Coping with Fear of Death When Loved One Is Dying

Person Holding Hospital Patient's Hand

The worst day of my life: Dec. 18, 1999.

That was the day doctors diagnosed my husband Brian with pleural mesothelioma, a deadly, incurable cancer. Brian’s prognosis was three to nine months.

I stood beside him when doctors broke the tragic news. It shocked me to the core. The enormity of the situation left no room for any other emotion. Later that day, I was a rollercoaster of emotions. Fear was the most overwhelming of all.

Brian was 52 when doctors diagnosed him with the terminal disease. I was 49. Other than drafting our wills some years before, neither of us had discussed the inevitability of our deaths. We were both fit and healthy and had assumed we would grow old together. Death was the furthest thing from our minds.

Brian’s prognosis changed everything. Death had entered our lives, and we no longer had the freedom to ignore it.

The thought of Brian’s death terrified me. I had no idea of the dying process. I agonized over what would happen to Brian, and how I would cope with it.

The cruelest torture: Living in expectation of his death. His prognosis of three to nine months was heavy on my mind. I constantly wondered if he would survive for three months, the full nine months or somewhere in between.

With no idea of how or when he would die, I expected it could happen any time. I was loath to let him out of my sight for fear he might die suddenly – leaving me without a chance to say goodbye.

Despite my fears, Brian did not die in three months. In fact, he was still much alive five months after his diagnosis. Every day he survived was a precious gift; however, with each passing month, I could not help thinking we were drawing closer to the impending nine-month deadline.

Fear of the Unknown

Though I feared Brian’s death on many levels, it was my fear of the unknown that caused the greatest grief. Prior to Brian’s illness, death was a mystery I was in no hurry to solve.

Brian’s impending death made me realize the only way I could help him was by understanding what was happening to him and anticipating any problems. That’s why I decided to learn about the dying process and comprehend what happens to someone as they are nearing death.

The Web has been an invaluable tool for me. For example, shortly after Brian’s mesothelioma diagnosis, I had been seeking information about pain and how to bring it under control.

The information I had found online this time, helped me understand the symptoms of mesothelioma and what physical aides Brian might need in the future. I put these aides into place so they would be available, if required. Thinking ahead enabled me to alleviate any pain or discomfort that Brian might have suffered.

One such instance happened when Brian woke up one morning and found his legs could no longer support him. Anticipating this might occur at some stage, I had acquired a wheelchair and kept it on hand.

When I brought Brian the wheelchair, his relief was obvious.

Online resources also taught me about pain and how it could be controlled. The pain management routine I put into place, dramatically improved Brian’s quality of life.

Brian’s Comfort: My Main Concern near the End

I wanted to make sure his death was as pain-free and peaceful as possible. Using reputable websites, I found a lot of information about the dying process and it helped plenty.

One of my major concerns was the increasing amount of symptoms Brian was experiencing as his disease progressed, and I often feared that his death was imminent.

The online information I found helped me understand that this was not necessarily true, and that there are physical and emotional signs that give an indication the dying process has begun.

Despite his prognosis of three to nine months, Brian survived two years and was active and alert until three days prior to his death. During these last days, it became obvious to me that his battle with mesothelioma was nearly over.

I was grateful for the online information I had found about death and dying. My understanding of what was happening to Brian took away my fear of the unknown, and I was better able to cope with each situation as it came along.

When Brian died, a part of me died with him. There are no words to describe my grief.

However, I have found much peace knowing I was able to support him to the end.


Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net

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