Death Awareness: The Upside

Aviva Barnett
May 2, 2018

Most often people experience a wide range of emotions when faced with a diagnosis of illness. Shock, fear, anxiety, panic, sadness, and guilt are some emotions commonly experienced by people being told that they have an illness. Have you ever thought that there is an upside? Have you ever heard a patient speak in a positive way about their diagnosis?

dealing with illness

Carol* came to see me for counselling after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I instantly warmed to her and was excited to work with her. She was the first person I had worked with that spoke about what her diagnosis gave her as opposed to what it took away from her life. Carol was very shy at work. In meetings she would barely speak and cringe when asked a question. After Carol went through chemotherapy and a mastectomy she said she changed. She was able to see life through different lenses. Carol became more vocal in work meetings. She was less shy and actually enjoyed contributing to discussions in these meetings. When I asked her what had changed she smiled at me and softly said, “When you are faced with the possibility of dying you start to live.” Carol taught me a vital lesson. Death awareness, being in tune with the fact that life is fragile and one day we will cease to exist, can actually spur us on to live right here and now in the present, and embrace life for as long as we have it.

So if there is an upside to death awareness, how else can it practically benefit us? Let’s look at Derek* to learn about relationship changes that can occur. Derek was married for 15 years when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Derek came to see me for counselling in between treatment. He was depressed and in a state of despair. One may assume this was due to his diagnosis. However, it was because the diagnosis forced Derek to reassess his life choices. He explained to me that he was not happy in his marriage, he was a people pleaser, and avoided conflict like it was a plague and therefore always did what his wife said despite sometimes wanting alternative things. Derek worked through his mixed feelings with me in counselling and was able to have the courage to speak openly and honestly to his wife about his feelings, and together they made changes in their relationship which left Derek feeling more honest and happy in his marriage.

Irvin Yalom (1980) explains, “A confrontation with one’s personal death (‘my death’)…has the power to provide a massive shift in the way one lives in the world. Death acts as a catalyst that can move one from one state of being to a higher one. An awareness of death shifts one away from trivial preoccupations and provides life with depth and poignancy and an entirely different perspective.”

Sue* came to me for counseling when her mother was dying of terminal lung cancer. She used to be preoccupied with work and her attitude changed totally when her mother was first diagnosed. We worked through her emotions and after her mother died, she was so appreciative that she gave herself the space in counseling to explore her feelings and was able to return to work month’s later feeling that she had choices again. She chose which projects to take on; she chose whether she took on over time. She said, “work used to be my life, and now I am my life.”

*Names and details of clients have been changed in order to protect their anonymity.

Aviva Barnett

Aviva Keren Barnett (PgD, M.A ) is a UKCP registered existential psychotherapist and counselor.