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Short and Sweet Summary: If your irrational fear of dying limits your ability to enjoy life and be happy, welcome to my world. In my quest to manage this fear and lessen its white-knuckle grip, I’ve discovered ways to help me deal with the overwhelming anxiety of health-related issues. These aren’t cure-all suggestions, but rather ways to give you some much-needed peace.
We widows know irrational fear.
Our lives are inundated with daily fears like the fear of moving forward, fear of being alone, fear of managing money, fear of social situations, fear of making decisions.
The fucking fear.
Of all the ugly fears I face every day, the fear I hate the most is my irrational fear of dying. It’s intense.
Like, teetering on the edge of insanity over a black hole of hysteria for days on end.
MY MAMMOGRAM FROM HELL
Of course, I assumed death was rapping its bony knuckles on my door.
What else does it mean when the nurse navigator from the mammography office calls you back within two hours of your appointment and leaves a message to, “please call back at your earliest convenience?”
It has to mean I’ve finally succumbed to cancer. What else could it mean?
If I’d left a shoe behind at the office visit surely the nice nurse navigator would have calmed my nerves with a message like, “Silly Ms. Murray, you left your shoe in the changing room. Please come back to pick up your shoe at your earliest convenience.”
But, I didn’t leave my shoe in the changing room. It was on my foot. So, clearly, I thought I had cancer.
I returned the call and left a message. I wiped the sweat beads from my forehead as I waited for a response. When the clock struck 5:00 and no one returned my call, my panic escalated. Everyone in the mammography office went home for the night while I planned my funeral.
Let me explain.
I wasn’t always so melodramatic or anxious about my health. But after my husband died, I developed an irrational fear of dying.
I mean, if it could happen to my husband, it could happen to me. We were happily married, immensely enjoying life with our two kids and then BAM! A brain tumor. My husband died within a year of his diagnosis.
Now, I’m hyper-aware of every headache (brain cancer), coughing spell (lung cancer) and abdominal spasm (liver cancer, gallbladder cancer, pancreatic cancer).
As if worrying about headaches, coughs and abdominal spasms weren’t enough, I played phone tag with the nurse navigator and breast cancer entered the equation. I waited 16 very long and disturbing hours until morning when I called the office to learn my fate.
During that time I hugged my kids 187 times, evaluated the best breast cancer treatment centers in our area, pored over my advanced directives and finally fell into a fitful sleep.
After I put my kids on the bus at 8:45 am the next morning, I returned home to a blinking answering machine. Oh God, the news must be bad if the nurse navigator called me back before their office even opened. WTF? I dialed the number and got another recording. Seriously? Can I get my cancer diagnosis over with already?
I tapped my finger on the dining room table in concert with the clock’s minute hand and waited. And waited. And waited. I lunged at the phone when it rang.
“Hi Ms. Murray, we saw a suspicious area on your mammogram yesterday and would like you to come in for a second image.”
AND SO IT BEGINS
I slogged through four more long and disturbing hours until I could get my second mammogram.
During that time I sobbed, made several deals with God (please don’t make my children orphans), and rallied my support system via text (“umm…suspicious area on mammogram…going in for second image…can’t breathe).
I also flipped the universe my middle finger.
When I arrived for my appointment, the nurse tried to make small talk as she escorted me to the imaging room, but my brain couldn’t form words and process my final dying wishes at the same time.
I scanned her face for pity signs as she took two more images of my right breast. Was that a cancer frown or a non-cancer twitch?
“Just to be sure, we’d like to get an ultrasound,” she said.
Wait…what? The second image wasn’t enough? What’s next? A biopsy?
I quickly calculated how much time I had left before calling in reinforcements to get the kids off the bus and pick me up from my puddle of hot mess.
While scanning the nurse’s face for more pity signs during the ultrasound, I wrestled with all the nagging questions in my head.
What am I going to tell the kids? How will I get to and from my chemo treatments? How will I do my job?
The nurse slipped out to show the doctor the ultrasound results and slipped back in just as fast.
“Everything checked out okay Ms. Murray. You’re free to go,” she said.
Just like that. BAM! I started to breathe again.
My children won’t be orphans because I’m not dying. I walked out elated but still cried for hours.
The absurdity of the past 24 hours crashed down on me.
I realized I have a serious problem.
HOW TO COPE WITH YOUR IRRATIONAL FEAR OF DYING
The first step in any recovery program is to admit you have a problem.
“Hi, my name is Kim Murray and I have an irrational fear of dying.”
I know I can’t continue down this fear path. A little fear is healthy, yes. It keeps us alert and aware.
But a lot of fear is distressing. It compromises our immune system, which, ironically, is what’s needed to stay healthy. In my quest to manage my fear I’ve discovered ways to help me lessen the overwhelming fear of dying.
I call these sneaky ways to cope because they aren’t the typical self-care ideas (Do Yoga! Meditate! Journal!) touted in every lifestyle magazine. They are bit under-the-radar but help to quell the fear demons, nonetheless.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH FEAR
You’re afraid because your spouse died. And, let’s face it, that means you can die too. Your own mortality comes into crystal-clear focus after your spouse dies.
That fear is fierce.
My fear of dying and leaving my children orphans debilitated me during the first two years after my husband died. I conjured up every possible malady and tolerated a ridiculous number of invasive tests to prove that I was going to be OK. I also had very real fears that my kids would die, too. Every time they left the house, I envisioned 1,000 good reasons why they might not come back.
My misconception about my fear is that it kept me and my kids safe. But that safety came at a cost. We weren’t living joyful and unencumbered lives. Quite the contrary. We were all at the mercy of my anxiety and concern.
The thing is, I didn’t want my kids growing afraid of their own shadow. I knew something had to change.
Considering nothing bad happened to us even though I worried about it constantly for a good two years, I decided to befriend my fear instead. What did I have to lose?
I became curious about why it was there. And paid attention to the surrounding emotions. I thanked it for helping to keep me safe, but suggested a kinder approach.
Once I was able to see fear as a friend and not an enemy, I practiced these other transforming exercises, too.
RETRAIN YOUR BRAIN
If you tell yourself something often enough you start to believe it.
I know I need to retrain my brain to tell a different story that doesn’t include my fear of dying.
When something triggers me to instantly begin my own countdown to death I literally say out loud, “this is just a story I’m telling myself” or to use Brene Brown’s version, “the story I’m making up is…” and then insert my details. When I have a headache and I’m convinced I have brain cancer I say to myself, “this is just a story I’m telling myself. I don’t have brain cancer and I’m not dying. My husband had brain cancer, but I don’t.”
When you say it out loud it actually starts to sink in. It works especially well if you use your first name, too, like you’re talking to a friend.
When I say to myself, “Kim, this is just a story you are telling yourself. The story you’re making up is that you have brain cancer. But you don’t have brain cancer, so you have nothing to worry about” it sounds like a conversation with a friend.
I’m WAY more likely to listen to a friend than to my irrational self.
LISTEN TO REIKI MUSIC OR CRYSTAL HEALING BOWL HEALINGS SOUNDS
I listen to Reiki music on YouTube when I’m working at my desk. The music doesn’t have any high-pitched notes or sharp sounds, so it encourages relaxation and peace.
I LOVE it.
Another super-calming technique is to listen to Crystal Bowl or Tibetan Singing bowls which produce sounds that invoke a deep state of relaxation.
The type of sounds emanating from Tibetan Singing Bowls promotes healing because the sounds are considered a balancing and clearing energy. Your brainwaves are synchronizing with the bowls to promote healing from stress, pain, and other diseases.
Read more about the healing power of sound here.
It calms me.
I’m telling you.
USE ESSENTIAL OILS
I’ve been sniffing the shit out of my lavender essential oil.
I dab it on my wrists, temples, and behind my ears and inhale the lovely scent.
It’s magical. And it works.
Just get your hands on these beauties. STAT!
The great thing about inhaling essential oils is that you’re basically doing a deep breathing exercise at the same time without even realizing it.
I take a Vitamin D supplement because I live in Michigan, so our sun availability is limited, especially in the winter months.
When I’ve been precariously low on Vitamin D I can feel it in my bones. Literally. My bones ache, I’m lethargic and suffer from a severely fuzzy brain. However, when I’m consistent with my Vitamin D supplements, I don’t experience the same symptoms.
I also take Magnesium for stress reduction and Vitamin B-complex to help calm and maintain a healthy nervous system. You can find many other supplements to ease anxiety, like ones listed here.
My irrational fear of dying recedes when my vitamin levels are in the normal range because I feel better.
When I feel better, I don’t worry. It’s a win-win.
Now listen, I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on the Internet. Do not take anything from any website, including this one, and try it without proper research and medical supervision. For realz.
WIDOW WRAP UP
I am by no means “cured” of my fear.
I have a feeling fear and I will be friends for a while, and just like I learned how to embrace pain, I must embrace and manage my fear, too.
I’ve come a long way since my mammogram from hell, but I’m still a work in progress. I’m responsible for taking care of me and I take my responsibility seriously.
I can’t continue to live with debilitating fear. I just can’t.
I’ve found, for me at least, that inhaling essential oils and listening to Reiki music helps promote relaxation and calm. Vitamin D is one vitamin I can’t live without.
This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but it’s a start.
And, I’m always open to learning new ways to handle my fears. Since, you know, fear and I are BFFs now.