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Q & A for Teens: Afraid of Death

January 19, 2012 | by Lauren Roth

I’m friends with a sweet little girl who's dying of cancer.

Dear Lauren,

A couple of years ago, I met a very special six-year-old girl named Menucha who was in remission from cancer. Soon after I met her she got cancer for the second time. She has been battling it since then and I love her so much that it's hard to watch her suffer, especially because she's so little. I do as much as I can to give her my love and we are very close. But since she's very sick, I often worry that the worst will happen. How should I deal with that fear, cherishing my every moment with her? How can I enjoy my time with her without feeling that our time together may be limited?

In one word, here’s my answer to you: honestly.

If you live honestly, you can handle anything. In other words, be honest with yourself about the fact that Menucha might die. Trust me, she’s probably less afraid of her own death and the inevitability of her life’s ending than you are.

I find that my clients who are afraid of something — whether it be death, cancer, their kids’ rebelling against them, or walking into elevators — benefit tremendously from honestly and openly talking about their worst fears. When we keep fear locked up inside us, it grows more monstrous every day. When we lay out our fears honestly and openly, talk about our fears, dissect and analyze our fears, the demons downsize themselves. When you shine light on the lurking shadows in the night, instead of hulking devils, they turn out to be your sweater draped over your chair.

The formula is simple: whatever you fear, talk about it more. Talk about it openly. Deal with it for real. Say what you fear. Name the fear and it becomes less of a terrifying demon and more of a stark, non-anxiety-producing fact.

When I have clients who are anxious about death — and I often have clients who are completely healthy, but who are anxious about the concept of death — we talk and talk and talk about the idea of death. We talk “to death” about death. Did you notice that in this paragraph I keep saying the word “death?” Because if you fear something, talk, talk, talk about it, just like I keep talking about death in this paragraph.

Your friends might not be willing to engage in such morbid conversation, so I would find a therapist — maybe the social worker at the hospital where Menucha goes for treatments, or maybe at your local Chai Lifeline or cancer support non-profit organization. Or perhaps there is a cancer support group in your community. Even if the support group is for families of cancer victims, it sounds from your letter that you’re close enough to Menucha to qualify for a support group geared for families of patients. The key is to find a safe, open place to talk continually about your fears, anxiety, and worry, until you find a peaceful space in your heart regarding the issue.

The truth is, we all will die. You will die, I will die, sweet little babies will die, young children and old people will die. Recognizing and accepting that truth, as scary as it might sound, will actually leave you feeling much less anxious about the reality of Menucha’s situation. Accepting the reality of death as an inevitability will help diminish your anxiety regarding it.

It might help you to know that many people who die are quite calm and at peace when the actual end of life occurs. If they’ve been sick for a while, often they are grateful for the end of their pain. Certainly, once someone has passed from this life into the next, they are entering into a better place. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains, in Strive for Truth, that one moment in the next world is even more pleasurable than all the pleasurable moments of all the people in this entire world put together. Not a bad place to be, it seems from our tradition.

Realize, also, that all any of us ever has is this present moment, NOW. There are no guarantees you or I will live longer than Menucha. I could step off the curb and be hit by a car tomorrow. It’s a possibility. A possibility that I choose not to live in fear of. I choose to live each moment fully and completely, with my eyes wide open to the reality of my frail human condition. Because of my acceptance that life is all too fleeting, I cherish every day I have with my children, my friends, my family, this beautiful world. Time stops for no man, including you, including me, including Menucha.

All any of us has is now.

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