In retrospect I doubt that the type of bad news we have no heard can be absorbed easily. And the defenses we erect are probably essential to our mental wellness — giving us time to take it in.
Thus, although I pride myself on being able to face facts, look death in the eye, I spent hours in my own mind disputing the doctor’s statements and questioning his credentials. I also fought with a friendly nurse all in the service of maintaining my lie —that there must be some mistake. I reassured myself that Dr. K wouldn’t be the first doctor who made a mistake, or who had been given wrong lab results, or who interpreted them incorrectly. My daughter could live 10 more years and by that time they could find a cure. I myself had a spontaneous remission from a terminal illness in my youth. Maybe she could have one too. There is always the outlier, the one who defies scientific probabilities. There is apparently even an AIDS patient on record with full blown disease who has lived 20 years without a symptom.
After all Dr K didn’t know our names so how could he be sure he was speaking to the right patient. After a couple of days, my daughter’s natural joyous state bubbled back to the surface. You could call it denial or common sense in the face of an illness whose outcome, or course, we could not influence or control. She returned to her babies and her husband and put this story out of her mind.
I suggested some alternative approaches, unproven approaches that could lengthen her years of relative health. I’ve always heard great things about chi gung, for example.But it’s difficult to pursue alternatives when you’ve already decided that thinking about the illness is not a good idea. After all you go to a doctor and he tells you things about your body that you cannot possibly know and you have to accept it on faith, like going to a dentist and his telling you that a tooth that is not hurting you needs repair costing thousands of dollars. How do you know he is right?
I don’t know if denial is a universal reaction, but it is certainly a common one: one that can be felt but shouldn’t be indulged for too long. Very important not to linger: if the denial lasts too long, you can get really stuck in pretending it’s all OK … I know people who kept the denial going, until it was too late for effective treatment.
I had to stop trying to cover up this awful news. Usually at least one member of the family becomes the guardian of reality, faces it on a daily basis, and does his or her best to protect and defend, to nudge when necessary.
The caregiver(s) often become the carriers of the truth. They cannot necessarily speak of it, measuring words as carefully as the dosages of medicine.
I wanted, insisted on, a third opinion, one outside of the Kaiser system, since doctors within the same institution tend to agree with each other.
Despite my jumping up and down, everything Dr. K said turned out to be 100% accurate.