Fear is such a confusing feeling. It causes some to run from the object they fear and others towards it. Some fear the actual feeling of fear without knowing what exactly it is they are afraid of. Is it like the young child, who after put to bed, lives each second worrying about the monster in the closet? Or, is it the mother, who sends her child to school, fearful of the actions of other children? Maybe, it’s the hospice nurse, who spends her days trying to help patients that are dying, and is herself not at all brave in the face of illness and dying.
“Don’t be afraid”, I hear myself saying far too often. There she sat, the younger mother, her body ravaged by cancer that started in her breasts and spread through her body like a nefarious army. For about 3 years, she battled. The chemo, the radiation and the endless surgeries all stealing her strength and wellbeing. But, she had a cherub faced 4 year old with chocolatey brown hair and eyes as blue as the sky. So, she kept fighting – kept trying all the therapies they suggested and some even had some success, a couple of clean scans and her hope was at its all time high.
That’s what makes the recurrence so bitterly difficult to comprehend. Just as she was able to see a sliver of a future, it was viciously ripped from her hands. “I am just scared. Scared of leaving my daughter, scared of what death feels like, scared of what happens after death,” she often cried to me. I couldn’t keep telling her not to be afraid when I would live with the same fears if I was in her position. As her tears flowed I inhaled sharply and said “I would also be afraid.” Her surprise caught me off guard. It was palpable and she looked up at me with a quizzical look. Reaching for her hand, cool to the touch and painfully small, we spent what felt like hours talking about our fears.
We both cried, we both laughed and even talked about how unfair we felt this all was. She bravely said “I think I have accepted this is my path, but, I just don’t get why?” I wish I had that answer. I wish that my words were able to allay her fears and silence her worries. All I could do was let her know that she was not alone in her feelings.
Hospice nurses are often thought of as the authority on end of life. Truth is, there are questions that I will never have answers to. There will be fears that I cannot take away. But, I am human and I too, have fears of being ill, of leaving my loved ones and children and of what happens during and after death.
Is it a bright light in a hallway that beckons you? Is it that last breath, that with an exhale pushes your soul out? Is there a happy reunion of long passed loved ones who start appearing close to the end and help transition you? What makes your last breath the last one? Is it the body unable to carry on, or is it the soul finally ready to go, spearheading the end? The truth is, I don’t know. And, I too, am afraid of it.
We had several conversations as her condition continued its downward trajectory. One afternoon during a visit, I thought she was resting as I was counting her medications. “You have no idea how much you have helped me,” she weakly uttered out. “You might just think you helped me with emptying my drains and taking my pain away, but, you telling me you are afraid of all the same things I am afraid of was the most beautiful and special moment that we have shared. I cannot ever thank you enough. When people tell me not to be afraid, it’s almost like they are not listening to me and dismissing my feelings. You let me feel my feelings. Thank you for such a special gift.”
As you can imagine, we were both crying at this point. Truth is that for a few days after our initial talk, I was stuck in guilt muck feeling like maybe because I told her I was also afraid, it would maybe make her fear more. With her words, I understood that the opposite was true. Allowing her to feel that she wasn’t alone gave her strength. It will always be held in my heart as a profoundly touching moment in my nursing career.
This patient passed peacefully a few days later. My wish is that she is just as peaceful now as she was after our talk. Would love for her to tell me how the metamorphosis in death was like. But, however it is, I just know that on some level, leaving this life is terribly sad but also full of amazing reunions.
Our first gut reaction when someone says they are afraid is to tell them to not be. We sometimes dismiss their feelings because we might be afraid to face our own fears on the subject. But, when time is limited, letting someone be heard might be the last gift we can give them. Allowing them to feel a common bond with us makes the difficult a little less difficult. In the end, we all have thoughts and feelings. Our humanity bonds us.
The only thing I can say for certain is, don’t be afraid, you are not alone.