LIVE BY DESIGN | Fear of death can paralyse our lives – don’t give it that power

I’ve been known to comment that living with a spouse who was on the apartheid assassination hit list had gifts to offer. My late husband (activist Joe Slovo) took a philosophical approach: “You must put in place guidelines for yourself (don’t take the same route home each day. Vary your schedule), and then you must get on with living.”

The message was: “Don’t let your preoccupation with the possibility of death impair your life.” The gift I received was that of a quest to live each year carefully and to try not to defer things into a future that may never arrive.

Earlier this week, 47-year-old sports journalist Jermaine Craig died. He collapsed and was rushed to the Mediclinic Sandton Hospital, where efforts to revive him failed. Michelle, his wife, now unexpectedly finds herself facing the year-end as a widow and mother to her now fatherless sons, Matthew and Christian. I hope the tributes and condolences offer some small comfort. We are all so sorry for their loss.

This news is such a shock. One day, the person you met seems hale and hearty, and then you hear they died. Hale and hearty with a lovely warm energy was how I experienced Jermaine three weeks ago when my husband, John Perlman, and I bumped into him at the Turffontein Summer Cup racetrack event. And then, barely two weeks later, John arrived home in the evening and said: “You remember meeting Jermaine – well, he died this morning.” Another young death. It is just six months since John also arrived home and said: “Eusebius [McKaiser] died.”

My dear colleague Mapi worked with Jermaine and Eusebius. Death of her colleagues, friends, and family happens regularly. But Jermaine’s death is different. It is not the outcome of an epilepsy attack or a car crash. What has made the news of Jermaine’s death worse for her is that Jermaine collapsed while at the gym. She has gone into fear mode. “Helena”, she said, “This one has hit me hard. I’m scared. So scared, I can’t go to the gym.”

Fear of death can paralyse our lives. So many of us are about to undertake year-end travel. Last year 12 436 people died in South African road accidents: 53% were vehicle drivers or passengers, the remainder were pedestrians.

I’ve found it helpful to surrender to accept what is outside of my control and to take comfort on focusing on what I can have in place in the event of a sudden health crisis. Mapi and I urge you to go to our website www.lovelegacydignity.com and complete your Purple File with its Check List for Checking Out, and your Advance Directive. Please also nominate, in writing, your healthcare proxy, the person who you want to speak on your behalf should you become unconscious and not able to express your wishes.

Completing your Advance Directive and naming your representative is the barest minimum. After that, consider dependents, whether young or old. You may need to have discussions about who will be the guardians. My daughter and son-in-law recently asked my husband and I, in the event of their deaths, if we would accept to be their children’s guardians. Phew, the thought of raising two teenage boys – that would be life-changing for us. We are honoured to be asked, and of course, the answer is an unequivocal yes, and hopefully, it will never happen. But what we have in the family is peace of mind that the conversations took place and the paperwork is in place.

Otherwise, I am challenged to think about how to better support Mapi at this time when she’s tearful and fearful.

There are several categories of fears that people see therapists about – fear of spiders (arachnophobia), fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), fear of flying (aerophobia). Fear of collapsing at the gym must be included. It does not have a name yet. Whatever phobia it may be, it is common to experience a panic attack with symptoms such as heart palpitations, chest pain, sweating, and shortness of breath. Panic attacks are simply awful.

Therapy, medication, mindfulness and a breathwork practice – those are avenues to pursue.

But I also like the anchoring of acceptance. Dr Lucy Hone, resilience expert, opens her Ted talk asking her audience to stand up (or raise a hand if they cannot stand) if they have ever – and then she lists a long series of terrible life happenings –  lost a loved one, had a miscarriage, a divorce, a redundancy? When she finishes her questions, MOST of the audience are standing or have raised their hands. Her point is that “adversity does not discriminate”.

She then shares the three strategies which her research shows are common to the people who most successfully navigate adversity. They are (a) acceptance, (b) noticing what helps and what harms, and (c) an active gratitude practice.

What I realise now is that my late husband instinctively followed these three strategies. He was a delight to live with. He accepted the very real possibility of sudden death and, in his words, “got on with living”. Acceptance is the anchor point from which navigation through adversity securely begins.

This is our last column for 2023. Mapi and I have enjoyed coming up with a topic each week. We wish you joy for your end-of-year festivities. Whether you are travelling or not, we hope we’ve encouraged you to have “life-affirming conversations about mortality” (our strap line). With basics in place, together with a dose of acceptance, our wish for you is that you have more peace of mind. Thank you for your readership.

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