I don’t know what came first: the months of unending sickness in our household or the months of unending research on dying. Actually I know they both started around the same time in November, but what I don’t know is which of those is the cause of the anxiety I have been feeling since that time. It does wax and wane, but for the most part I have been anxious almost every evening for six months.
I liken it back to when I was pregnant with Olivia and every night for about the last month of the pregnancy I would panic. “There is a baby in my stomach. The only way that baby will come out is if I push it out. The pain is inevitable. THE PAIN IS INEVITABLE!” By about 9pm my insides would be freaking out and all I could do was to go to bed, read the Psalms and listen to Mozart for the Mother-To-Be until I fell asleep. In the morning I was fine. It was a new day. “Of course I could push a baby out!” Day goes on, “I can still push a baby out.” Suppertime, “I can do it.” 9:00pm, “Nope. I can’t. I’m freaking out. Why oh why can’t there be another way?!”
That’s what this anxiety has been like for me in the past months, except not about pushing a baby out but about pain and suffering and death. Some evenings have been okay. Some have been bad — never to the point of a panic attack, but to the point where all I can do is pray and try to sleep. “Sickness and death are inevitable! There’s no escaping it! Why can’t there be another way?!” Just like Olivia’s pregnancy I am fine in the morning; I don’t even understand why I felt so afraid …until the kids are in bed and then the anxiety magically and instantly appears.
All these months I thought I was panicked about death, about sickness, about pain, about midnight visits to the emergency room. I thought it was because I would do school work until late in the evening, so I stopped working before 9 o’clock. But tonight I figured something out…
You see, I mentioned this whole thing to my friend a few days ago and asked her to pray for me. For the past two nights I have gone to bed without even a hint of the anxiety. I thought her prayers must be working! And maybe they are…. But tonight the low-grade anxiety came back. And when I stopped and thought about why it came back another possible cause came to me.
The past two nights have been peaceful in our house. Little stress, relaxing evenings, peaceful, happy bedtimes, everyone in a good mood. Tonight when Olivia went to bed that was not the case. She was stubborn. She was sad. I was frustrated and disappointed. We prayed, kissed goodnight and I scratched her back, but there was a definite lack of “peace” around putting her to bed.
Do you know what I want to do in palliative counselling? I want to help people find peace in their lives, in their relationships, in the things they have done and the things they have left undone as they come to terms with their life ending. It is a beautiful and noble thing, and I love that I get to devote most of my research and work to something so meaningful.
But I see now that, though I think what I study is so important, I am really bad at doing it. I am really bad at letting go of the things that were left un-done in my day. I get really frustrated when there isn’t peace and love in my family. I get really anxious when there is conflict and uncertainty.
Do you know why I think I get anxious so often about dying? *Newsflash* It actually isn’t because I spend a good chunk of my days reading about death and dying! I don’t think it’s the pain and the suffering and the loss even. It’s because I am afraid of what I have left undone. It’s because I am afraid that the things I have done will have hurt people.
Like tonight: “If only I had figured out a better way to interact with Olivia! If only I understood her better! If only everything had been perfect!” I wouldn’t feel so anxious right now.
I’ve had the phrase “as long as” running through my head for the past while…
There are a few people in our church community who are facing some major health issues — scary health issues. And I pray for them and I ask for peace. And in the back of my head I think “as long as _____ doesn’t happen, they’ll be okay…”
But that “as long as” — that thing that I think must not happen (for them or for me or my family) — that is what is scariest of all! That’s what keeps me afraid. But that “as long as” is awfully hard to let go; I don’t want to let go of it. It is so scary to let go of it!
And that “as long as” can be a big thing or a little thing. I can go to sleep tonight “as long as” everyone was happy when they went to bed; as long as everyone was healthy when they went to bed; as long as no disaster strikes while we sleep. Big or small, it all leads to fear and anxiety. And we live in an uncertain world where there are literally infinite “as long as”-es that we could come up with.
So tonight, when the anxious feelings came, I went in and held Olivia while she slept. And I thought again of how I love her even though it is so hard to love when I don’t always do it right. I prayed for her as she slept. And I reminded myself that tomorrow is a new day — a new day to learn and grow and try again.
That’s why death is scary, right? Because there is no more “trying again.” And maybe part of my fear does come from all of my studying, because it makes me hyper-sensitive to the fact that the time we all have together is limited.
I want to be able to sleep in peace each night knowing that whatever I did or did not do is what it is. And living with an “as long as things are perfect” caveat needs to stop. Instead I want to learn to say “as long as God is there I will be okay.”
And when God is there, there is no more “as long as.” I can find rest and peace in it all. Somehow. I don’t know how. There is rest and peace in it all. And I want to be unafraid of letting go in order to know that peace. I want to be unafraid of letting go of my mistakes, the hurts I’ve caused and the hurts I’ve felt, and the uncertainty of everything in life and the fear of life being over. Instead I choose to struggle towards faith, to trust that Jesus is always there, even when I’m afraid.
So tonight I end the day with this prayer from The Divine Hours and this most fitting and beautiful song:
Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep tonight, and give Your angels and saints charge over those who sleep. Tend Your sick ones, O Lord Christ. Rest Your weary ones. Bless Your dying ones. Soothe Your suffering ones. Shield Your joyous ones, and all for Your loves’ sake. Amen.