HEALTH / A lifetime in the shadow of death: Thousands whose parents died early go in fear of their lives, haunted by the dread of dying in the same way. Annabel Ferriman reports

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Bridget Cooke reached the age of 27, she developed mysterious dizzy spells. She went to see her doctor, who told her nothing was wrong. Within a few months, they disappeared as inexplicably as they had arrived. Then six years later, when her daughter, Lucy, reached her fifth birthday, the dizziness reappeared.

This time, Bridget also noticed that she had developed 'blood blisters' on her body and she was convinced that they were signs of something serious. She made another visit to the doctor, who was distinctly unsympathetic. So she went to the Marie Stopes Well Woman Clinic in central London, hoping for a more understanding reception.

There the doctor elicited from her the real cause of her 'symptoms'. Bridget's mother had died, of a rare form of leukaemia, at the age of 27, when Bridget was just five years old. As Bridget reached the crucial age of her mother's death, tension and anxiety brought on the dizzy spells, and when her own daughter reached five, the age that Bridget had been when her mother died, they reappeared. She interpreted the 'blood blisters', which are a normal part of the ageing process, as signs that leukaemia was developing.

'Looking back, I can see what the real cause was, but at the time I genuinely thought I was ill,' she says.

Bridget, now a 42-year-old company director, was suffering from a common phenomenon. She was convinced that she was going to die young because one of her parents had done so. In her case, she was living under a double curse as her grandmother had also died in her twenties, making Bridget even more certain that her life would be short.

Thousands of adults suffer from similar feelings. Many men whose fathers dropped dead from a heart attack in their forties or fifties, for example, believe that they will follow in their footsteps, while many women whose mothers died young of breast cancer feel the same way. They live a large part of their lives under the shadow of death.

Eric Berne, American originator of transactional analysis, recognises the problem in his book What Do You Say After You Say Hello? He says that if a man's father died at 40, that man will live in a 'state of vague apprehension throughout most of his fourth decade', with the most trying period being between his 39th and 40th birthdays.

Dr Tim Jones, whose father died of a heart attack when he was 49, recognises the feeling. 'For most of my adult life I have been stalked by the ghost of my father's death,' he says. 'Although my father died more than 40 years ago, when I was only four years old, the effect of his death continues to plague me. When I was in my twenties I suffered from a free-floating, undefined fear of death. But as I passed through my thirties and into my forties it became more and more real.

'About five years ago I started swimming regularly. My daily swim, during which I prove to myself that my heart is strong enough to do 30 lengths, is a talisman against death. If I go more than a few days without it, the awful fears begin to reappear.

'I think one of the reasons I became a doctor was to ward off my own death. I'm sure many doctors have the irrational and misguided belief that they can somehow outmanoeuvre death by their knowledge of medicine. I know that my feelings are not rational, because on my mother's side the family is very long-lived. Her parents lived into their late nineties. I could equally well have inherited the genes from her side of the family.'

Some victims of the syndrome speed up their lives, trying to cram everything in before death carries them away. They try to accumulate enough wealth to procure a secure future for their children, and consequently push themselves harder and harder at work. They then worry that the resulting stress could increase the risk of the early death they dread.

Steven Newell, a glass artist from the US now living in London, whose parents died within four weeks of each other aged 56 and 57, has believed since his teenage years that he would die young. 'My mother developed cancer when she was 40 and I was only 10. We were very close and, because from the age of 45 onwards her death was considered imminent, I always assumed that I would die young from cancer, the same way that she did. As it turned out, she lived with the disease for 16 years.

'But my father died suddenly, four weeks after she did, from a massive heart attack. We had been speaking on the phone, and he died four minutes after he had hung up. I was expecting to spend some time with him. It was such a shock. It took me 10 years to get over it. That is the kind of death that now scares me most.

'I feel that cancer is one of the more normal killers for men. I do not want to die from a heart attack because there is no time to prepare for death, which I think you can do.

'As I get older and the psychological deadline of their death gets closer, I feel I have to pack in more and more. I feel the children need the financial support which a little more prosperity would bring. I think I am working harder and harder.'

Andrew Samuels, a Jungian analyst, recognises from his work that losing a parent comparatively early in life can exact a high psychological toll. 'Men who worry that they are going to die young because their fathers did are usually in their mid-life period anyway and the feeling exacerbates the mid-life crisis. They fear that they will not be given the chance to emerge from the mid-life struggle and they will be cheated out of that period in their lives when their feelings deepen and mellow.

'Many men give up too much of their essential humanity to acquire the material goodies of life and know they acquire them at a high cost. They look forward to a time when they can get in touch with 'feminine values'. They do not like the feeling that they will miss this period.

'Also, men often have blocked feelings of love for their dead father. That love was unexpressed during the father's lifetime because of the constraints in our society on man-to-man love,' Samuels said.

While the emotional toll might be high, there is a positive side to the fears. Many men modify their life-style to reduce their risks of heart disease or stroke. Tim Jones, for example, as well as swimming, gave up smoking and takes drugs to control his blood pressure. Steven Newell does not smoke, runs at least three times a week, controls his weight and watches his diet.

Many women who fear an early death also take steps to prevent the worst happening. Mrs Freda Gorman, a 45-year-old doctor's receptionist, for example, whose mother died of breast cancer at 59 and whose father died of heart disease at the same age, tries to ensure that she eats a low-fat diet and plans to start having mammograms (breast X-rays) before the national screening programme call-up age of 50.

She says she is paranoid about her breasts, especially if she knocks them. 'My mother fell over and knocked her breasts on a stack of baskets in a shop shortly before she developed the disease, and I have always felt that had something to do with her getting it.'

Dr Josephine Green, a research psychologist at the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University, who is carrying out a Medical Research Council-sponsored study on women with a family history of breast cancer, says that it can cause a great deal of anguish. It is common for such women to seek out a cancer-screening programme because they feel a need to 'do something' to protect themselves.

'The problem is that no screening programme is foolproof and mammograms are difficult to interpret in women under 50 because their breasts are denser than in older women. So even if women go for screening, there remains a level of uncertainty. We have not yet discovered, however, why some women suffer much greater anxiety than others. Some feel that they have a sword of Damocles constantly hanging over them, while others in the same position shrug it off more easily.'

What happens when these men or women pass the magical age at which their parents died? Do they breathe a big sigh of relief, crack open the champagne and start enjoying life fully for the first time, or does the threat remain?

Once Bridget Cooke passed the crucial age of 27 and her daughter had passed the age of five, her symptoms disappeared. She was given a blood test to ensure that she did not have leukaemia and was told firmly that she did not require any further checks. She now seldom thinks about death and sees the curse as having been lifted. But others are unconvinced that things will resolve themselves that easily. Tim Jones feels that the anxiety is so much part of his life that he does not think it will just disappear once he passes 49. 'Every year that I live after that will seem like a bonus,' he says.

It is impossible to know what would convince some of these 'doomed' figures that their lifespan could be entirely normal. Consultant psychiatrist David Sturgeon, from University College Hospital, London, says that he sometimes sends such patients off to a cardiologist for reassurance. 'But some continue to feel anxious even after their check-up turns out to be normal.'

My own father, a consultant endocrinologist, was convinced that he would die from a heart attack at 57 because a consultant colleague with whom he identified had done so. When he had a heart attack at the age of 55, he expressed regret that it had come a few years earlier than expected. But he proceeded to confound his gloomy predictions by living until 83. It seems sad to think of all those wasted years of worrying about something that never happened. -