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This contribution is the first of a series on the topic ‘Healing in the face of death’. Comments and feedback are most welcome.
Love and fear
When asked how he created such beautiful sculptures from blocks of marble, Michelangelo replied, “The beauty is already there, all I do is remove the excesses.”
Just as Michelangelo’s chisel exposed the hidden beauty of the stone, dying too can bring forth unexpected treasures, not only for those who are dying, but also for the family and friends who care for them.
For most, this comparison may seem far fetched and unbelievable. What good, you may ask, can come from something as painful as the loss of someone you love? It has been said the pain of dying or losing someone you love is the hardest thing any of us will have to bear, and the experience will tear a person apart in ways no one could ever imagine. Indeed, many of my patients and their family have said to me, “I never imagined it would be like this.” Yet, after 40 years of medical practice I never cease to be amazed by the courage people exhibit as they confront their own death and the changes that can occur.
Two emotions, love and fear dominate the life of those whose death is imminent. These emotions are inextricably linked – the thought of being separated from those we love is often the greatest fear, but that same love also sustains us as death approaches. Being torn between two extremes is a dominant theme at this time of life and it is not unusual for the dying person to struggle with any number of conflicting emotions. Apart from love and fear, other conflicts include hope and disappointment, letting go and reaching out, autonomy and dependence, sadness and joy, peace and despair, anger and contentment and so the list goes on. All contribute to the chaos and paralysing uncertainty that can accompany death. These conflicts are not unique to the dying – they are part of everyday life. The emotional tugs and resulting tensions are, however, dramatically increased when someone is dying, and it is not uncommon for them or their carers to say, ‘they are being stretched to breaking point’.
With time and the right environment it is possible for love to subsume and all but replace fear. This transformation is a gift for it often leads to a state of equanimity and extraordinary peace – no longer does the dying person feel pulled and torn by the many opposing conflicts – they arrive at a point where dualities exist, but no longer dominate their life. Love becomes the healing balm that soothes and allows all concerned to navigate the surreal transition from life to death. It facilitates the difficult task of letting go – for the dying person to submit graciously to the unknown and for family and friends to let go of the fear that makes the dying person’s journey more difficult.
When we let go of fear we shed much of the excess that Michelangelo spoke of, and the fear of dying is replaced by the joy of living another day. We also discover the beauty of seeing the world and the people we know as if for the first time – according to one author, the birds seem to sing louder and sweeter as death nears. Whether it is in life or death, confronting our fears is scary but necessary; it brings out the best in all of us – such is the courage I alluded to earlier.
In saying this I do not, for one moment, deny the overwhelming sadness that surrounds the death of someone we love. I am also aware that many, ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’ and for them death is anything but healing. What this article attempts to emphasise is the healing power of love and how it can, potentially, transcend the fear which makes death more difficult than it needs to be.
The next two contributions will look at what family and friends can do to create an environment where love replaces fear.
© Michael Barbato 2013 Design:emsee.com.au