What Happened When My Greatest Fear Came True


Image of a page from my own journal

Nearly a week now. I can’t believe he is actually DEAD. Can that really have happened to him? I’m so afraid of being on my own, rattling around in this house, terrified of the emptiness. Maybe that’s how Philip felt about death, terrified of the emptiness. He didn’t have a choice, he had to go into the emptiness. I have lots of choices, because I am still alive. So if he can do it, so can I.
Have you really gone away, Philip? Have you really gone away?
Journal: Tuesday 6th December 2011

This is an excerpt from the journal I was keeping for the whole time my husband was diagnosed with cancer, through to his death and beyond.

When we heard about the presence of the Big C in our lives, I had turned to my journal big time. In there, I wrote and raged about what was happening. Outwardly, I got on with living as best I could.

Stomach cancer meant it was advised Philip had a course of chemo, then an operation, then more chemo. At this stage, the prognosis was quite good — if he had a successful operation (i.e., all the cancer was removed) he would stand a good chance of living another 20 years or so. Despite the odds being against this, we focused on that.

But the operation wasn’t successful. They couldn’t get all the cancer out.

Death loomed much nearer now, and much larger.


Taken on holiday in France, the year before Philip was diagnosed

Our friend Barbara in Los Angeles emailed, insisting we answer some questions about his end of life care (and others) before Philip died. Eventually, one day, we did. (The next piece is an excerpt from my book Gifted By Grief: A True Story of Cancer, Loss and Rebirth):

I pestered Philip about the list of questions one Saturday morning.
“Come on, we’re going to do The List properly now.”
He was still reluctant, but, lying in bed, with me and the laptop next to him, he didn’t have a chance.
“It’s going to make a huge difference to me in the future, darling, and besides, Barbara will just nag us if we don’t.”
“Yeah, all right then.” He sounded glum.

Poor Philip — for a man afraid of dying, this was an amazing act of courage, another step in the acceptance of what was happening. We began at the beginning, and continued on until the end, referring to it later as our final project together.

In those two hours, I asked him the questions, and he gave me his answers. There were all kinds of questions, from the most basic such as, “What kind of coffin do you want?” to which he replied, “Any old box will do,” to more sensitive ones, such as, “Are there any of your personal items you would like to leave to anyone in particular?”

This one we discussed in much more detail. It was tough; these are difficult questions to ask of somebody who knows he is going to be dying sooner than later.

Feeling a great sense of achievement afterwards, we were very close, connected and loving for the rest of that weekend. Who would have thought that? It ended up being a couple of hours of slightly macabre enjoyment.

After Philip died, I ended up being incredibly grateful we had answered these questions.

I had no idea that grief would utterly sideline me and render me incapable of lucid decision making, clarity of thought, and operating out of sheer exhaustion.

In the face of this kind of impact, not having to make decisions about what he would have wanted was a huge gift. I desperately wanted to thank him for it — and I couldn’t. At least not in the way I wanted to, by cuddling up next to him.

However, as time went on, I began, unbelievably, to notice more and more blessings in my situation. But my greatest fear had come true — how could it be that I was spending at least some of the time feeling blessed?

Eventually, I wrote about all this and published a book in September 2015. Many readers found it incredibly illuminating and inspiring. But the thing that most commented on was something I would never have guessed they would like the best.

It was the list of questions.

And what they were inspired by was the fact we had actually answered them, and written those answers down. Because, despite the fact they thought it was a good idea, they were not doing it.

Despite the fact that they knew how important it was, how good it would be for their family and other loved ones after they died, it still wasn’t getting done.

I realized I could facilitate that, and started doing so, discovering many people who just need a helping hand to have them face these questions, answer them, and get the answers written down.

So let me ask you: Have you answered these kind of questions? Has someone you know answered them? Because actually taking the time to write down your answers may end up being one of the greatest gifts you could give your family and loved ones.

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