Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
“It’s not like I think I’m about to die,” Emily said to me.
“I’m sure glad to hear that,” I answered. We both smiled.
“But I have to be honest with you. I know my condition is chronic. My doctor told me I will most likely die with it but not because of it, as long as I take care of myself. Which I am. But still … I can’t help but think about my mortality. I think about how I will die someday, something I hadn’t really thought about much before this diagnosis.”
“In what way do you think about it?’ I asked.
She thought for a moment, and then answered, “I just think that getting my diagnosis made me more aware that life isn’t guaranteed. Stuff happens. Then I wonder, if this diagnosis could happen, what else could happen? I don’t know. Life feels a whole lot more uncertain than it used to. And thinking about the end of life is kind of like the ultimate uncertainty. That’s plain-old depressing. What should I do?”
What should Emily do? That’s a hard question to answer.
“I don’t have a simple answer for you,” I replied. “But there is a lot for us to talk about.”
Questions about your own mortality are scary. And normal.
Have you been thinking about your mortality like Emily? Are you looking for answers? Here are some of the highlights of our conversations:
Life can feel random. That’s because it kind of is. There aren’t any guarantees in life. Nobody understands that better than someone who is living with a chronic condition. You didn’t plan for this; it happened anyway. Like a lot of life. But a chronic condition is not like getting an unexpected flat tire. The stakes are a whole lot higher. And the questions that come up for you are a whole lot bigger. Like questions about your mortality.
See this as an awakening. I am all about finding the silver lining, the opportunity to learn and grow in any situation that comes our way. A client once told me that the day he was diagnosed with a chronic condition, he went home from the doctor’s office and listened to his favorite music and felt like he was hearing it in a way he had never heard it before. He described his diagnosis as waking him up to the beauty, the preciousness, of life. It was the beginning of a whole new chapter in his life, with challenges, but also with greater appreciation of the simple joys that each day presents. He was such an inspiration for me. What if we all shared his attitude toward life?
Maybe you’re a step ahead. At some point in time, we’re all going to be thinking about our mortality. In a way, being diagnosed with a chronic condition may push you in that direction a lot earlier in life than someone who doesn’t have a medical diagnosis. That’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. But I do think that chronic conditions come with an opportunity to gain wisdom about life. Including the awareness that life is not guaranteed. Look at it this way: We all come to a point in life where we accept that we won’t live forever. Some of us come to that acceptance sooner than others. That’s wisdom.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for support. And don’t be disappointed when you sometimes don’t get it. Thoughts about mortality are best shared with someone who can listen without judgment—the operative word here being listen. Not everyone can hear a loved one talk about the possibility of death. Most of us don’t want to think about it ourselves, let alone be asked to actually talk about it. So don’t take it personally when you get a response like, “Don’t think about that. You’re going to be just fine.” Yes, they missed the whole point. And no, don’t push it. But find someone who can listen. A friend, family member, clergyperson, or counselor.
Have an attitude of gratitude. Each day presents us with an opportunity to express gratitude. For even the simplest things, like the morning sun coming in through the window, hot coffee, or a smile, whether it’s from someone you care about or a complete stranger. You can choose to take a moment and focus on what’s working in your life and to be consciously grateful for it. If you do, you’ll be surprised at how much more you will appreciate being alive. Seize the joy in each day. And I do mean seize!
Make a spiritual connection. There are more ways than one to define spirituality. But when thoughts about mortality come up, this can be a time to reach out to a higher power, however you define what this means to you. Some clients have told me they reconfirmed the religion they had grown up with. Others have found a new spiritual practice or religion, often with a community of practitioners or believers to become a part of. Still others have discovered a spiritual connection through music or nature, or by deepening their interpersonal relationships.
But still, monitor yourself. My client Emily was concerned that her thoughts about her mortality would lead her to fall into a helpless/hopeless outlook which can lead to depression. As a therapist, I shared that concern. That’s what we are trained to do. So if you become concerned that you are losing your motivation to keep moving forward in your life, if the future looks like one big, old, hard slog, then consider doing the bravest thing in the world: reach out for help. Let me put it this way: Thoughts about your mortality can lead to wisdom and acceptance. Or they can lead to despair and depression. If you find yourself leaning toward the dark side of mortality, get some help. Me and my fellow mental health professionals are waiting for you to call.
You, your chronic condition, and your mortality. It’s only human to think about life coming to an end. And living with a chronic condition can make you that much more aware of how unpredictable life can be. Use your awareness of your own mortality to motivate you to embrace each and every moment, each and every day. And take good care of yourself. That part of the equation is in your control!
Has your chronic condition influenced the way you think about your own mortality? For better, for worse, or both? Share your insights by commenting below.