35 should read it.

His curse is to scare me into going to the doctors. In rare cases melanoma returns and I have a couple of things to get checked out. His gift is to make me see – as I’ve been working up to for months, that looking inside yourself, caring for your own wellbeing and writing it down are all well worth doing. I had started a ‘to do’ list for my 50th birthday. The advice of a good friend, Anti Cancer and the fear of not making it suggests just getting on with it. Writing this is a start.