By Dr. Neill Neill, Registered Psychologist
There have been some deeply personal things going on in my life that during the past few weeks have made me feel at times like my life is on hold.
My son is gravely ill.
My firstborn son, Richard, is gravely ill at age 41. He’s in the capable loving care of his wife, Tracey. He is receiving excellent daily palliative care from an outside support team. But he lives 3000 miles from where I live.
My wife Eileen and I visited him in early October when it appeared he had only days to live. He has rallied somewhat, and I’m planning another trip within the next two weeks. At this point he thinks he will make it until my next visit.
And that is why I have this feeling of being on hold.
Many times I have encouraged others to stay positive when things are difficult. I’m a generally positive and happy person myself. A client once complimented me with the nickname, “Dr. McJoy.” I have urged others to keep a positive attitude when someone they care about is ill. Their positive attitude tends to support the recovery.
But once again I’m wrestling with the question of when does staying positive cross the line into denial of reality. And if the reality is grim, as it certainly is in my son’s case, how do I remain positive while not slipping into denial?
Being in denial can be unproductive, even harmful, and I do not want to go there. I have watched good people stay in denial while their mother died of cancer. Of course they crashed when she actually died. But tragically their mother was deprived of any needed conversation about her impending death.
So how do I have those conversations with my son who knows he is dying, and yet maintain a positive attitude and optimism about the future?
The wisdom of acceptance
For me the answer seems to be lying in something I have talked about many times with others, but haven’t recently dealt with myself, at least not at the heart level. And that is acceptance.
What is happening in my life right now is that I am getting a huge lesson in acceptance. It’s not a head lesson, but a heart lesson.
I am accepting the fact that my son’s life on this earth is nearing its end. I have stopped trying to hide this from myself or others. I’m accepting the fact that my son’s attitude will fluctuate from bleak to positive. One moment he is grieving the life he is losing, but the next he expresses optimism and love for his family that will survive him.
“Dad…I haven’t done this before.”
Some things he says out loud; other things he doesn’t want to or can’t express. To use his own words, “Dad, I don’t know, I haven’t done this before.”
I am also accepting the fact of the difficulty I am having in losing my only biological son. It’s not supposed to happen this way; it’s not the natural order. I am learning to accept the fact that I am grieving, with all that that entails.
I’m having once again to accept an old truth:
Life does not always unfold according to the fantasies we have about it.
Psychologist Dr. Neill Neill maintains an active practice on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. He focuses on healthy relationships and life after addictions. He is the author of Living with a Functioning Alcoholic – A Woman’s Survival Guide.