emotions of facing death
Several years ago, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and to my never-ending relief she has been disease-free since she completed her treatment. But the roller-coaster ride I went on throughout her process has left an indelible mark on my soul.
My love for Leonie is deeper than I could possibly express, so I won’t waste time here by trying, but in more mundane terms I’ll just say that I don’t regret a single moment of our lives together.
In the business of dying and death we always hear about grief and the trauma of grief, but for me there was an emotion that preceded grief and trauma and it’s called terror. That’s what I want to talk about.
From the very moment I heard her diagnosis, I felt like the world was literally crumbling beneath my feet and I was terrified. Experts say that dying and death bring family members and friends face to face with their own mortality and that that represents one of the biggest shocks a person gets on the road to grief and trauma.
While it’s certainly a valid point, that’s not how it happened for me. After the terror of potentially losing the love of my life, I had more terrifying thoughts. ‘How will I live without her?’, ‘How can I raise my young children in the depths of my grief?’, ‘How will our family survive?’, ‘Will I be able to rise to this challenge?’. My own mortality didn’t enter my mind until much later. Then it was, ‘What will happen to the kids if I die?’.
So, there I was, trying my best to be comforting and supportive for my wife and children, while feeling the immense weight of personal shame for my own selfish thoughts. For me, that was the trauma.
Each of the questions I asked myself at that time had their own, separate emotional content attached, and with all of them thrown together, all I could feel was numb. That’s when the grief hit me. Grief at the possibility of losing my wife, yes. But also, grief at my helplessness, insecurity and vulnerability in the face of a monumental personal challenge.
Years later, I still ask myself these same questions, but the questions aren’t shameful or overwhelming to me anymore. They are valid and important. They have become touchstones, guiding me to make adjustments to myself and the person I want to be today.