Feeling the Fear

17 January 2018

I performed the show a while ago in Bristol and a woman in the audience asked a question that matters to many people and I did not feel my answer really spoke to all the different layers of her concern so I am writing this blog to try and remedy that knowing that she may never see it but hoping that others may find some value in it.

A friend of hers had a mother who was dying and absolutely petrified. All she could speak about was her fear of dying.  It dominated every interaction she had with her daughter and my questioner was concerned about how to change this and help the dying woman appreciate her life despite her diagnosis.

I spoke about the danger of trying to change how someone is.  Sometimes a person cannot be moved out of denial or fear for many deep seated reasons and you are unwise to try and change this in order to get the response you are hoping for.  Several palliative care nurses have said to me “Don’t knock denial unless you can put something better in it’s place” and I know of people who have refused to acknowledge the gravity of their illness until their dying breath. 

I suggested one might bring in photographs and other memorabilia to draw her attention back and into the possibility of a conversation about shared experiences, past joys and disappointments, affirming the connections in the family.

But what about that all dominating, corrosive fear?  How can we help someone when they are in a state of abject terror?  It is interesting that I did not quite address this directly because I believe that is what fear does to a lot of us. It silences us.  Everyone is different and only you will know what might be worth trying but here are a few suggestions.

When we are afraid, our body shows many signs of it but we are trapped in our heads, locked into imaginings, regrets, shut down, blocked off.  Anything that can help us come back into our bodies can be a great source of relaxation and comfort.  Holding someone’s feet or just pressing your palms against the soles of their feet can bring a sense of holding and grounding.  You need no techniques to do this just follow your instincts. Simply holding hands, just quietly, no need of talking can also bring a sense of connection, nibbling at the edges of the isolation that fear creates in us.  If you want to know more there are other massage techniques and one in particular called the M technique which is particularly developed for those who are frail or nearing end of life.

We can also, once we have some kind of calmer connection, invite the person to try and talk about what they are particularly afraid of.   An award winning bereavement educator suggested that one can ask them to really feel the fear, interrogate it. Where do you feel it in your body, does it have colour, is it hot or cold.  By really facing it we can diminish it’s hold over us. 

It may emerge that there is unfinished business that needs attending to, things unsaid, key people they have not seen for years.  It may be the thought of no longer existing, of missing significant moments in the lives of those they care about. If these feelings can be openly expressed the pain is lessened somewhat just in the telling of it and a connection made with those who really hear what the person wants to say without trying to make it better. Maybe a letter can be written for a child to read later, a card tucked away for a special day.  

It may be the fear is driven by the thought of not being here can also lead us to wonder what the point of our life has been.  One thing that can be very nourishing is a life review.  Valuing and appreciation the gifts and experiences that a person has shared in their life, showing them that they are recognised and will be remembered can give enormous pleasure and reassurance.   And finally, there is that void.  Imagining not being alive.  Depending on our belief systems we fill this in many different ways.  There is or is not an afterlife. There is or is not a series of further iterations of a life.  For those who do not believe in the continuity of the soul or individual beyond death it is a tough prospect and has, I suspect, led to many a deathbed conversion to faith.  I find two things have comforted me hugely.  Someone once said to me what do you remember about the time before you were born?  Nothing in my case but neither is it filled with any horrors, and so the thought of returning to that is not so disturbing to me, and my understanding that my essence becomes part of all that is seems rather lovely to me.  The other is the sense I suddenly got one day lying under a tree in winter and seeing the buds already prepared for the spring.  I really understood in that moment that I will never know what seeds my life has sown but that, as surely as the leaves return, there will be growth and new life as a consequence of my earthwalk and that to me is deeply reassuring.