Do you find yourself worrying about things that have yet to happen or that might happen? Perhaps you often replay past experiences in your head, wishing you could change their outcome. If you’re nodding your head “yes,” don’t worry: most of us struggle with staying present, especially when experiencing strong emotions. This is why for my first blog post, I’m exploring the idea of using present-moment awareness to enrich the time we have with loved ones facing a terminal diagnosis.
Having personally lost both my sister and brother-in-law to separate, unforeseen illnesses, I know it’s not always easy to stay present; but my hope is that by sharing my experiences, knowledge, and resources, this post can help others make the most of their precious time together.
What is present-moment awareness?
Present-moment awareness involves staying focused on one’s current experience without judgement, rather than trying to predict the future or dwelling on the past. Present-moment awareness has been practiced for thousands of years but was made popular in the Western world by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s interpretation of mindfulness.
The benefits of staying present
Focusing on the past or future can leave us feeling worn out and less resilient, making us incapable of fully showing up for those we love. When we practice staying in the present moment, we are better able to respond to stress and communicate our emotions to others. Considering that emotions can easily run high when facing the death of a loved one, these are two very important benefits.
Visualize being present
Let’s try a quick exercise: Imagine you’re sitting in a hospital room with a family member or friend who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Naturally, everyone in this room will be experiencing a good deal of fear and uncertainty. You probably want to know how this person became sick and how much time they have left to live. You may also be wondering what their remaining quality of life will be like. These thoughts are absolutely normal; but nevertheless, they are distracting you from being 100% present with your loved one, and robbing you both of your current, limited time together.
Practicing present-moment awareness can help you feel less consumed by your thoughts and emotions, and more aware of what’s really happening now. It can help you get outside of your “self” and tap into the emotions of those around you. And since research suggests that present-moment awareness can also decrease emotional reactivity, staying present can help you make decisions from a place of centeredness.
Staying present takes vulnerability and willingness
Let me share a personal example: When my sister, Victoria, was 51 years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia. I was devastated; Victoria and I were close, and I couldn’t imagine losing her. I immediately felt what I could only imagine so many of my patients’ families had felt over my 25-year career as a neurosurgeon: absolute fear. I couldn’t believe that I was suddenly forced onto the patient side of the doctor-patient relationship, completely unprepared to handle my own emotions, let alone be there for her.
But, while I was uncertain how I would be able to support Victoria during her illness, the relationship we had after her diagnosis was much stronger and more authentic. I was able to allow the protective barriers that I thought had served me so well as a surgeon to dissipate, leaving behind vulnerability and willingness—two key traits I needed to practice present-moment awareness during the time I had left with Victoria.
Staying present takes time
Unfortunately, present-moment awareness isn’t something that most of us can master overnight. Like any skill, it takes time, dedication, and practice to stay present—and, just as importantly, to realize when we’re not being present. The good news is that there are many valuable resources available to help you practice present-moment awareness.
How can I practice staying present with a loved one?
Being present can mean a lot of things, from simply sharing space with a loved one to actively listening as they talk about their illness. The important thing is that you start with what’s most comfortable for you and build from there. Here are a few suggestions to help you stay present with a friend or loved one diagnosed with a terminal illness:
- Practice being grateful. Gratitude helps us enter a state of present-moment awareness by encouraging us to focus all of our energy on the now. While it may be hard to focus on the time you have left with a terminally sick friend or family member, choosing to be grateful for this time—regardless of how short or long it may be—can help you make the most of it together. (This is why I used the phrase “gratitude brings grace” in the dedication page of my book.)
- Unplug from technology. Turning off your smartphone and any other technological devices while you’re with a loved one may seem like a small act, but it has the power to deeply enhance your time together. When we’re checking email or scrolling through news headlines, we distract ourselves from the small details that can provide insight into someone else’s condition. A cursory glance, a small smile, or a quiet sigh often say more than words can express—especially when spending time with those who tend to “suffer in silence.”
- Connect without words. Though conversation is one of the most common ways we connect with one another, non-verbal connection is just as (and sometimes more) important. Simple non-verbal gestures, such as making eye contact or gently touching the hand of a loved one or friend, can say, “I’m here for you” when we’re exhausted or at a loss for words. Just be sure to gauge the other person’s current affect before making physical contact. Do they seem open to being touched? If not, this can be a good opportunity to practice active listening or enjoy a moment of silence together.
Additional resources for practicing presence
In addition to the above suggestions, you may also find these books helpful for practicing present-moment awareness:
- Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- The Power of Now by Ekchart Tolle
- The Pocket Pema Chödrön by Pema Chödrön
- How Not to Be Afraid: Seven Ways to Live When Everything Seems Terrifying by Gareth Higgins
To help you apply the power of presence to coping with grief and loss, I’ve provided a number of resources on the Community Resources page of my website. My book, Grief Connects Us, is also a valuable resource for anyone caring for a loved one or friend diagnosed with a terminal illness, as it chronicles my own experience coming to terms with my late sister’s cancer.
Share your experiences with the power of presence
I invite you to share any experiences you have with staying present with loved ones in the comments below to help facilitate a rich discussion. Please note that by commenting below, you are agreeing to have your comment shared here, in a future blog post, or other community materials. Not all comments will be chosen for publication here.
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