Warning – this is not a good post to read if you are grieving or have a lot of anxiety about death
The horror stories were flying in thick and fast, “Dad has been hallucinating all weekend on his new meds”, “Dad lost a pint of blood through a haemorrhage from his feet”, “I came home and found the floor covered in blood”. They did some tests, found that his white blood cell count was dangerously low and scheduled him in for a trip to the hospice for a blood transfusion. Then on Monday two weeks ago tomorrow he had another bleed and had to be rushed to the hospice as an emergency; he should have gone to hospital really, but he insisted and in the end they took him there. He almost died that night, but pulled through and has been in the hospice ever since.
A couple of weeks ago his consultant told him that they wouldn’t be offering him any more radiotherapy or chemotherapy and that really knocked him psychologically. Personally, I’ve started to wish that they’d never done the chemo at all because it raised a lot of false hope and unrealistic expectations which have enabled both my parents to stay in denial a lot longer than they might have done otherwise. Even after the “no more treatment meeting”, he was saying things like, “The diagnosis hasn’t changed”. Well no, thank goodness, because if it had, you’d be dead already! His original diagnosis couldn’t be much worse!
My parents have always been adept at denial and there are good reasons for that tendency in them, but it does make things extra hard on everyone. It’s hard on the dying person who’s tormented by false hope and doesn’t spend the little time they have left preparing themselves for death. It’s very hard on the family who have to play along and pretend that what’s happening isn’t really happening. No matter how hard you try to be realistic you find yourself slipping into denial because you tend to take your lead from the dying person. Over the last couple of months I’ve found myself thinking things like “maybe he’ll live another few months”, pretending that I can’t see just how badly he’s deteriorated recently.
Andy and I visited him last week and it was very, very difficult. He finally seemed to have come out of denial, only to move straight into depression. I was really worried at the time that he might die in a state of depression. After we left, he sent me some text messages that really upset me saying he knew he was “boring” to visit and implying that he felt like a terrible burden on us all. I started to dread the text messages, but I didn’t want to dread what might be his last message to me! And I didn’t want his last message to me to be something that really upset me.
The hardest part for me is that I’ve been feeling terrible angry recently because I want the father I remember back and I’ve been in my own state of denial imagining that he might come back somehow. My father has always been the kind of person who stays calm in a crisis and helps other people. Now I see him panic stricken and fixating morbidly on every little problem.
This week I’ve finally come to an acceptance that he’s not coming back as he was, but the person we’re seeing more of now has always been a part of him, just not a part we saw much of before he was ill. Most of the anger has lifted, but I have felt more emotional and less able to cope as a result, so maybe my anger was actually a defence mechanism sustaining me.
Little things really get to me. I was walking through town in the beautiful sunshine last week looking at the flowers in the park and it suddenly struck me how hard it must be for my Dad to leave all of this, how one day I will have to take leave of all this.
The terminal illness of someone close shakes you to the core; you lose your sense of security; you are presented with the stark reality of illness and death, with a spectacle of relentless suffering, with just how cruel life can be sometimes. One of the things that I find most devastating in all this and most hard to think about is the fact that my 96 year-old grandmother, after a life of great hardship, now has to watch her only son die. It seems so deeply unfair. I can’t help but feel angry about it and think “doesn’t she deserve some peace in her last years?”
It’s certainly made me think about how I would like to prepare for death. Assuming I don’t get hit by a bus and have some time to prepare, I hope I’ll be able to face it as squarely as possible although really we should always be prepared for death because it can come at any time, but most people are allowed to ignore that fact until age strips them of the illusion.