How Does Someone Cope With Being Told They’re Going To Die?

Firstly, as far as I’m aware I’m not going to die anytime soon, so please don’t worry – this post isn’t directly about me. But this week has been another emotional rollercoaster. I’ve gone from the incredible highs of a very successful conference to being physically and emotionally exhausted to receiving quite bleak news from the family.

Death comes to us all. It’s a certainty, one of the few things we know for definite. Most of us carry on with our lives blissfully unaware of when or how the end will come for us.

But imagine you get told you’re going to die. The notion of death as a vague entity that will one day come for you is ripped out from underneath you and you’re left waiting for its dark claws to grab you and pull you into its pitch black lair.

My dad has been unwell for the last four or five years. He has COPD (chronic lung disease). About five years ago, just before Christmas he was rushed into hospital and put into an induced coma for 10 days. His condition was so bad that the doctors asked us if we would consider switching the machines that we’re breathing for him off. There was no doubt in my mind that the answer to this was unequivocally NO. We stayed with him and waited to see if his condition would improve or not.

Whilst my dad was in the coma, we lost my nan. She was in a nursing home and her condition was gradually getting worse until one day she gave up fighting and peacefully passed away in her sleep. I was asked to give a reading at the funeral, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I tried to keep the speech light and approached it the way that I deal with anything I find uncomfortable or difficult – with a lightness of touch and a smattering of awkward humour. The ceremony was lovely and although it caused a rift within the family she had a good send off. My dad was too weak to attend the funeral and was devastated that he couldn’t be there to support my mum and say his final goodbyes.

Wednesday this week, the day after the conference I got out of bed, aching all over and totally exhausted (physically and emotionally) from all of the hard work that went into staging the event. I fell out of bed, chucked on some clothes and headed downstairs. My dad had gone out somewhere and it was just me and mum there. I was sat down in the front room when my mum comes in.

“Dad’s doctor phoned this morning, dad was in bed so I spoke to him. He has a patch on his lungs. They think it is serious. His COPD has been upgraded to the final stage – highly critical. This is the last stages of COPD it doesn’t look like he’ll be around much longer. His condition will deteriorate, and eventually he won’t be able to breathe anymore. They says it feels like drowning. Your lungs fill up from the inside.”

I panicked. I choked. I didn’t know how to respond or what to say. How are you supposed to react to being told that? Usually I’m good at dealing with emotional things, when it’s other people’s anyway. But I could barely utter a word. I managed to stutter out… “Why didn’t he tell us? Why didn’t the consultant at the hospital tell him about it?”

To clarify dad had been back in hospital last week and had come home again on Sunday after the drugs had temporarily done their job.

“He says he wasn’t told any of this by the hospital. If the doctor hadn’t phoned I wouldn’t have known anything!”

I tried to find a joke or something funny to say but nothing came. Just numbness and the realisation that the dark shadow we have known would come for the past five years was finally creeping upon us.
The only thing I could utter was “oh dear, that’s not good!” I felt like an idiot saying it and I knew it sounded stupid and wasn’t what my mum needed to hear at that moment. But I had nothing else.

“I just thought it best that you know… Your dad is proud of you, you know that don’t you? He may not always show it but everytime we’re out and about and he’s talking to people he always speaks proudly of everything you have achieved” Said my mum as she exited the room.

Later that afternoon, whilst my mum was looking after my nieces upstairs my dad comes and sits on the sofa. He looks at me. Looks away. Looks back and I know what is coming…

“Did your mum tell you what the doctor said?”

“Yes,” I stammered, “Umm how come the hospital didn’t tell you?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged,

“They should have said something!” I uttered.

“Yes they should, if the doctor hadn’t phoned we wouldn’t have known anything. Apparently I’m on the last stage of COPD now.”

“Yeah mum said” was all I could reply.

His eyes began to redden as he blinked back tears and said “I don’t want a church funeral, I want to be buried at the crematorium. I’ve talked to your mum about it. And there obviously other stuff we need to sort out.”
I nodded and responded quickly with “yeah…”

A long awkward silence ensued that felt like it lasted and eternity.

“Are you going to let your brothers know?” I asked

Dad shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He is not close with his family, I have no idea why, something to do with him joining the army. He had lost both of his parents in the last year and that was the last time we’d seen any of his family.

“I’m gonna wait until after I’ve been back to the hospital in six weeks and had another scan. Then when I know the outcome of that I’ll tell them.”

“Ok..” Was all I could manage.

I got up and left the room. I couldn’t bear to sit there any longer. I had no idea what to say or do. I had no way of making this better, I couldn’t take away the fear that I saw in my dad’s eyes and that’s what hurt most of all. I have no idea how to deal with this. I have no idea how to react. How I’m suppose to react, what I’m supposed to say or do. I’m feeling very lost at the moment and absolutely terrified. I’m used to being the one who holds things together and is sensible and brave and I am actually not sure that I can do it this time. I usually deal with things like this in the worst way possible, I pick myself up and carry on, throwing myself into projects and keeping busy. I just can’t talk about this, which Is why I’ve written it all down. I’ve tried. I have picked up the phone to call friends several times but I just can’t / don’t want to deal with the fact that sometime soon I’m going to lose my dad. Even seeing it written down doesn’t make it seem any more real. I’m going to lose my dad…

I’m not sure if knowing makes it worse or not? How can you even begin to comprehend being told that you don’t have much longer to live? How do you deal with that? I can’t even begin to imagine what he must be going through. I just know that I have to try and be strong and find a way of talking about this. At the moment all I can do is hide and avoid it and that’s not the answer.

Somehow I need to find the strength to help us get through this as best as I can. At the moment I’m not sure how. But I will find a way.


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