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Fear of Death and Practicing Dying

By Debra Kissen

Fear of Death and Practicing Dying

I am writing this blog as I sit here, in my warmed robe, in a soothingly decorated waiting room, waiting for my mammogram results. I don’t know what else to do to keep my mind in check as it reviews an array of disturbing topics, from how I will look with no hair, to how my kids will function without me, to if my husband’s second wife will be kind to all of my children, including my oldest, who can be maddeningly strong-willed at times. My mind is also reviewing how it will handle hearing quite possibly the most dreaded words in the world: “You have cancer.”

My heart is beating fast, my hands are cold and tingly, and I have an unmistakable feeling of doom, as though the end is near. My body and mind are currently acting as if I am moments away from being eaten by a lion when in reality I am sitting in a serene waiting room, surrounded by other silently terrified, hospital garb-wearing ladies.

As I sit here, one of the many unwanted images that arises is one of my mother, Marsha, in the final stages of her losing battle against cancer. She lay in bed, fully defeated, in her dark room “practicing dying.” I would come into her room and try to cheer her up, to inject a few moments of life into her final days. My mom would respond, “Debra, leave me alone. I am practicing dying.” For these words to make sense you have to know a bit about Marsha. She was smart, honest, funny, generous and chronically anxious. She was always worried about what would happen in the future and how she would be able to handle it. She spent her whole life planning for how she would mitigate future catastrophes. She worked six days a week every week for 30 years to make sure she would have enough money for retirement. She seldom purchased anything beyond the necessities for fear that at some point there would be an emergency she would need to put resources towards. She always wanted to be prepared for the next catastrophe. In her mind, and in the minds of many anxiety sufferers (and I include myself in this bucket), if you worry enough about a disaster when it does occur, you will have softened the blow and it won’t hurt as much. In reality when a disaster does happen it is going to be what it is. It will be nothing like all of the different horrible, terrifying scenarios that you have run through in your mind.

This does not mean that it will be blissful or lovely, but it does mean that it will be challenging in its very own way, not in the way you predict or plan for. So as you review the horrible scenarios that may occur in the future, all you are really doing is causing extra suffering and emotional distress. If a tragedy is going to happen, let it happen THEN, but be here NOW, when there is actually no imminent disaster occurring and in fact you’re sitting in a lovely floral room resting on a comfy chair.

I write this final paragraph two hours later, and the good news is that I received my mammogram results, and all was fine. But soon there will be another challenging moment that arises, and my mind will once again desperately strive to review all of the negative outcomes that can occur and how to plan accordingly. In those moments I can choose to either go down the rabbit hole with these catastrophic thoughts or I can notice that they have surfaced and then gently bring my attention back to the current moment. I hope to do more of the latter than the former, and I am committed to all of the hard work it will take to practice mindfully engaging in the present moment.

Dr. Debra Kissen is CEO of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Center. Dr. Kissen specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)...

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