Death Is Not the Enemy

A couple months ago I wrote a blog entry called “Why We Need Reasons to Live.” It was a pretty good article, and the comments were even better. But I never answered the question. The closest I came was, “If you don’t have pleasures, positive goals, love, or meaning in your life, why bother with self-management?”


Well, that’s true. If we don’t have reasons to live, we won’t take care of ourselves. Then we will be more likely to get sicker and die sooner. But is long life an important goal in and of itself?

What’s important is not how long you live. It’s what you do with the time you have. In the USA, people seem to fear death to the point of terror. We will suffer any hardship or spend any amount to prevent death. Much less energy seems to go into making our time here more valuable, peaceful, or pleasurable.

Why do we fear death so much? Some death anxiety is normal, but psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, MD, wrote in his book Staring at the Sun that much fear of death comes from feeling that we have not really lived. His treatment for death anxiety is based on helping people do the things that are important to them.

Living the life we want to live not only relieves fear of death; it may make us healthier and happier, so that we actually do live longer. Psychologist Lawrence LeShan, PhD, collected dozens of examples of people with cancer who went into remission when they started “singing their own song,” as he called it, living the way they felt they were meant to live.

One client, a shoe salesman named Jim with metastatic cancer, had been given six months to live. LeShan asked him if selling shoes was his goal in life, or if there was something else he wanted to do. The man said he had always wanted to be a doctor.

Well, this was not going to happen. Jim had only a high school education, and he had only six months to live. LeShan asked Jim what it was about being a doctor that attracted him. Jim said he liked helping people with his knowledge and problem-solving abilities. LeShan asked, “If you were going to be a doctor, what kind would you like to be? Would you rather be an emergency room doc, who helps people out in a crisis and then doesn’t see them again? Or would you rather have patients that you took care of over a period of years?”

Jim preferred the ER scenario. They brainstormed about what work he could do that would give him some of these feelings. They came up with the idea of his working in an information stand along the New Jersey Turnpike, helping out travelers looking for specific services or experiences or just wanting a better vacation or some help with problems that had come up.

Jim really loved this job, and he was very good at it. He must have been, because when LeShan’s book came out five years later, he was still doing it!

So we want to sing our own song, tell our own truth, and not wait around for someone else’s permission to do so. As the saying goes, this is your life, not a dress rehearsal. It helps to acknowledge that we are going to die some day, and it may not be 50 or 100 years from now.

According to Dr. Yalom’s book, “Once we confront our own mortality, we are inspired to rearrange our priorities, communicate more deeply with those we love, appreciate more keenly the beauty of life, and increase our willingness to take the risks necessary for personal fulfillment.”

Unfortunately, many people prefer to believe they will live forever. We think we have all the time in the world to get around to important things, so, in many cases, we never do. One of the benefits of a chronic illness like diabetes or multiple sclerosis is that it shows us our limits. A diagnosis like that makes it hard to deny that we are mortal, that we have a limited time on Earth. It inspires us to make changes; it’s a “wake-up call.”

However, we all know how easy it is to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep. I encourage people to take Jim’s path. Perhaps your illness can become an opportunity to really make a difference!

Let us know if you have had that wake-up call experience, and if so, what you have done with it. You might also want to check out Dr. Yalom’s or Dr. LeShan’s books by clicking on their names.

Also, please see my column, “Diabetes for Couples,” on dealing with low sexual desire.

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  • Martha

    This article is a wake up call for me. Thanks for putting it in simple terms without the scare tacics some writers use. It’s time for me to focus on my song. Thank you.

  • Terry Capes

    I had been a diabetic for 44 years and then came end stage renal disease. I slowed down and felt tired all the time. My feet swelled up to the point I couldn’t tie my shoes anymore. My kidney doctor said it was time to go on dialysis but I resisted and made my mind up that I wasn’t going on dialysis for I had seen how my two friends had ended up. One was dead and the other still alive but in a wheel chair with several missing limbs and three heart attacks. This wasn’t for me so I resigned myself to a waiting game.
    I went to Emory Hospital and tried to get a kidney. I went through extensive tests and no stone was left unturned for if you are healthy enough you will be put on a list for a possible transplant, fortunately I got on the list.
    I finally made up my mind with two options, one was hand my life over to God completely which I did and let him make the choice, # 1 if I lived or # 2 I died, either way I had made my peace with God and knew I would win either way it turned out.

    I waited around for a while and the doctor said I didn’t have long to make up my mind before it was too late and another doctor said he would set up at home hospis care for me, but I still waited, for it was Gods decision to make for me.

    Early one morning soon after… around 2:30 am a phone call came and the hospital said they had a kidney for me, God had made his decision; so A good friend picked me up and took me to the hospital, a few blood tests were performed,the transplant team came in and talked to me and then another miracle happened they also had decided to give me a pancreas too. I told them my insurance wouldn’t pay for that procedure but for some reason they decided to go ahead and give me the pancreas and said through a grant or something through the hospital they would give me a pancreas too. God was with me now all the way. I couldn’t let God or the wonderful doctors who were so God given at what they were about to do down and as it says “If I am with you who can be against”.
    The doctors did a great job with the two transplants and I am now doing fine even though I still have diabetic neuropathy and other aliments from having Diabetes so long, but God and the wonderfully gifted doctors did so much for me… I love each one of them dearly and all have prolonged my life by hopefully many, many years, are until God calls me home one day soon.
    But all could not have been possible unless I put my faith first in God and then in the doctors who both made all of this possible.
    Thank You God and Thank You my beloved doctors.
    With faith in God and deciding to wait on his decision I am alive today.
    I hope whatever decision you make, make prayer one of them for I am living proof God does perform miracles.

  • John_C

    Yes it is difficult at times to focus on the real value in living… We all cherish the good moments and our relationships.

    In the end it is not so much death I fear, but in what shape I’m in arriving at that door — very good incentive to explore ways to make the journey a little easier and stay in the very best health I can (mentally and physically). Bad health does erode my spiritual side sometimes. Yeah I am a bit of a coward when it comes to suffering.

  • miss kitty3

    TO JOHN C:
    I takes courage to admit fears like being a coward when it comes to suffering; it’s not so much the suffering as the fear osuffering. As the Nike slogan goes, “Just Do It”. Translation: go thru the suffering rather than build up this scenario that suffering is going to horrible, very painful and hard. that’s what causes the fear of suffering. End of sermon.