A measure of peace in talking about death

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A measure of peace in talking about death


Roger Cole

Death is not an easy subject. For many of us, it is the thing we fear the most. Talking about death with those you love may be harder still.

But Dr. Roger Cole, an Australian cancer specialist who has worked as a palliative care physician for more than a decade, has helped many people face their fear of death and talk about it openly as a means of achieving peace.

In his book, “Mission of Love,” published in 1999, he describes his encounters with people nearing death who have found peace in talking about their greatest fear and releasing themselves from their worldly concerns.

An updated version of the book was published in 2008 and has since been translated into seven languages including Spanish, Polish and Japanese. The Korean translation of the book was released here last week.

Cole sat down with the Korea JoongAng Daily yesterday to talk about the message he is hoping to communicate through the book.

Q. You write about facing death and accepting it. How would you define death?

A. When I was born I was very innocent, pure, peaceful. I had this original nature that hadn’t been touched by the world. It was when I was touched by the world that I became vulnerable. And this vulnerability caused me to construct great fences to protect myself.

But I still have a memory of my birth within me. For instance, if I see a picture of innocence, like a child or ducklings crossing the road, my insides melt. Why? Because I remember my own innocence. So in the process of meditating, I’m remembering a pure and innocent nature that’s still within me.

In a way, when we die, everything we made for ourselves in the world, or everything the world has made us become, gets stripped away because we can’t do the things that gave us pleasure and quality of life.

We get weaker, we can’t be what we used to be and we lose the ego of the identity that we’ve made up. When that’s gone, we don’t actually die, we just return to the innocence we once had.

Why do people feel a fear of dying?

Because of the uncertainty and anxiety of not knowing what’s going to happen. People often say to me that they are not afraid of death, but the process of dying. They ask “what’s going to happen to me” and “how do I get there?”

What does a palliative care specialist do?

A lot of patients find inner peace after they talk about their illness. In these talks, we educate them, tell them details about their disease. That gives them knowledge, knowledge is power and power gives them a feeling of control over a situation.

You’ve said that there is no need to fear death since we are going back to the innocence we once had or that we still have inside of us. But I wonder if what people are afraid of is not death but becoming dependent again on someone else as though they were a child again, after having been responsible and independent throughout their lives.

What you’ve picked up on there is very true. Two of the biggest fears I’ve come across with people with cancer are the fear of pain and fear of dependence, or losing independence. And those two, again, are the great sources of anxiety.

The patients become more afraid of breaking down in front of family than they are of cancer. Again, this can be helped by sitting down [with patients] and telling them that their dependent state won’t continue for long. When it comes to the point that they become dependent, it’s often a few short weeks or even days before the person dies of cancer.

And talking about these issues really helps people.

Doctors these days are sometimes criticized for not interacting enough with patients. What advice do you have for these doctors?

I actually do understand that doctors often don’t have much time. So I think team work is important with those who are dying.

It’s not just a doctor then, it’s a doctor, nurse, counselor, religious or spiritual person, some volunteers and some practical people who look at equipment needs.

If the doctor has all of the responsibility with no time, he’s not going to take that responsibility because it’s too overwhelming.

With that understating, I would say that team work is important and I would ask doctors to give their full attention to the person in front of them, because that attention is very healing for that person.

By Lee Sun-min [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]
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