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Q & A for Teens: Afraid of Death
Q&A for Teens

Q & A for Teens: Afraid of Death

I’m friends with a sweet little girl who's dying of cancer.


Dear Lauren,

A couple of years ago, I met a very special six-year-old girl named Menucha who was in remission from cancer. Soon after I met her she got cancer for the second time. She has been battling it since then and I love her so much that it's hard to watch her suffer, especially because she's so little. I do as much as I can to give her my love and we are very close. But since she's very sick, I often worry that the worst will happen. How should I deal with that fear, cherishing my every moment with her? How can I enjoy my time with her without feeling that our time together may be limited?

In one word, here’s my answer to you: honestly.

If you live honestly, you can handle anything. In other words, be honest with yourself about the fact that Menucha might die. Trust me, she’s probably less afraid of her own death and the inevitability of her life’s ending than you are.

I find that my clients who are afraid of something — whether it be death, cancer, their kids’ rebelling against them, or walking into elevators — benefit tremendously from honestly and openly talking about their worst fears. When we keep fear locked up inside us, it grows more monstrous every day. When we lay out our fears honestly and openly, talk about our fears, dissect and analyze our fears, the demons downsize themselves. When you shine light on the lurking shadows in the night, instead of hulking devils, they turn out to be your sweater draped over your chair.

The formula is simple: whatever you fear, talk about it more. Talk about it openly. Deal with it for real. Say what you fear. Name the fear and it becomes less of a terrifying demon and more of a stark, non-anxiety-producing fact.

When I have clients who are anxious about death — and I often have clients who are completely healthy, but who are anxious about the concept of death — we talk and talk and talk about the idea of death. We talk “to death” about death. Did you notice that in this paragraph I keep saying the word “death?” Because if you fear something, talk, talk, talk about it, just like I keep talking about death in this paragraph.

Your friends might not be willing to engage in such morbid conversation, so I would find a therapist — maybe the social worker at the hospital where Menucha goes for treatments, or maybe at your local Chai Lifeline or cancer support non-profit organization. Or perhaps there is a cancer support group in your community. Even if the support group is for families of cancer victims, it sounds from your letter that you’re close enough to Menucha to qualify for a support group geared for families of patients. The key is to find a safe, open place to talk continually about your fears, anxiety, and worry, until you find a peaceful space in your heart regarding the issue.

The truth is, we all will die. You will die, I will die, sweet little babies will die, young children and old people will die. Recognizing and accepting that truth, as scary as it might sound, will actually leave you feeling much less anxious about the reality of Menucha’s situation. Accepting the reality of death as an inevitability will help diminish your anxiety regarding it.

It might help you to know that many people who die are quite calm and at peace when the actual end of life occurs. If they’ve been sick for a while, often they are grateful for the end of their pain. Certainly, once someone has passed from this life into the next, they are entering into a better place. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains, in Strive for Truth, that one moment in the next world is even more pleasurable than all the pleasurable moments of all the people in this entire world put together. Not a bad place to be, it seems from our tradition.

Realize, also, that all any of us ever has is this present moment, NOW. There are no guarantees you or I will live longer than Menucha. I could step off the curb and be hit by a car tomorrow. It’s a possibility. A possibility that I choose not to live in fear of. I choose to live each moment fully and completely, with my eyes wide open to the reality of my frail human condition. Because of my acceptance that life is all too fleeting, I cherish every day I have with my children, my friends, my family, this beautiful world. Time stops for no man, including you, including me, including Menucha.

All any of us has is now.

January 21, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) Ben, April 15, 2012 5:58 PM

Talk is cheap..

Talking in a safe environment? Just an excuse to avoid the very real existential dilemmas that life and death present. These issues should be confronted and aggressively attacked in order that the conflicting, grotesque nature of life and death's conflicting roles may be faced!!!

(7) Anonymous, February 23, 2012 8:14 PM

G-d cares

i recently found out that someone i know has cancer. we didnt get on very well and i hardly know but all of a sudden i feel terrible about the fact that we dont get on. me and a few other people have split up the tehillim and are trying to say the whole thing daily for her. its horrible when someone you know is ill but i just feel that G-d really does care.

(6) Roberta, February 7, 2012 4:30 AM

Acceptance vs Giving Up

There is a difference between accepting that a loved one is in a medical battle for his life and in "giving up'. I do not have the knowledge or the right to say "Fred is dying". I can say "Fred was diagnosed with an illness which is often fatal." Whether Fred dies has nothing to do with whether I took an active role in his life or backed away in fear. Our behaviors cannot "save" our loved ones but we can contribute to life worth living in spite of the circumstance and in doing so save our souls.

(5) TMay, January 28, 2012 10:47 PM

book "Kitchen Table Wisdom''

I suggest that people read the books of Rachel Naomi Remen like Kitchen Table Wisdom. Attend her lectures. She has a chronic illness. She worked as a doctor and as a therapist with the dying. She wrote a series of short stories which are true. Her books are very healing.

(4) Chaya Auslander, January 23, 2012 6:58 AM

I'm not clear on this

Lauren, I have to admit to being confused about the issue. I wish there was a definitive answer. I can't help but feel that there's always hope, that you can't give up until it's over. Accepting death for the elderly, is one thing, but in one so young, it's more difficult. It has nothing to do with a fear of death, it has to do with the pain of those left behind and the loss of the potential that is inherent in every life. To know that a life will end without knowing the joy of finding their mate or having children of their own, or even just experiencing more of the world. It's rare to find a parent that doesn't dream of seeing that child walk down the aisle to the chupah. Of seeing them being successful in life. Of having children of their own. Of course there are never any guarantees, but there should always be hope. We're not in control of life or death, but we have the ability to alter the outcome with prayer and good deeds. I would love to visit Menucha myself, with appropriate authorization, of course. (It has to be very clear that a person is allowed visitors, usually there is a sign posted). Just to hold her hand and give her hope for the future. To give her a hug, and tell her she's doing a great job, in person. I'd love to do that for any child that is in a similar situation. Not because of fear, but because of hope. Sometimes, just injecting that emotion can be the catalyst that helps a person continue the fight. Just by knowing that someone else believes that you can overcome the odds. Patients with a good support system, have a better chance of surviving, than those that don't. On the other hand, those dying don't want those they love to be in denial. They shouldn't have to deal with someone else's inability to handle the situation, either. It's a delicate balance, to accept and to hope. Since we're a people that believes in miracles and the coming of the Massiah, we can never give up hope, til death and beyond.

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