Several months ago as I struggled to understand the apparently sudden death of a family acquaintance, the age-old question of living and dying with grace was again front and centre.
It was only after the obituary appeared that I learned that the most dreaded news: “you have cancer” had been delivered to him a couple of months earlier. I gather it was the patient’s choice to keep the diagnosis a secret.
That diagnosis doesn’t have to mean a death sentence. In most cases the medical community has something to offer — surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or some combination thereof. Where the prognosis is particularly grim, the patient can become a guinea pig where one hopeless thing after another is tried. Of course it is a matter of personal choice — tough, heart-breaking choice — as to what the patient will agree to try. Factors like personality, pain threshold, faith, optimism, support and confidence in the caregiver’s motivation and advice all come into play. Odds are that one day we will all be faced with these very questions either for ourselves or for someone we love. There is no right answer. There is only the answer that works for you.
As always, I sought to understand why this man had made that choice. I wondered what I would have done under similar circumstances.
By sharing the news the circle of potential prayers and support widens. But so does the curiosity, discomfiture, pity, and pain. How do friends, family, colleagues react to such news? How would their attitude and behaviour change? Would I want to protect myself and them from this altered relationship? What about the pity and thank-God-it’s-not-me thinking? Would I crumble or be strong? How would I prepare for the end, get closure with everyone who matters, say goodbye?
By sharing the bad news, resources and support multiply exponentially. But so does the loss of privacy and dignity. How much precious energy is wasted trying to “be on” for the masses?
Likewise, how much life energy is expended living a lie, keeping a secret, being on guard? Several years ago a young salesman who called on our business began having health issues, he couldn’t shake the simplest bug. I still can’t adequately describe the sorrow that washed over me one night as I read the newspapers that had piled up in my absence. There on the obituary pages was the notice of Clinton’s death, aged 30-something. Reading between the lines I knew that AIDS had taken his life. To his dying day he kept his homosexuality a secret. Why didn’t he trust anyone — family or friends — enough to tell the truth? It saddens me to think of him dying with a secret. Could there be anything lonelier?
If faced with this issue I think I’d share the diagnosis and let the power of prayer and concern and love help fight the diagnosis into submission or at the very least improve the quality of the time remaining: the ultimate choice for me, from where I sit.
*Reprinted with permission