A powerful cartoon on PBS, by Jack Ohman, with the perfect title: “In my dad’s final weeks, I was still in denial, “ reminded me, this morning, of the time of my husband’s illness. I too, till the last moment, was in complete denial.
This is an essay in which I argue that denial could be helpful when dealing with tragedy.
Sometimes I hear people remark “she is in complete denial.” Several years ago that’s probably how they described me. They could not have known, but, at that time, I chose denial as a way of life and as the best course of action. After my husband was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and heard from the oncologist about his prognosis, I decided to put that knowledge aside.
While normally we used to study every foreseeable situation, this time we didn’t. It was better to spare ourselves, thus we purposely limited our exposure to information. Strangely enough it was much easier than anticipated as it was clear that nothing good could come from that front.
It is amazing how the mind becomes a willing confederate in such decisions. Although I heard with my own ears that my husband had only 9 months to live, I did not listen. I kept insisting to myself that he was young and strong and would get better. In addition, the doctors kept planting comforting messages in our minds, or perhaps we just thought we heard them. Statements like “you are looking good,” were translated into “the treatment works” or “he is going to make it.”
The other day I talked to a friend, who was witnessing utter denial in similar circumstances, and it sent me back to the time of my husband’s illness. I believe that although it was hard, perhaps painful for others to watch my self-deception, it made life better for us. In a way, it was like being in love: we placed ourselves in our small cocoon and tried to keep reality out. Inside we were safe, active and even happy, as there were many joyful moments in those bleak months. But there were instances when reality refused to stay out, when he wanted to talk. Then I really had to listen and even wrote down what he said in a special notebook. Somehow writing made it seem less imminent as though it was something we had to record for future reference.
Another friend told me that when her husband was terminally ill, she knew that he was going to die and could not to deny it. I feel that such realization makes it easier to say good bye, to accept the situation and to get used to the idea of the day after. I chose not to see that far.
If there is an insight to share from my plight, it is that being energetic and hopeful doesn’t mean that you don’t know the truth. It only indicates that in the meantime you choose not to deal with it. In short, there are times when Scarlett O’Hara’s technique of “I’ll think about that tomorrow,” is a recommended option.