To know or not to know…

“The worst thing is not knowing…” Mary said to me recently. There followed a rather interesting discussion about whether it’s good to know when you’re going to die or not. Mary seems confused about what she wants at the moment. Soon after this comment she expressed utter horror that there are movies about people dying of cancer… “Why do we want to see that?! I know it happens but I don’t want to know about it” she exclaimed.

My general sense from her at the moment is that on the whole she doesn’t want to know when she’s going to die. I suspect she knows its sooner than she openly admits, but she seems to be choosing to be in denial. “It’s gonna happen to us all, but we gotta get on with it…I don’t wanna know…” she said in the same conversation. It seems she is somewhat attached to her ‘tough nut’ identity. Sometimes it really feels like she’s seeking permission from me to be upset. She is so used to being the one who battles on through life not thinking or worrying about things, but in truth she does worry, and I think she is probably very frightened.

I’ve been thinking about our conversation a lot. I realised I had made a huge assumption that everyone would want to know when they were going to die if they had the choice. I found myself thinking there was something childish in Mary’s approach…she did in fact literally cover her ears and shake her head at the idea of being told when she might die, much like a child not listening to their parent. Having reflected on it rather a lot since, I realise how judgemental that was of me. I had believed without question that there was a ‘right’ way to deal with dying and that was to try and accept it. But why? Why is it so wrong to pretend its not happening? Perhaps there is a difference between someone choosing to be in denial, and someone who just out-rightly refuses to acknowledge it? Or perhaps there is no difference…

Either way, our conversations have expanded my thinking about the whole ‘to know, or not to know’ and I have found a new empathy for her approach. I really felt the anxiety she would feel with the knowledge of her estimated death day and I suddenly thought that perhaps I would choose to be in denial too. If someone said to me today they could tell me when I was going to die, I’m not sure I’d want to know…so why would it be different if I had a terminal illness?

Clearly my preconceptions and judgements are born of my own experience of seeing my mum die. I saw mum as exceptionally brave, accepting her illness, knowing when she was going to die, talking about it openly, and making the most of the life she had left. But in fact she didn’t really know when she would die, it all happened so quickly and whilst she might have been extraordinarily brave and strong with me, what’s to say she wasn’t as frightened as Mary in private? We spent so much time in the last year or so of her life saying “we’re so lucky, we know when you’re going to die, we have all this time to prepare” and of course we didn’t, not really. Yes, perhaps we spoke about it more than if she’d been knocked over by a bus, but we didn’t really use the time like we kept saying we would…it just didn’t work like that, it never felt right, it always felt premature, and when it clearly wasn’t premature, it was too late.

This is the thing with the whole dying concept…it’s the only thing we’re certain will happen and yet it’s the thing we know the least about – well, the ‘what happens after’ bit anyway. So we, or I, become more attached to what we can know in life…so much so that the idea of choosing not to know isn’t even a possibility. I know this has been a thread throughout my whole life…mainly fed by a very dominant inner Control Freak, who feels that the way to get through life is to know and understand as much as possible – I’m not talking about history, science or things like that – I’m talking about knowing and understanding life, and our Self. But we ain’t gonna ever know everything. As I’m constantly told on my psychotherapy training, “there is always un-manifest potential”. So, instead of that being scary and something to be ‘fixed’, I’ve decided I want it to be exciting. Mary has opened my eyes to a new way of life/living…and not knowing doesn’t just have to be about death, it can be about everything…sometimes its really OK to not know…and to let life unfold.

4 thoughts on “To know or not to know…

  1. Thank you Annie…I felt this was a particularly resonant article and very well written too. I have been thinking lately about how it would be to know when I am going to die and how….and your words have comforted me as you are right….not knowing is the thing most of us live with and life should be an adventure – not scary but exciting. As to what happens next we really will never know will we?

  2. My mother was told 20 years ago I had 6 months to live, I was told I had a 60/40 chance which I choose to blatantly ignore carrying on with my party clubbing life style and generally burying my feelings about the treatment and its consequences. was I wrong? well the reason I believe i beat a terminal cancer was my attitude, at 18 there was not a chance in hell I was going to die or for that matter even stop partying. If the consultants had told me at the time their real prediction would I have been alive today? could I have dealt with a definite as opposed to a maybe? I think for me part of it is also about this idea we know how the human body actually works, the energy and impact of that energy created by talking about and worrying about something that has yet to happen and indeed may never if you look at my experience I believe are not to be underestimated. I am not saying I have the answers. for parents with children planning must be a part of the process. and for me? I have grief and trauma about that time in my life left to deal with and you know what some 20 years later I think I am just about ready!! much love to you Annie

  3. Yes, classic issue about knowing and control – on my desk I have a skelleton, so I remember that any time I can die, and so to make the most of not knowing when. I think if someone said they knew when I would die I would not want to know – it might stop me enjoying every minute of not knowing. Or perhaps that’s my rage against the dying of the light….

    Thanks for this. A friend who was given 9 months to live spent those 9 months (which extended to 15 plus) very positively – spending every bit of money she could on doing the things she had always wanted to. I only wonder why we need that sort of permission to do what we want right now, with no thougth for tomorrow, rather like the lillies of the valley.

  4. Yes, I have often thought as the days of the year pass ‘there is a date in a year which will be my deathday ‘ – and its a strange thought; it stops me in my tracks. We all know our birth-days, but not our death-days. Similarly we all know we will die – everything on earth that is born has to die: This can make our lives very precious, should we chose to lead them in this way. To live as if each moment might be our last – that is the ideal way. This is the way to live with utmost appreciation of life (even during those times when things aren’t going so well), to create as much value as possible. If I knew my time was shortened this might make me more focused but to be told too specifically would be counterproductive : moreover I don’t believe anyone can be sure. I am certain the medical profession are working on a very specific knowledge, and great though it is, there are more profound aspects of life at work, which go beyond this. On some very deep level, a person, maybe not consciously, may prolong their life and even chose their time of death.

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