WHEN you are ill — or, indeed, going through any serious trauma — you can often sense that behind people’s kind enquiries about how you are coping is a huge, unspoken fear: “How would I deal with that?” swiftly followed by “I’d probably crumble completely.”
I’d want to say: “No, you wouldn’t crack up: most people don’t.” They just get on with the medical stuff, turning up and being borne along the conveyor belt of appointments. Behind the brave face there might be moments of terror or sheer weariness: quiet tears in the bathroom, bleak times in a sleepless night, and odd catches of “What on earth am I going to do?”, at the most inconvenient time, just as you’re filling the kettle. But mostly, you muddle along, managing it all without fuss or emotional scenes.
The thing is that you never, ever, really know. In extreme situations, doctors might tell you that you’ve got months, or even weeks, to live; but actually, mostly they just try different treatments, or send you for further tests — until you don’t really know what is happening. Even if you are given a short time left, you usually don’t know exactly when you’re going to die, until the very end. So you end up living in great uncertainty. And this drags on.
If you are positive about it, you try to make the most of what you have. But this is also when we all — those who are ill and those around them — need to look to God’s love, the charity that abideth above all, and realise that all this uncertainty will come to an end. We will be taken up in God. He knows each one of us, better than we know ourselves, in all our anxieties and nameless dread. And we are secure in him, in every part of ourselves known by him.
Take a few moments to ponder what it means that God knows you thoroughly, and still cherishes you.
Many of my kind friends are also perhaps wondering: “What does it really feel like, when you know you’re going to die soon?” They might wonder how I can go about my everyday life, when it’s all going to be taken away. The simple answer is that it doesn’t really feel like that. At some level, you don’t really believe that it is going to happen. When you try to dig more deeply, you still struggle to take it in. One hospital chaplain reassured me that you’re not supposed to get your head around it; most of us lack the capacity to cope with such information.
So perhaps this is when you relish what you have: seeing friends and family, and perhaps visiting places you’ve always wanted to go. And this can be joyful, as you cherish those times, and live in the happiness of the moment.
But then, you’ve ticked off the bucket list (if you like that sort of thing, which I don’t), settled your affairs as much as you can, and, er . . . you’re still here — diminishing physically, but keeping breathing. This is surely the position of many people in their eighties, nineties and beyond: not as fit as they once were, but still with us. This is the very point, the boring stage, where we need most help. It is when habits of prayer, serious reading, and worship matter more: they can carry us through the dull slog, when we don’t know what is really happening and don’t know how long it will last.
There might be more darkness to endure, but this is when we need to realise that God is still there, cherishing us. This will not look like an abyss to God, for “the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”
This is an edited extract from Facing Death by Rachel Boulding (BRF, £3.99 (£3.60)); 978-0-85746-564-1).