Making Sense–After-the-Death-Diagnosis

2010 May 26

Everything seemingly makes sense BDD—Before-the-Death-Diagnosis. Endless trips to doctors’ offices, pharmacists, physical therapists, and hospitals are all done in the name of helping your loved one get better. We know how to care when a cure is seemingly within reach.  We know how to say just the right words to motivate our loved one through the trying moments of physical therapy—‘Soon enough you’ll thank me for pushing you so hard!’ ‘Come on, you’re one step closer to getting better.’ ‘Everyone will be so proud of you once you’re back to your normal self.’

But what happens when better is taken away from our care? What happens to our care when the doctor visits and treatment options are exhausted? And what can we care about when the possibility of improvement is replaced with the certainty of impending death?

William Breitbart, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, has created experimental, eight-week psychotherapy group sessions for patients with Stage 3 or 4 cancers. These group therapy treatments are designed to help people find meaning and peace while living with dying because, as Dr. Breitbart says in the The Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2009, “For many cancer patients, the biggest challenges is, ‘How do I live in the space between my diagnosis and my eventual death?’” Initial results of the group therapy treatments have shown to increase patients’ well being and reduce their anxiety when compared with traditional support groups.

One question I always get from fellow caregivers is this: What use is my care when it won’t make my loved one better? My response to caregivers is similar to Dr. Breitbart’s treatment for terminal patients: you can care by helping your loved one make meaning. Care means willing to be audience to your loved one as they struggle to make sense of how they have impacted others’ lives and what will happen to those they love after their death.

Meaning making shouldn’t only happen in isolation. Doubt, uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and confusion are side effects of trying to make meaning only by ourselves. When we are in the company of others, acknowledgement happens. And acknowledgment is the clearest sign to our loved ones that their lives mattered and still do matter. Their accomplishments become confirmed when we are willing to listen. Their failures and regrets can be put into their proper context when we nod our head in empathy. And their grief becomes validated when their tears are mirrored with ours.

Amidst the tears of reliving past regrets and missteps, somewhere camouflaged beneath the laughter inspired by the telling of old stories, life is being lived.  Meaningful life. Life that reminds the both of you, patient and caregiver, that purpose and motivation and meaning aren’t simply for the healthy. Meaning and motivation and purpose aren’t simply about what will happen in the future as much as what you create together, in the anonymous moments of sharing that can never be taken away from you.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Dr. Zachary White permalink
    September 5, 2010

    Thanks. I appreciate your support.

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