For anyone who was willing to listen, Lynda Bellingham has given a lot to think about over the past few weeks, since she decided to stop chemotherapy for colon cancer and prepare for her death.
Her legacy to us all, especially those facing cancer and other life-shortening illnesses, is that with terminal illness and death, we do not necessarily lose the ability to make choices - about medical treatment, time we have left, where and how we want to die. If we can do that, then we and those around us have a unique opportunity to prepare for death with the same values and care with which we have lived our life. That way we do not lose our identity, self-respect and humanity. Life and death can become seamless and more bearable.
Not everyone with a terminal illness will be well enough to proactively make choices. They will rely on those who know them best and care enough to help make those choices with or for them. But unfortunately, there are also those who will have to make the journey on their own without support. And there are those of us who will die in circumstances, which we would not choose, if we could.
How often have you thought, "If only I knew when I die, then I could prepare". Yet if you were to be told, you only have so much time left to live, you might feel very differently: "Not now, I am not ready". You might think about the things you have not been able to do, and the life you are leaving behind. On the other hand, you may have already received a terminal diagnosis, or you are a relative or friend dealing with the news.
There is no blue print for how to deal with death, neither is there a straight forward way how to best deal with being told you have a terminal illness. We all have to find our own way through it. Nothing prepares one for this news. This is one situation out of our control, where there is no quick fix. We cannot save the other or ourselves from the pain. We have to bear it, and perhaps need to stop feeling a failure, if we cannot find a solution. Death is painful and messy, it is human.
I found Lynda Bellingham spoke with an uplifting honesty, which made death sound 'normal'. Which it is, when you think about it. We all are here for a limited time; there are no guarantees, no get out clauses, no exemptions if you have behaved especially well. She chose to face the end of her life on her terms as much as she could. She started saying good-bye to family, friends and the public in her way. She allowed us to share some of her thinking and her chosen path, so that we too, can feel empowered when the time comes.
In my work with people affected by cancer, the death of others with cancer can make personal situations that more real and urgent. Like we have just been moved up in the waiting queue. Will I be next?
Lynda Bellingham was on radio and our TV screens over the past weeks talking about her choice. She looked frail, yet she did have her trademark spark and energy of conviction. Her passing was not sudden, yet it was. Sometimes it is difficult to comprehend who someone can be here today and gone tomorrow.
If you are affected by cancer or another life-changing illness you may know the feeling of finding it really hard to trust your body. 'Hear what your body is telling you', we are often told. Yet, with so many illnesses, there is little to hear. You may look and feel well, yet inside a destructive process may have started. It can be random, sudden or prolonged. It changes everything, but the choices we can make and the person who we really are.
Like no doubt others before and after her will make very personal and difficult choices, I get the impression Lynda Bellingham managed to make peace with cancer and herself. Perhaps we need peace to make truly positive life changing and life enhancing choices, especially when they are about our death.
Psychotherapist, MA (Couns.Psych.), Reg. MBACP (Accred)