Surviving a serious illness or a traumatic event where others have been killed may give your life a new sense of purpose. You're also likely to feel more vulnerable and may wonder why you were spared and others died. One aspect of a brush with death is an appreciation of life, while another is a greater consciousness of your mortality.
Medical advances mean that more and more people are surviving life-threatening illnesses and serious injuries.
Cardiovascular disease is the UK’s biggest killer, accounting for more than a quarter of deaths. But, improvements in treatment mean that there is an estimated 7 million people living with heart disease today.1
In the case of cancer, half of people diagnosed with the disease in England and Wales survive for 10 years or more. Survival rates have doubled in the last 40 years.2
Statistics like these show that you may have a brush with death and survive for many years afterwards. This is, of course, good news but it can also bring difficulties in its wake.
If you recover from a life-threatening illness, you may be fearful that it will return and worry about every twinge. You may face constraints on how you live your life because of a disability or side effects of the treatment you have received.
It’s possible that you will suffer from survivor guilt, a mental condition that can affect people who’ve survived a war, natural disaster or other traumatic event. In these situations you feel guilty that you survived when you witnessed the deaths of so many others.
At the age of 17, Gary Burns was caught up in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, in which 96 football fans were crushed to death at the FA Cup semi-final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Gary has spoken of his guilt that he survived the disaster.
He says: “For a long time I wanted to go round to bereaved families and say ‘sorry I’m here. I survived and I’m sorry.”3
He finds the anniversary of the disaster a particularly difficult time: “I can’t stand the month of April, detest it with a passion. To me there are only 11 months in the year because April doesn’t exist. … It sends a cold feeling down my spine, but there is no getting away from it.”4
When you survive a a brush with death you may become more aware of how you live your life, and seek a better balance between doing things for yourself and for other people. You may find that preparing for your death makes you less afraid of dying.
Trish Davidson from Bath, Somerset, suffered a number of life-threatening complications after being diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2002, has revised her will and set up power of attorney.
Each time Trish, 67, survived a brush with death, she believed she has been spared for a reason. In 2007, after recovering from another major operation, Trish gave up her job as a sales executive to set up Unchosen, a charity that raises awareness of modern slavery in the UK through the medium of film. She flung all her energies into her work and then became seriously ill again in 2014.
Now on the road to recovery, she is a volunteer guide at an historic house, is involved in amateur dramatics and has taken up kayaking again.
She recently started to spread the word about Unchosen at community level and is also active in her Methodist church helping to coordinate pastoral care.
“After my illness in 2014, a minister said to me ‘now Trish, you have got better this time but that doesn’t mean that you have been saved for a reason again. This time you need to enjoy your life’. I’ve taken that on board. I still feel called and I am talking about my charity wherever I can but I am also doing things for myself.”
Another survivor of serious illness Jim McManus, a director of public health in Hertfordshire, talks about his experience in positive terms.
Jim, 51, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in October 2012 and spent four months in hospital. He suffered two infections and almost died.
He was treated with four cycles of intensive chemotherapy which left him with moderate brain damage that affects his memory and a susceptibility to colds and flu.
Yet, he has taken up weight lifting and power lifting and considers himself fitter than he has ever been. He says the illness “pressed the reset button” on his life.
“Work is an opportunity to serve. People say I have an infinite capacity to work and I don’t get stressed. I am working harder. I see it as a something that is energising rather than stressful.”
Jim is full of praise for the treatment he received in hospital and where he found shortcomings, notably with the food, he is working to improve standards. Most of all, the experience of being ill has helped him to empathise with patients.
He says: “I know what it’s like to be vulnerable, to suffer the worst pain ever and to be totally and utterly dependent.
“I know what it’s like to be alone in a hospital bed on Christmas Day wondering whether the antibiotics are going to work or you are going to die but I also know about an immense sense of peace and the feeling that you are going to be fine.”
“There’s a cancer survivors club and I can say mainly good came out of it, the bad or necessary evil was the bloody awful treatment, the good was everything else that has happened since.”
Trish and Jim say they now cherish life and friendship more than ever.
Says Jim: “What has changed is, I now get much more joy out of every single thing in life even little things like someone making me a coffee.”
Read more about making the most of life.
It was a brush with death that led to the conversion to Christianity of Blessed Hildegard Burjan (1883-1933).
Born into a liberal Jewish family, she married an industrialist and a year later almost died of kidney disease. She attributed her recovery to God’s providence, and, inspired by the religious sisters who treated her in hospital, became a Catholic. She went on to found a religious congregation, Caritas Socialis, dedicated to serving the poor of Vienna. She also became active in politics and proposed laws to protect the rights of workers and to protect children.