Facing Our Deepest Fear

“I’m afraid to die,” Vic said. His raspy voice was soaked with despair. I rubbed his tight shoulders while he leaned into me, his head resting against my heart.

“I meditated and studied with wise teachers for forty years. Why am I afraid?”  I listened and loved him as he struggled. I hadn’t faced my own mortality or been around anyone who openly grappled with their tension between faith and fear.

Our doctor and friend Michael talked to Vic about the body’s inborn desire for life. “Can you take that scared part of yourself in your arms and comfort him?” Michael asked. Vic tried.

He’d approached cancer without self-pity or drama, plunging ahead with hope through chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. That changed September 2007 when he noticed an angry rash on his drive home from teaching.

His eyes were wide with terror when he showed me his blotchy thighs. I took a deep breath. The rash hadn’t been there that morning.

“I think it’s cancer,” Vic said.

“We’re not sure what it is,” oncologists said after weeks of testing, experimental medicines, and confusing test results. Was it a drug reaction or a new manifestation of his rare lymphatic cancer? The rash moved from his thighs to his whole body and he began to swell like the Michelin man.

“Let’s try diuretics,” Michael said. Diuretics made Vic sicker. I held his warm wrist and felt his erratic, jumpy heart. I called Michael.

“Take him to the hospital for an EKG,” Michael said.

The hospital cardiologist suggested IV diuretics. Michael and I protested. Vic protested. Vic’s oncologist in Rochester said to go ahead. It was all guess work.

Half an hour after the infusion began, Vic’s skin turned pale sick green. Then his heart went into ventricular fibrillation. I refused to leave the ICU room and witnessed as they intubated him with fierce efficiency and shocked him back into life a dozen times over the next few hours. Between shocks, I held his feet. Friends and family gathered to meditate. That night, I tapped a heart rhythm into Vic’s limp palm, hoping his body would remember.

Vic’s journal, addressed to our root spiritual teacher Anthony Damiani

The next morning, after Vic was moved to the hospital where he was being treated for cancer, cardiac arrests stopped. No one knew why.

“He’ll have amazing stories to tell,” I said to our sons as doctors took Vic off life support. I imagined long tunnels ending with white celestial lights, maybe an angel or his grandmother.

For days, Vic didn’t remember and then he did. “It was black,” he said. “I threw my hands up in the air for help and felt terror.”

“Oh.” That’s not what I hoped for, but he was alive, physically weakened but mentally fine.

Vic turned toward fear and wrote about it. I asked questions, listened, and witnessed as he wrestled with his dark angels. He wrote in his journal at night while I slept.

Dalai Lama in a serious mood (photo by Vic Mansfield, 1993)

At the bleakest moment, Vic received an email saying the Dalai Lama’s office had moved His Holiness’s visit to Colgate University where Vic taught to spring 2008 instead of 2009 as previously planned. Vic was asked to teach with the Dalai Lama and present him with his last book which the Dalai Lama had asked him to write.

I focused on keeping Vic alive a few more months.

In May 2008, audience in their seats, Vic began the Science and Religion symposium by thanking the Dalai Lama for a lifetime of inspiration and guidance. He moved closer to His Holiness to offer a copy of his book Tibetan Buddhism and Modern Physics: Toward A Union of Love and Knowledge.

The Dalai Lama opened his arms wide like a mother and held my sobbing husband. I was stunned. And grateful.

Vic gave an unashamed little boy grin to the audience before the warrior surfaced one last time. He sat down briefly, popped a cough drop in his mouth, and stood to give a powerful talk about physics and Buddhism, making sure the Dalai Lama understood every word.

“I can die now,” Vic said after two days with the Dalai Lama. “Fear left when he held me in his arms.”

For five weeks, Vic meditated on a photo the Colgate photographer took of that hug. The image hung on the wall next to Vic’s bed. As I prepared to drive him to the hospital for help with another breathing crisis, I grabbed the photo.

Last family photo, 5 weeks before Vic’s death

Vic died a few days later with the photo hanging on the hospital wall. We were not afraid.

***

People often experience grace when facing death. It comes in various forms–or doesn’t come at all. I’d love to hear your experiences. I wrote all the details of this experience in my book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief. It changed my view of conflicting feelings that come with illness, death, and heartache.

To learn more about Vic’s relationship with the Dalai Lama and his writing and teaching in Jungian Psychology, Buddhism, and Physics, see his website Vic Mansfield: Science, Psychology, and the Sacred. I suggest the media page at his website which includes a StoryCorp Interview, a short TV interview after seeing the Dalai Lama, his last talk at Colgate at the Buddhism and Science Symposium, and other interviews and talks.

 

24 Comments
  1. I believe to witness the death of a person we dearly love, especially after weeks, months or even years of watching them suffer is a time when we must face our deepest fears and yet … if I had the choice I would choose this way every time because to think of those I love dying and not saying goodbye torments me more and yet … this way has happened several times in my life already whether loved ones deaths came through accidents, overdoses or suicide.

    I had my first powerful meeting with death in my late twenties when my best friend died at the time of ovarian cancer. I was heartbroken and in hindsight (being young) didn’t know what to expect as her last year was filled with hospital appointments, chemotherapy and radiotherapy schedules, drugs and surgeries. From diagnosis to death she lived 12 months. In her last year I became pregnant and my daughter was only ten days old at her funeral.

    Her death at the time was truly devastating and yet … there was this kind of benevolence and inner strength I found despite the overwhelming exhaustion and sadness of it all. A strength that got me up in the morning to visit and mind her children whilst her husband visited his wife alone. Back then, I wouldn’t have even known I was living with the tension of the opposites with death above, and life growing below. It was a strange, dreamlike year.

    Fast forward a decade when I qualify as a therapist and the first job I take is to help set up a children’s bereavement charity because I never forgot there was no help for her children back then. So not only did I feel that I was honouring Teresa’s memory but that I was providing support for other local bereaved children too. It’s amazing to think that ten years later the golden egg that was laid in the ashes of Teresa’s death cracked open and a new creation sprung forth much like your own amazing book, articles, workshops and blog.

    As always Elaine your heartfelt words are beautifully penned. Thank you for sharing your rich words and wisdom with us! The photo of Vic in the Dalia Lama’s arms is deeply moving and how courageous it must’ve have been to see him to weep without shame! Apologies for such a long reply … such is the power of your writing my dear friend! Warm autumnal blessings, Deborah.

    • Deborah, Vic’s struggle with faith and fear was a teaching for me. I understood that our lofty spiritual values guide us but don’t necessarily erase the body’s fear of the Great Unknown. It was an honor to walk with Vic through this and to know he trusted me enough to share the fears that made him ashamed. I know others have similar fears, but refuse to discuss them and push intimacy and soul connection away.

      Having a friend die at a young age must have been overwhelming. Usually there is no one to teach us how to help the dying one or ourselves so we do the best we can. I think or hope that’s changing. It sounds like you did something extremely practical and helpful for your friend. And Therese gave you a gift which you could pass on to bereaved children. And you were also a grieving child for different reasons, so working with children must have helped that part of you.

      Vic was obviously dying when he received that hug and the experience led to surrender. I wrote in my book but didn’t include in the post (it was already too long) that the Dalai Lama was in Ithaca when Vic had the cardiac arrests and was told about Vic’s state. Our sons had come to go with us to the Dalai Lama’s teachings, but instead the family spent those days in intensive care. When Vic came out of the coma, my son showed him a livestream of the Dalai Lama teaching in Ithaca at Cornell University. What an awakening! Thanks for your kind words and autumnal blessings, dear Deborah. It will soon be October and so many of us are like little dogs waiting for our monthly poem bone.

      • Oh, you did make me laugh out loud with your last sentence Elaine! On a deeper note, I want to say thank you so much for acknowledging that I too was a grieving child at that time. To be seen and heard is more than any soul could possibly wish for! Love & light always. xx

        • Deborah, I’m reading the book ‘The Body Keeps the Score.’ It’s wonderful. You’ve probably read it, but I’m learning so much about childhood grief and abandonment.

  2. What a beloved family photo, such sadness, angst, and love mingled. I like how you describe the detail of your husband’s leave-taking as variously little boy and warrior.

    Aunt Ruthie and Mark “snuck off” into eternity when I wasn’t looking though I was near by. My youngest sister who had an adversarial relationship with my mother says at the time of death (which I missed), she felt our mother’s spirit leave the body with the sensation of angel wings, and then she felt LOVE, finally. Her death came suddenly, you may remember. I was in Florida when she died.

    You are writing this many years after Vic’s death. The detail is amazing, intense as in your memoir. I hope you continue to experience healing in the pain.

    • Marian, I’m glad your sister had that Spirit-Love experience at your mom’s death since it made space for Love. What could be more important than forgiveness and love? It’s so common for people to die when few people are around. Maybe it’s easier for them that way. I was in the room when Vic died, but lying on a blanket on the floor to give my son a chance to say goodbye to his dad without my hovering. I was told Vic’s breathing had changed and it had. I help his limp hand and waited for an inhalation that didn’t come. Sad as I was, I knew it was the best thing.

      I often revisit experiences with Vic in memory–recently more than usual. I wrote the first draft of this when I was afraid I’d never feel well again after cochlear implant surgery, even though I heard much better. I couldn’t get a clear head or feel anything beyond exhaustion. It wasn’t fear of death but fear for my capacity to live fully. I stepped back from many things I’d done for years like classes and a book group, although I hung on to hospice work and my writing group. I had to do all I could to lower the normal stresses of life. It’s been a rehearsal for another time when I won’t recover, although it seems I will this time. Slowly. I didn’t expect to get so thoroughly knocked down, but then we always think it won’t happen to us. I await your book with anticipation. It should arrive any day.

      • I knew the cochlear implant operation was a great strain on your system. Now I realize the scope of it, beyond what I realized when you were going through it. Yes, you are recovering. Those loving monarchs and flora in nature have helped you do it! Yay! 🙂

        • Marian, the operation wasn’t so hard and my hearing was obviously better just days after turning the sound receiver on–and it keeps improving as the brain adjusts. The problem has been fatigue of a sort I hadn’t experienced before. (Down goes the pride about being a fit tough woman.) Doctors and other cochlear implant patients nod their heads knowingly. It’s the fatigue and stress of the brain figuring out how to process the world of bionic sound and turn the new signals into what is heard as regular sound. It’s magic and it’s working. I’d love to hurry this process along, but that’s not possible. From the doctor’s point of view, I’m doing super well. I just took a two mile hike and will take another this afternoon. I truly appreciate your loving concern. I’ll release 4 Monarchs this afternoon. About 25 still in chrysalis. Like my hearing, they won’t be hurried.

  3. So poignant, such clarity about excruciating times, Elaine. I’ll show it to Michael. The letter to the teacher is very touching, it seems the love between them was tenderly present in spite of Anthony Damiani being gone from the world for so long at that point. Thank you so much.

    • Thank you, Harriet. After Vic got sick, his journal became only letters to our teacher Anthony Damiani (d. 1984). The first journal entry of that period is 9/5/2006, the day after Vic’s first chemotherapy and it’s filled with gratitude for Anthony, the Dalai Lama, and a diagnosis and treatment. Vic was reading Anthony’s book ‘Living Wisdom’ at the time–so the journal says. The next entry, the next day, on 9/6/2006, the struggle and sleeplessness had begun. Vic poured his feelings out on the pages. Entries continue with the ups and downs of Vic’s psychological, spiritual, and physical struggles with no entries for a long period after the cardiac arrests. Then they begin again. The last entry was about a week before Vic’s death. He never lost his tender devotion to Anthony or his gratitude for and trust in Michael.

  4. I’m with Marian in being amazed by you intense detail. After I read it just now, before I even read the comments, I made a promise to myself that if I ever find myself in your situation I will write everything down. For me, as I suspect for you, writing is both a psychological and spiritual practice which grounds me and brings great comfort. How wise you were to know, or even just instinctually sense, that this was the right way for you to go through this experience.

    Thank you my Wisewoman friend.

    • Jeanie, as you probably remember, I bought a new notebook when the local oncologist said Vic “probably” had cancer but they couldn’t figure out what kind. So began the journey just to get a diagnosis. I have a few stuffed notebooks from those years–details of all the events, a write-up of the main issues in Vic’s situations for new doctors (his medical file was huge and I knew they couldn’t read and digest it), lists of questions and symptoms we prepared for doctor’s visits, various crises, and my reactions to everything (lots of Active Imagination with Divine Mother). At the end of an especially nuts day, I sometimes only had the energy to write out the events of the day in a list style, but could deal with my feeling reactions later. I took some photos but wish I’d taken more. All this helps me remember what I wanted to remember but knew I would forget. I do the same when doing dreamwork. Memory is slippery on our underworld journeys, so I wanted to remember the embodied details. Thanks for your reflection and your wisdom, Jeanie. Congratulations again about having two of your books selected for a list of wisdom books written by women. It’s a big deal!

  5. Heartbreaking but enlightening. Death with dignity and grace, yet the finality is always a sweet surrender. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debby. The unusual part of my experience with Vic was his willingness to grapple with and be truthful about his emotional conflicts. He didn’t complain about his situation, but worked with his feelings and tried to face death consciously. He meditated sometimes 3 times a day along with writing when he had the mental clarity to do that. He kept searching for grace. Fortunately, it arrived.

  6. O my goodness Elaine this was wrenching. Death – so much part of life and both encompassing struggle. To be fully present to both asks much of us – both as witness and participator. Thank you for this beautiful and brave piece of writing which I find very moving. Oscar Wilde: ‘Where there is sorrow, there is Holy Ground’

    • Susan, I hoped it would be uplifting, not wrenching, to show that if we are honest about our true feelings, fears, and struggles, grace arrives–not in the way it did for Vic but in a way appropriate for each individual. I was honored to learn from Vic’s honest but heroic path which didn’t hide fear and vulnerability. I hope I can remain as honest with my sons. I love the Oscar Wilde quote which you used in your blog. Thanks for sharing it here.

  7. Ah, as Susan wrote, this is such a brave and beautiful piece, Elaine. The emotional honesty with which Vic, and you, met this time of living/dying is stunning. If I am learning anything as I get older, it is that the heroic path is not possible without such raw honesty and vulnerability (which is why it is the hero’s path). Thank you for sharing it all, because it is so tempting (for me) to focus on the moment of grace without everything that leads up to it. I know that we have to live into the terror (or whatever is arising), and those of you have been able to do this, as well as Rilke’s beautiful lines, at least remind me that it is possible.

    • Thanks for your kind and wise response. We had lots of practice and help, Anne. I’ll always be thankful for those rough and tumble encounter group days in CA and then in Ithaca where Vic and I led weekend groups. The goal was emotional honesty. Of course since we’re humans and self-protective, we didn’t always get to honesty without a little circling and avoidance, but we could read each other well. I found Vic’s approach to death extremely heroic, especially his focus on kindness, and it kept him in close relationship with me, his sons, and his community. He was honest about his struggles and when he had a stem cell transplant his request was “please send me inspirational poems.” It was fortunate that our women’s mythology class was studying the myth of Orpheus and reading “Sonnets to Orpheus” at the time of Vic’s illness and death. We unpacked one poem each time we met and painted whatever it inspired. I have those 51 paintings–amateur, but loaded with feeling and meaning for me. It was a way of mining beauty in the darkness.

  8. I love that phrase, “mining beauty in the darkness.”
    I can imagine that as a wonderful title for a book, and one that might include all 51 of your paintings! The fact that they are “amateur” is what would make them so much more accessible. I bought a copy of the sonnets after I had first read about the importance of them to you at the time of Vic’s illness and death, though I find it difficult to unpack them by myself. Perhaps I need to unpack my brushes instead…

    • I love that title, too, Anne. Thanks for reflecting back what I wrote because I wouldn’t have remembered. Some of the sonnets are dense. It helped to work on them one at a time with others and to look at different translations. (Meeting every other week for 3 hours at a time, it took two years to go through the sonnets). Different women understood different images that others had missed. There was also a German speaking woman there part of the time, so that helped. The poems are full of images, so just grab those brushes and an image and go. I need to do the same, but I just adopted a pup who will come live with my old dog and me in a few weeks. Ah, the things we do for joy and beauty.

  9. OMG ~ a new pup! I’m headed out for a walk right now and will hold the joy of that as I go.

    • A little on the crazy side considering I’m still working on from cochlear implant fatigue, but it’s a rare thing to have a rescue litter of Lab-mix puppies in NY State. (Mom a black lab and father unknown, but all 6 in the litter look labby.) She won’t live with Willow and me until mid October because they keep her with her littermates and an attentive foster family until they’re 8 weeks old, but I chose my girl and can visit because she’s being fostered fairly close. I’m playing with names and relishing every quiet moment. There’s gonna be some wild puppy chaos around here. I’m sure I’ll write about this adventure because it will dominate my life for a while. I’m choosing to shake things up and down. So much for writing my mythological grief opus right away. Puppy love feels more important.

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