Grieving for ourselves

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

The first time I had general anesthesia for surgery, I was sure I was going to die. I looked for my life insurance information, began to compose in my head final letters to my family, dug around in my clutter to discard embarrassing items(!), and gave last cuddles to our cats.

OK, so I didn’t die, then. I am now eighty years old and have elected to have another serious surgery. An excellent doctor assures me that it will seriously improve my quality of life. So in my quest to live until my spouse’s student loans are paid off (That long? Why yes), I am going to put my life into the hands of another anesthesiologist.

I have no desire, right now, to go through all that end-of-life rigmarole that I did the first time. It does, however, cause me to ponder how many of us face the ultimate event.

Jeopardy host, Alex Trebek, is dealing with pancreatic cancer. In a personal comment recently, he talked about it in this way:

Hey guys. I’m 79-years-old. I’ve had one hell of a good life. And I’ve enjoyed it … the thought of passing on doesn’t frighten me, it doesn’t. Other things do, the affect it will have on my loved ones … it makes me sad. But the thought of myself moving on, hey folks, it comes with the territory.”

Trebek expresses the same sentiment that my father did decades ago and an approach that resonates with my experience as well. Dying itself, unimaginable, at any rate, isn’t nearly as concerning as how my death will affect my loved ones.

Ira Byock, M.D., in his book, The Four Things That Matter Most, gives us some simple, but profound suggestions about how to prepare. Be ready to talk with those closest to you, whether expressing or listening, and use these four basic statements to shape the conversation:

“Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”

I call this “grieving for ourselves.” I don’t know if that is how you perceive it but, for me, it makes all this less frightening. It also helps me with my determination to let anxiety go, at every step of the way.

Am I having a heart attack?

Sometimes overwhelming anxiety can almost disable one. Called “Panic attacks” they are no laughing matter

I was going into a Target store near our home in Minnesota when I suddenly began to be short of breath and dizzy. My hearing and vision seemed to narrow down. I felt trapped; I couldn’t think what to do.

After what seemed like an hour but was only about five minutes, things began to slow down. I still was fearful but was able to walk back to my car where I slowly recovered.

The classic panic attack was the culprit. It causes one to kick into fight or flight mode and it puts us into a state of derealization or disassociation from the external reality.  And, cruelly, giving no warning, a panic attack can happen anytime or any place.

I was only about forty-five at the time and had never experienced a panic attack before. Probably like it would be with most of you who haven’t had the “fun” of one, when it happened, I sincerely thought I was dying. I was sure it was a heart attack.

The next time it happened, I was just as anxious but then they kept going away. At some point I decided to ask my doctor what was going on and what could I do about it. As usual, and remember this, when I finally asked for help, I was able to do something about panic attacks.

When I started working with a cognitive behavioral therapist, two things made the most difference. The first was so simple in retrospect. When anxiety starts up, use my brain to say something like, “Hello, old friend.” Panic attacks fall into the ubiquitous ”What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” category and as such can be minimized by committing oneself to just go through them.

The other big thing was the referral to do a series of biofeedback sessions. Good old WebMD explains it this way:

Biofeedback is a mind-body technique that involves using visual or auditory feedback to gain control over involuntary bodily functions. This may include gaining voluntary control over such things as heart rate, muscle tension, blood flow, pain perception and blood pressure.

I went into a soundproof room, sat in nice office chair and they had me put on comfortable headphones. Electronic leads were put on my forehead, the tips of a couple fingers and the readouts were explained to me.

The idea was that, as I listened to a meditation with calming music, I wanted to see my heart rate go down, tension in my face go away, and my fingertips warm up due to more blood circulation there. Of course, results were saved to be compared to my subsequent sessions.

The first couple of times, as was to be expected, I worked hard to control everything. That didn’t work. It wasn’t until I realized it was simply letting go that would allow things to turn positive.

We often hear the term “control freak” and chuckle but, as an oldie radio program character used to say, “It ain’t funny, McGee.”  Some of us suffer from trying to keep all our ducks in a row when, in fact, it can’t be done. At least for us. As counterintuitive as it is, giving up is only way to settle down.

Apparently, anxiety runs in my family. Why, I don’t know, but it is somewhat comforting to know that.

My mother was the ultimate, “everything has a place and there is a place for everything.” type person. And in her last few years, in her 90s, she seemed panicky most of the time. There wasn’t much to do except be with her. I might not have even realized what she was feeling if I hadn’t experienced the same things.

Then, my sister recently dealt with disabling anxiety for a period after a serious surgery. We live a thousand miles apart so all we could do was text and speak on the phone, but I tried to share my anxiety experiences. She was able to come to some of the same conclusions as I, and after a couple of months was, I started to say “more in control” but no, found she was able to let go and calm down.

So, if you experience some of these feelings and fear they will never go away, ask for help. Meanwhile, take deep breathes and know they are only temporary.

Then, maybe do what seems funny on TV, get a little paper bag, breathe into it, which helps reduce the hyperventilation.  It can’t hurt.