When faced with the diagnosis of a terminal illness and breaking the news: Four points to consider
Last week we lost Hollywood novelist, #JackieCollins (the Santangelo novels, Hollywood Wives), to #breastcancer.
The media focused on the strong relationship between the two Collins sisters, Jackie and Joan (Dynasty, Pacific Palisades, Egoli), the love they shared for each other and how Jackie kept her 7-year-long battle with cancer a secret from her older sister, Joan, until a mere two weeks before her death.
If you found yourself, heaven forbid, in a similar situation:
- What would you do?
- Is it better to share the reality of your prognosis with friends and loved ones?
- Or is it kinder to shield them from it?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions.
However, I would like to share four points that you might like to consider.
- Death and loss are a given
“Death and taxes are the only givens in this world,” goes the well-worn cliché.
While some may evade paying taxes, loss and death are most certainly unavoidable.
One of our psychological and spiritual tasks in this world is to make peace with the impermanence of life.
As Buddhists well know, the inability to accept this impermanence leaves one feeling unhappy and distressed in a variety of ways.
Gently and compassionately exposing our children and loved ones to the reality of loss is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
For parents, I always advice that they explain the concept of death (when relevant, such as before or following the passing of a family pet, neighbour, or grandparent) in ways that are developmentally appropriate to their children, so that their children have a growing awareness that life is precious and our time together is in fact limited.
2. Can you bear to allow those around you (and yourself) to come to terms with your death?
Jackie only sought medical attention two years after discovering a lump in her breast.
“I thought, ‘I’m not dealing with this’ because in my mind I decided it was benign,” she told People Magazine in her final interview days before passing away.
“I’ve had to deal with losing my mother [to breast cancer], my husband [to prostate cancer] and my fiancé [to lung cancer] and I did not want to put pressure on everybody in the family. So I happily, happily went day by day.”
It is vital that you consider whether you not sharing your prognosis with others is a way of avoiding the difficult reality that you are faced with.
Does not sharing your prognosis allow you to stay in a place of personal denial?
Is there a fear that you will not be able to cope if you see the hearts of those around you break?
Jackie feared that telling Joan about her breast cancer any earlier would have been a “burden.” Do you secretly believe that others will not be able to survive hearing the news? Perhaps you are underestimating them and their emotional strength.
3. Addressing unfinished business
Humans are complicated and by extension, so is our communication.
We tend to leave so many things unsaid out of fear of either personal rejection or the other person feeling rejected.
We carry significant and weighty emotional baggage around with us based on our recollections of the past and the assumptions we have made about others’ actions. Often these assumptions are based on incomplete knowledge of past and current situations.
Knowing that your time with a loved one is drawing to a close does something to break down the veil of silence maintained for so long.
We find ways of discussing what hitherto felt like taboo topics of conversation.
Talking things over, showing curiosity about what actually happened, and what was in the mind of the other, can be incredibly healing.
There is the potential for resolving misunderstandings. You might not like the answers given but at least you will have some answers outside of your reconstruction of events and the assumptions based on them.
4. Your loved one may want to be at your side
Many factors will inform your decision to either share or withhold your prognosis from those close to you.
Sharing your prognosis with those around you also communicates how important they are to you – that you value them.
It allows them to be a part of one of the most important stages in your life – as well as their own.
It is not pleasant to think about the reality of loss – especially of those we love. Unfortunately, there is no way around the reality that every life comes to an end.
In this blog post I have shared four points that I hope will help you think about starting the conversation around the limited time you have with friends and loved ones.
This might not be initiated because of a terminal illness but the knowledge that life is impermanent and no-one is certain about how long they have left to live.
Nothing reminds us more of how precious time and life are than when faced with loss of a loved one.