Dealing with a Diagnosis of Terminal Illness

For most of us, whether it is we ourselves or someone we love who receives a diagnosis of terminal illness –– the news stops us in our tracks. There is a gap, our mind stops. After that moment our mind may go in many different directions. We may feel fear, grief, or shock. Or if we have been harboring some resentment toward the person receiving this news, we may feel a little bubble of gratification rising to the surface. 

After these first few moments of unselfconscious responses, we begin to form a strategy about how to deal with the diagnosis emotionally, on an ongoing basis. Many of us don’t realize at this point that we can choose what emotions we will feel and how we will relate to this new unexpected context in our life.

The idea of “choosing what emotions to feel” may sound just plain wrong. It might even strike you as an insulting and unreasonable to say if you hear it while first considering the finality of the diagnosis. This is especially true if in that moment you are feeling heartbroken about it. For this reason, in considering our power of choice, it is important to recognize that there is a difference between unselfconscious feeling responses and self-conscious emotions.

What is an unselfconscious feeling response?

Unselfconscious feelings are organic and spontaneous. They are not created by your personality or by your morality, and they do not contain any personal bias. Calling these feelings “organic and spontaneous” simply means we all feel them, regardless of our value system or who we think we are.

Unfortunately, the moment we experience the energy of these human feelings, it is typical that we almost immediately channel that energy into the container of our personality structure (“I’m falling apart! I have to keep it together”). This includes our sense of morality (“What’s wrong with me, I should be feeling sad. Actually I feel glad –– I must be a horrible person!”) 

Only then do our unselfconscious feelings become emotions. Emotions –– and we’re talking about the negative, problematic ones here –– are always a response to self-conscious storylines. 

Self-conscious emotions

Since we have the power to choose our thoughts, we also can choose what emotions to have. Why? Because choosing our thoughts means we can choose what storyline to identify with, what reference point to take. It just takes a bit of coaching to reclaim this power of choice.

OK, so maybe you haven’t received such a diagnosis nor do you know anyone who has. In that case, consider the example of someone learning to deal with traumatic emotions triggered by a divorce. In our society, divorce is an experience shared by a vast number of people. Learning that your partner wants a divorce triggers a strong emotional response very similar to the response triggered by receiving a diagnosis of terminal illness. Both kinds of news come as a sharp and penetrating signal of the end of life as we’ve known it.

By looking into the divorce example, we can gain important insights about relating to our mind. Looking deeply we can discover the difference between feelings and emotions. And being able to identify the difference between feelings and emotions as they are happening provides direct assistance for dealing with a diagnosis of terminal illness:

A client once came to me in a state of agony. He was recently divorced and to his chagrin had discovered that his ex already had a lover. Since then the man had been frequently waking up at night feeling as though he was suffocating. It came out that he believed he was psychically tuning into his ex and her new lover passionately engaged in lovemaking. For him, the experience was not only oppressive but, because in those moments he felt that he couldn’t breathe, it was also terrifying.

I asked him if he could agree that, at any given moment on earth, there are millions of couples making love, even as we sat there talking. He agreed. I pointed out that he was breathing easily. I then asked him to take the vision of his ex and her lover making love and place that picture into his mental picture of those millions of people making love throughout the world. After doing this, the man reported he had stopped waking up feeling suffocated. 

What happened? By doing this simple exercise, looking at this new expanded mental picture, the man realized that his ex and her lover –– and whatever they might be doing –– had no special power over him. He had only been giving them power in his imagination, by how he thought about the two of them, and by means of the story he created about them (and about himself in relation to them). 

The power of a storyline

Expanding his vision with this new picture, one that included “all of humanity” allowed him to see his ex and her new lover as “just people.” It was obvious to him that people are making love all the time and that thinking about all of those people had never caused him to feel suffocated!

By expanding the context or, you could say, by seeing the bigger story, right away he stopped making his ex and her lover into special beings with special power over him. He could let them be “just people” making love just like millions of other people do, all over the world, all the time. This freed the man from his self-imposed drama of personal agony. He had chosen a different story, a different way of seeing the situation, that freed him from the self-diminishing storyline that to him had felt, quite literally, suffocating.

That is not the end of it, however. My client still felt the feelings associated with separation from his ex. That was only human, a natural energetic shift. The loss of someone who has been important in our lives carries with it a natural experience of grief. It needs no additional storyline; it is naturally occurring, and in time it lessens in intensity. 

Once he stopped adding a self-diminishing storyline to his experience of losing his wife, this man was able to relate to his grief in a much healthier way. He stopped punishing himself by disturbing his sleep and generating a feeling of shortness of breath, and became able to bear his grief.

Feeling simple grief without the embellishment of any “poor me” storylines allowed him to experience his heart become more responsive to the suffering of other people. As he allowed the experience of the vast expanse of Human suffering that includes others to replace the contracted Personality suffering that excludes others, this man loosened his grip on the mask of his personality and thus became a more real human being.

Receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness, like hearing one’s partner say they want a divorce, triggers powerful feelings as well as more personal, story-driven emotions. As we feel the physical energy of shock, we may think, “Why me? Why now? What did I do to deserve this?” These thoughts, in turn, can lead us to generate further storylines, “reasons” why us, why now, and why we might “deserve” to die. As these storylines take hold, they pave the way for a host of painful emotions –– anger, resentment, and the rest –– to hijack our experience and sap our strength.

Of course, regardless of a sense of deservingness, we all will die one day. The main difference with a diagnosis of terminal illness, is that our death is less likely to occur suddenly. And thus, we have time to consider how we will meet it.

Ways to Work with Your Mind in Dealing with a Terminal Illness 

  1. Guard against narrow “poor me” storylines. Practice generating an expanded storyline that opens you to appreciate that you are experiencing human suffering as all humans do, not a unique personal suffering. Practice thinking, “In this moment, there are millions of people who are going through situations like this and suffering just as I am suffering.” Then open your heart to them –– want them to feel support and comfort.
  2. As best you can, relax and breathe. As you inhale, welcome as many suffering beings as you can visualize, into your heart. And as you exhale, send out feelings of loving kindness to them. Imagine that their suffering diminishes. Want their relief to be real, even if your “logical thinking mind” tries to tell you it’s foolish. If this exercise makes you feel a bit better, notice that and record it in some way. Say or write or draw or sing how you feel.
  3. Take the attitude that you can generate blessing and healing power. Why not?! We all know we can generate negative power by hurting and scaring ourselves and others. If we can do that, then we can definitely do the opposite –– shift our power toward blessing thoughts, kind thoughts. Choosing, then practicing, this attitude can make all the difference in our experience, moment to moment.
  4. Welcome natural grief. Breathe into it. As best you can, breathe into the grief with an attitude that you are willing for it to last forever. Adopting this courageous attitude can eliminate seeds of impatience, fear, and resentful thinking before they get a chance to sprout into something worse.

Life is temporary –– in every case, birth is a diagnosis of terminal illness. Don’t trick yourself into living in a storyline that implies you are immortal and can afford to waste time indulging in superficial negativity. A diagnosis of a terminal illness can be a wakeup call that inspires us to fully live a life of generosity and kindness while we can. Good luck!