As aging brings death ever nearer, my fear of dying increases. These surges of anxiety are dispiriting. Shouldn’t faith in Christ’s resurrection liberate me from bouts of cowardice? I would hate to think that my fear is a sign that my faith is actually self-deception. I have often thought that my “atheist” friends in their heart of hearts really believe in God, but maybe it is the other way around. A Christian who is so loath to die is not giving much of a witness to faith in the Resurrection. A real yes to God should be bone deep, not merely a notional assent.
Yet I can detect nothing but firm and heartfelt convictions when I examine my mind and heart. In gratitude, I affirm Christ as the way, the truth and the life. Everything that I know intellectually and have learned from living confirms my faith in the Gospel message. My fear of dying seems unrelated to doubting but rather wells up as some shuddering dread from the depths of a divided self. When I examine this fear precisely, I find at its core the awful anxiety that in dying I will be overwhelmed by panic and the dissolution of self. As consciousness is extinguished, I dread losing any capacity to think, to pray and to feel the loving presence of God.
Unfortunately, I know that such a psychological collapse is possible, since I have been there before. Forty years ago I suffered two full-blown panic attacks that have been burned into memory. After the loss of a baby to sudden infant death syndrome, I was assaulted twice by an overwhelming terror that I was being helplessly extinguished and suffocated; my sense of self was dissolving into nothingness. The ego, or I, was disintegrating along with the external grounds of reality. The desolation and agony of a disintegrating self is identified in my mind with dying. It is “the horror the horror,” or a hell-like nothingness. Such dreadful experiences of psychological suffering appear in mental illness and suicidal despair. It is desolating to imagine how many human beings suffer such traumas as victims of disease, accidents, natural disasters, war and cruel torture.
But less severe losses also seep into my fear of dying. Intense sadness arises over giving up one’s part in the ongoing dramas of one’s daily life and one’s times. The familiar local round and love of one’s own family and people (including my adored dog) strongly bind us to our specific and beautiful world. To have this story interrupted is a painful prospect when we could go on forever. When your life is a blessed Sabbath banquet given by God here and now, leaving your place at the table can be hard—even for a more glorious celebration. In dying we will inevitably be entering into an unimaginable, novel existence, like a fetus being born. Despite the promised wonders in the world to come, I am afraid I identify with the happy, contented fetus in the warm womb who does not want to come out.
Of course if one’s present condition becomes excruciatingly miserable, death may be welcomed as a relief. Undergoing debilitating disease and loss of all function or being caught in circumstances of torture can make dying less difficult. This is the cure for fear of death offered by Montaigne. He argues that when you become very debilitated and ill, you cease to really care about anything or anybody and will be able to die calmly, as animals die. Oh really? I am willing to bet that Montaigne never had a panic attack, and he certainly lived in a time when people became inured to death, as spouses, infants, children, friends and victims of violence died around them.
By contrast, modern, affluent people growing up, as I did, in a secular family never encounter death or attend funerals. In my time that was considered morbid and superstitious. Death was a taboo subject, and I clearly remember defensively saying to myself as a child that by the time I grew up science would have taken care of dying and I would not have to die. Such denials of death can distort a culture in many ways and may even increase its power to terrorize. The fact that our dying is inevitable but indefinite as to when, where or how induces further anxiety. It is all too true that a coward dies a thousand deaths.
Earlier Christians could also be deathly afraid of dying because they would have to face an angry God’s judgment and possible condemnation to hellfire. Today, Christians who believe strongly in the forgiveness of sins and God’s tender mercy do not fear eternal punishment. But we can still be filled with anxiety about confronting shame when we must stand in the Light of Light that reveals all. Self-judgment can be painful and humbling. Here I identify with the overconfident Peter leaping into the sea bent on walking to join Jesus, only to sink and require rescue. Later still I acutely imagine Peter’s shame when Jesus looks at him in the high priest’s courtyard. Even receiving forgiveness and unconditional love can be awe-full and overwhelming.
So is there balm in Gilead to heal the entangling fears of death? At the end of the day, in the time remaining, can we help remove the sting, if not the horror, of death? Obviously ancient spiritual practices are needed, as well as welcome new remedies. The great commandments of Christian spirituality are familiar: live, give, love, pray; unite mind, heart and will with Christ. Embrace the sacrament of the present moment and the sacraments and Scripture of the worshiping church. I take great consolation from meditating on Jesus’ victory over his distress and sorrow in the garden of Gethsemane.
Other strategies can also be pursued. To counter fear of loss we can visualize the friends and family members who have already died—an ever-increasing group. We can imagine that with the divine liveliness the eternal conversation continues within a constantly joyful company. Surely God’s infinite truth will provide infinitely more learning and creativity for us to pursue. These and other reflections can turn us to God, who is our future. Dying is an arduous venture, for which we need all the help we can get from everyone in heaven and earth and from anything that can give courage and lift up our hearts.
Happily, the art of dying is given life with the advent of the hospice movement and the growth of palliative medicine. Care is offered through the comfort of companionship, family, friends and lots of tender physical ministrations. Visual beauty, laughter and music can lift the spirit. And most fortunately, drugs can ease physical pain and, for the phobic among us, psychotropic medications are available to calm agitation, anxiety and panic. Better yet, we may have been able to learn ancient and new meditative techniques of breathing and relaxation that bring mindful control of attention. I first learned of the human psyche’s power to control physical and emotional responses when practicing natural childbirth techniques to control pain and fear. Admittedly only one out of seven births was completely painless, but I managed never to use medication and experienced ecstatic joy each time. If mental, spiritual and physical practices, along with the availability of drugs when needed, can work to ease childbirth, why not the process of dying?
One of the wonderful promises in Scripture proclaims that God’s power “working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Facing certain death, I cling in hope to Christ, my anchor.