As a counseling student, I am intrigued with the inner workings of the human mind. The strength and resilience of the human species — even in the face of death — fascinates me.
Because my father, Richard Lloyd Barker, passed when I was 14, I didn’t have the maturity to understand the thoughts inside his head as he was dying. But somehow, while entrenched in a battle with mesothelioma, Dad had found peace.
As an adult, I must ask myself: Where did he pull the strength from? How had he found tranquility?
Relatively few people choose to candidly discuss death, suffering and the process of dying.
Admittedly, the subject is often treated as taboo, and it isn’t a topic I take lightly. Caregivers and patients may better understand emotions stemming from a terminal illness by examining the perspectives of those who have had intimate experience with suffering and death.
Sorting & Planning
In 1997, lung specialist and terminal cancer patient Dr. Roger C. Bone penned “A Dying Person’s Guide to Dying.”His article provides tips for people recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, as well as personal and enlightening glimpses into their emotions and reactions.
Bone offers patients this advice in the first few days of a cancer diagnosis:
Don’t sweat friends and family members who unknowingly patronize.
Sometimes our loved ones and friends may display odd behavior after hearing the news. They may respond to you differently, perhaps in an unintentional patronizing tone. Once the shock wears off, things will likely return to normal.
Be honest about needing alone time.
Families may sometimes smother a newly diagnosed patient because they feel their loved one needs the closeness. But there are moments when all we need is time alone to process our thoughts.
You can be your own counsel.
We may need the advice and confidence of pastors, counselors and our spouses. However, it empowers patients to know they’re in charge and immediately involved in the decision-making processes.
As caregivers beginning a mesothelioma journey, experiences along the path may be missed because all they see is the inevitable end.
My father was given a prognosis of only a few months; he lived for 13. Although the times were tough, that year held some of the best memories I have of my father.
Retrospectively, I can see his transition from a physical being to one rooted in spirituality and inner peace. When my dad’s physical body began to fail him, his mental life flourished. He learned to appreciate many things he had not previously noticed — the sunrise, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the taste of freshly fallen snow.
Finding Meaning in Suffering
Dad seemed to have a sort of spiritual awakening when he was in the midst of his physical and mental fight with mesothelioma.
While studying existentialism for a class, I was introduced to the work of Holocaust survivor, neurologist and psychologist Viktor Frankl. In 1946, he published “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which has sold more than 12 million copies.
Primarily, the book details the psychological underpinnings of those who endure great suffering, namely concentration camp inmates. However, Frankl asserts the universality of suffering among all humans.
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering,” Frankl wrote. He also said that, without death and suffering, human life would never be complete.
When in Despair, Search Within
Enduring mesothelioma isn’t easy for the caregiver and family, but it is most difficult for the person diagnosed.
It would be tempting to throw your hands in the air and scream a stream of expletives. But after airing some of that frustration and anger, we are still here.
While Frankl’s body suffered the ravages of imprisonment at the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp, his mind blossomed spiritually. Similarly, when my father dealt with mesothelioma, it exposed him at his physical worst and spiritual best.
He didn’t allow the terminal illness to destroy his spirit. Dad found that, even as cancer ravaged his body, it could never touch his soul.
A powerful line from Frankl’s book reminds me of my father’s strength: “It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”