How to Minimize the Fear of Death
By Jerri Haaven
I had very few personal encounters with death while growing up, except for the time my Sunday school teacher told us that we were getting closer and closer to dying. I went home that day and said goodbye to my stuffed animals, and was terrified I wouldn't wake the next day.
On the few occasions when I encountered the death of a loved one when I was young, I experienced confusion. The room was eerily silent. Eyes were lowered. Crying was stifled and we were always encouraged to “be strong.” So to see someone cry made me very uncomfortable. After all, big girls and boys don’t cry, right? With every event, and no one to help me sort out these feelings of sadness and confusion, my fear of death deepened and hung like a cloud on a rainy day. And then, of course there were the paraphernalia around death such as cremation urns or caskets which added another level of emotion to the situation.
However, when my dad was diagnosed with a terminal disease several years ago, I was forced to confront my biggest fear. My initial reaction was that of intense sadness as I anticipated his death, and transitioned my priorities to that of his primary caregiver. Yet, we still avoided the talk about his terminal illness. I’m not sure how we were able to go through the next few years of his life without mentioning that elephant in the room.
When we finally accept the inevitable
It wasn’t until I received a phone call from a palliative care nurse while walking through a hotel lobby one day, that the elephant was finally recognized for what it was. It was big. It was looming, and we needed to take some actions to ensure we could cope with the enormity of our situation. With the nurse’s help, a wonderful in-home hospice agency was assigned to my dad, and it was the greatest gift we’ve ever been given. They provided guidance for how to face my dad’s end of life journey with frank, but compassionate dialogue with him, and set him up with a regiment of “caring, not curing.”
I believe it is the fear of the unknown that keeps us locked in denial and unable to embrace any given situation. Because once I devoured all of the information they provided and did some of my own research, I was now able to experience this journey as a gift to be treasured, and not to be feared. I learned how to make my amends and to share the best of our memories with dad. We told stories, held his hand, played music, gave him leg and foot massages, fed him ice cream for dinner and told him we loved him so many times we couldn’t possibly keep count. We were also educated on the process of dying, and what my dad would experience, and of equal importance - how to take care of ourselves.
In the end, I wasn’t afraid to be alone with him once he passed away, and I was able to kiss his cheek and his forehead one last time. When my dad died on July 31, 2011, he died knowing he was loved beyond measure. It’s not to say that I am fearless of death – but rather, I have been provided sound guidance to help me should I need to go through this journey again.
Two resources about end-of-life care
Two booklets that Hospice provided us were of immeasurable benefit and I encourage everyone to read them - even if you are not currently in the midst of caring for someone with a life ending disease. This information might save you the years of heartache we experienced before hospice entered our lives.
- Gone From My Sight, by Barbara Karnes: http://www.bkbooks.com/author
- A Caregiver’s Guide: What to Expect During the Final Months and Days of Life http://www.hospicesantacruz.org/A-Caregivers-Guide.pdf
Created by Hospice of Santa Cruz County. Published by Quality of Life Publishing Co., Naples, FLA
Jerri Haaven is a freelance writer, and a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant. When caring for her dad, who suffered from dementia and COPD, Jerri struggled with the negative side effects of his illness. She developed positive outlets to express herself and recover from her loss. Today as a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant, she uses her skills to help people who are in the midst of their own personal story of grief and loss.