How To Respond Well To A Fatal Diagnosis

Time is one of the most precious commodities humans have. We place the highest value on things that are irreplaceable, and time is one of those things. Once a moment has been lived, it is gone forever. We cannot make extra time for ourselves, nor can we make it slow down at our bidding.

Rarity is another quality we treasure, and accurate future knowledge is very rare. Most of us have to march forward blindly, making plans that are frequently dashed and struggling to know what the wisest move is when we can’t see what is coming around the corner.

When you’re handed a fatal diagnosis, suddenly you are thrust into the rare position of having some very useful information about your future. Often the information gives you a picture of the level of resources and abilities you can expect to have, as well as a general idea of how those things will decline as you approach the end. This is far more insight than most humans receive about their personal futures. It’s now a question of whether you will make the most of what you’ve been given, or miss out on a valuable opportunity.

Seeing the Positive in Depressing News

All humans fear death and suffering, so it’s only natural to feel depressed when you’re first handed a grim diagnosis. It’s also quite normal to sink down into self-pity and feel that you’ve been dealt a particularly bad hand. But have you?

Suffering enters every life, and it usually catches us by surprise. Miserable health problems abound in this world, but most people don’t receive any warning about what’s coming. When we are suddenly hit with a loss of abilities and chronic physical miseries, we often feel we would have done things differently if we’d only had some warning about what was ahead. We would have gone on that vacation. We would have spent more time to cultivate friendships and less time chasing career goals that our illness has moved permanently out of reach. Future knowledge is a precious gift, even when it’s negative. Being able to see trouble on the horizon can help you spend your time much more wisely today.

When we are focused on our own physical problems, it’s easy to forget that there are many other problems that we don’t have which are equally miserable. Suffering enters every life. Emotional, mental, and spiritual problems often don’t show on the outside of a person, and yet they can cause endless internal anguish. The key point for you to realize is that you’re not alone, nor have you been singled out for extra crummy treatment in this world. No one escapes this world without being plagued with many forms of pain and problems. What’s so unique about your situation is that you’ve received information about what’s coming which can help you focus on the right priorities.

Missing Out

In these situations, there’s often a strong feeling of bitterness that you’ll have to miss out on so many things that you wanted to experience in this world. But once again, focusing acutely on your own situation can easily blind you to what’s happening with others.

Most people reach the end of their lives with a long list of things they never got to experience. Consider how many relationships are entered into with high hopes only to have things turn south. Consider how many applications fail, how many friendships never get off the ground, and how many goals get blocked by insufficient funds and a shortage of time. For many people, work is a necessary evil that must be endured in order to pay the bills. It’s not something they enjoy, it’s something they find tedious while it blocks them from doing what they want to do. The point is that you’re not the only one to have a stack of hopes in your mind that now feel impossible. We all find ourselves in the same predicament: getting excited about ideas that we then find impossible to pursue due to other obligations pressing on us.

One of the keys to handling a fatal diagnosis well is to not fall into the trap of blowing your disease out of proportion. Yes, it’s a crummy bit of news. But everyone gets slammed with bad news at some point or other. Everyone has their life path knocked off course. Everyone has days where they think, “This sure isn’t how I imagined my life would turn out.”

Because future knowledge is so rare, we naturally find it shocking and we often get so focused on the details of the information that we miss seeing the great advantage of having information so far in advance. Every life is broken into seasons, with each season bringing a different set of resources and abilities. Your story is no different, only you’ve been given a glimpse into some of the ways your future seasons will be different than the one you’re in now. That kind of insight puts you in a very advantageous situation.

If this is your season of greatest abundance and from here on you’re expected to have declining abilities, then now is the time to pursue the goals that require the most resources, while you save the easier ones for later seasons. Make a list of goals and then think about what would be needed to accomplish each one. Many goals can’t be accomplished alone, so be realistic. What items on your list can you actually do in this current season?

Decide to embrace each new season of your life as it comes. The man who is told he’ll be permanently blind in three months can start gathering resources now to help him adjust to that blindness. He can view it as a challenge that he will learn to adapt to instead of seeing it as the end of everything good. The woman who is told she’s going to lose her ability to walk can start planning now for how she can help herself transition to a more sedentary life. No matter what restrictions a season brings, there will be opportunities that come as well, and those are the things you want to make the most of.

Preparing for the Next Round

Jane’s best friend is moving far away soon. For Jane, this is very depressing. When her friend is gone, she will experience a large void in her life. For Jane’s friend Becca, the move is also sad, but not in the same way. While Becca will miss Jane, her daily routine is going to be radically changed and she’ll have plenty of new challenges to focus on. For Jane, it’s the same old situation minus a good friend. For Becca, it’s a whole new adventure stretching out in front of her. While Jane feels very sad, Becca’s sadness is overshadowed by her excitement about what is coming on her personal horizon.

When you die, you’re the friend who moves away. The people you leave behind feel the void you leave in their lives, but you are going to be far too engrossed in a whole new adventure to miss anything or anyone here. If you’ve been told that you’re going to die soon, then it’s time to start getting excited about your next adventure. It’s also time to start asking the kinds of questions that people tend to put off when they assume that they have plenty of time ahead of them. Why am I here? Where will I end up when I die? Is there a God who created me? Does He let me have any influence over where I’ll end up after this world? Am I supposed to be doing something to qualify for the best option on the other side? What is the purpose of me?

Pondering these kinds of questions and seeking out answers is a critical way to prepare. If there is some Creator out there who is responsible for your existence, it would certainly be wise of you to try and figure out who He is and what, if anything, He wants from you. Your soul is the part of your being that feels a deep need for your existence to matter beyond this world. Humans instinctively feel a sense that there is more to their story than what they find here. While some of us manage to ignore the needs of our souls, we can’t escape a need to feel like we’re not just random, meaningless blips. That there is a greater purpose to all of this, a master plan.

Because no one can return from the other side of death to give us a heads up about what to expect, this is one of those subjects that you can only get real help with by looking to the One who invented death in the first place. The God who manages this world and controls when and how we die is the One who has real answers about what to expect on the other side and how best to prepare of it. We often don’t feel any need to bother with God until our lives are suddenly cut short and we find ourselves totally unprepared. But when God arranges for you to see the end of your life more clearly than most, He’s nudging you to give serious thought about how you can best prepare not only for your final seasons in this world, but also for the one beyond.

You can’t avoid what’s coming. The seasons of life roll in like the seasons in nature, and there’s nothing we can do but try to adapt. You can’t build a snowman in your backyard in summer, but you don’t have to slog through a bunch of slippery ice, either. You can’t enjoy the beauty of autumn leaves when it’s spring, but you can enjoy watching new life appearing all around you. Every season has its joys and challenges. Every season puts restrictions on us. A new mother gets to watch her baby grow and change, but she’s also so tired and frazzled that many joyful moments go unnoticed. Every season brings more opportunities than we can use, and so we must pick and choose which ones to pursue. Your situation is the same. Regardless of what kinds of limitations are heading towards you, there will be opportunities as well. They might be little things, but little things can make a big difference. The key is to see the information that you’ve been given as an advantage, not just a downer. God didn’t have to arrange for you to receive advance notice about some of the challenges ahead. He could have just sprung them on you (which is what He usually does to the rest of us), and you’d be caught completely off guard without any chance to prep. Instead, you’ve been given information that can help you scratch unrealistic pursuits and put better ones in their place. You can do a better job of prioritizing which goals you’ll go after first, and you have much more motivation to ask the big picture questions that we should all be asking.

We are all surprised by the way our lives unfold. When we focus on embracing each new season that comes and are willing to adjust to its restrictions without ignoring its opportunities, then we do well. What makes life satisfying is not an abundance of time or endless resources or amazing health. It’s being able to look back and feel pleased with the decisions we made in each season. You can have a satisfying life, even with a grim diagnosis hanging over your head.

This post was written in response to a request.

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