JEFF CORBETT: Life in the face of death

Death or a terminal prognosis is never fair but for me there was an overwhelming sense of unfairness in my friend’s news this week of a shortened assessment of his time with us that hit me hard.

I was distressed rather than shocked, because I knew he’d been having tests to check for a spread of cancer, and before the end of that first day I felt almost guilty. We’ve been friends through my work for more than 30 years and we were to retire on the same day, a couple of months hence, but suddenly we were not heading together into the free world.

Another factor is that we had in common a cancer of the throat and neck, mine caught in time seven years ago and my friend’s detected too late. It was the specialist who ultimately delivered good news to me who broke the terrible news to my friend.

My vague sense of guilt grew from a version of the age-old question of anger ‘‘why me?’’, in my case this week ‘‘why him?’’. It seems so unfair, that I survived and he would not, that I was retiring without the burden of an incurable illness and he was not.

Yes, it’s never fair, yet we look for justice and reason and timing in everyone’s death, even our own if we have the opportunity, and we’re dismayed when we don’t find it. No, it’s not rational, and the compulsion to question was illustrated for me when an elderly medical specialist who’d helped many people with a terminal illness over decades asked aloud in anger ‘‘why me, why me!’’ when telling me a few years ago of being found to have cancer. He, of all people, should have and would have realised the fickleness of health and life.

I wonder whether the capacity of modern medicine to predict our death is a good thing. Yes, the diagnosis and prognosis has allowed my friend to leave work earlier than he would otherwise and it has been accompanied by a treatment program that will smooth the path, but does that balance the anguish and dread that will be the response to news of looming death?

Without such a diagnosis a terminally ill person would carry on in happy, or at least happier, ignorance and, often, in good health for some time, and in the days before modern medicine a series of treatments would have been trialled for the emerging symptoms of illness while the patient was still unaware of impending doom. Death would have raised its head only weeks or even just days before the event.

Or with a diagnosis of a serious rather then terminal illness, we’d battle on with hope until hope was exhausted very late in the day.

Is certainty better than uncertainty?

We are all heading for death, and the only difference between my friend’s position and that of the rest of us is that he knows the year of his death.

Today clever machines find a health threat we’re unaware of, clever doctors estimate our remaining life and into the dark day we stumble in shock. The first day of the rest of our life is a black one.

Hopefully not too many of those first days are dark. My friend’s stout-heartedness and resilient cheer is in contrast to the response of those who know him well, and no great surprise, but unfortunately many people with a terminal prognosis lose the value of their remaining life to despair and anxiety.

I have seen that too, and I was more distressed by that  than by news of the  diagnosis. That friend’s death was an unfair death, unfair in that it was premature, that the dying man was a good man, that he was my friend. A friend’s death is always unfair.

But, wait, this wallowing in unfairness and sadness is a selfish response, more about our position than that of my friend and anyone you know in his position.

My friend has life, and good life, and that is to be cheered! He may have no more or no less life than he would have had without the illness, no more or less than we have, and if he has the the will to celebrate that, so should we.

And it is indeed something to celebrate.

Have you had to cope or help someone cope with a shortened life expectancy? 

Can you offer any insights?

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