“Begin with fear of death”

The Long Walk Home. Photo by Iain Merchant at Flickr

If not with hope of life,
Begin with fear of death:
Strive the tremendous life-long strife
Breath after breath.

• Christina Rossetti

• • •

But…I’m afraid
An excerpt from Walking Home Together: Spiritual Guidance and Practical Advice For The End Of Life

[As you consider your final walk home,] I’m sure you have some fears of your own. While we walk together, if you would like to share your fears, anxieties, and doubts and tell me that the idea of going through this final season of life and walking through death’s door keeps you up at night, I can relate. If it would help you to say that the prospect of leaving this world and saying goodbye to your family and all that is familiar twists your insides up in knots making it hard for you to breathe, that you’ve been too afraid to even talk about this with anyone else, I understand and would be happy to listen .

As I’ve talked with others about this, I have found it is important to clarify just exactly what you are afraid of. Many folks just know they feel fear, but haven’t identified what’s causing them to feel that way. It can help to know that, because you may find that comfort and help is closer than you think. So let me start. Maybe if I can tell you some of my fears with regard to death and the process of dying, it can help you discover the source of your own anxieties.

I am afraid of losing control. This guy doesn’t like the idea of other people having to take care of him. I have always tried to be a giver and to help others. That has been my vocation, and to think of switching roles so that I’m the care-receiver rather than the caregiver is uncomfortable to me. It’s embarrassing, humbling. I don’t like the thought of it and probably won’t like the reality either.

I am afraid of the unknown. I have taught the Bible my whole adult life and have a pretty good idea of what it says about the afterlife. But I’ve never been there, have you? No matter how much reassurance my faith, the Bible, the Church, and other Christians give me, the fact remains that death involves a step into unfamiliar territory, and I’m leery of that.

I am afraid of leaving my family and I am anxious about what will happen to them. Yes, I realize I am not indispensable, they will be fine and God will take care of them. But I will miss them and will miss being an integral part of their lives. Perhaps this goes along with losing control, but I like to think I have a hand in the well being of my family. When I’m gone, who will fulfill that role?

I am afraid of pain and suffering. This is one of those fears that has actually lessened since I’ve worked for hospice, for I have seen the remarkable advances in pain and symptom management that are now common in end of life care. I tell my patients that it is extremely rare when we will be unable to help someone feel comfortable at the end of life. Nevertheless, I can be kind of a wimp when it comes to pain, and this fear lurks in the back of my mind.

I am afraid of becoming a dithering, drooling, babbling idiot. I fear losing my mind. I fear dementia, senility. I fear doing and saying things when I have no idea what’s taking place. I fear making my family blush and being the legendary old codger that folks will tell stories about for years. I once made a pastoral visit to one of the dearest, gentlest, kindest Christian women I’ve ever known after she’d had a stroke. I doubt she had ever said a cross or crude word in her life. She looked at me and said, “I’m so glad I can still realize what I’m saying. I have always been afraid that one day I’ll lose my mind and start going around cussing!” I worry that my fate will be much worse, that I will become the exasperating crazy old man who can’t be controlled and who embarrasses himself every day.

I am afraid of missing out on life. There is so much I love in life, so many special events yet to take place in the lives of those I love, so many interesting developments to come in the world that I would love to see happen. If I die, there will still be so many places I won’t get to travel, so many people I’ll miss out on meeting. And besides, the Chicago Cubs have to win a World Series at some point, don’t they? If I miss out on that, I’m going to be very upset.

I am afraid of being a burden on my family and others. Not only am I concerned about what will happen to my loved ones after I am gone, but I am deeply concerned that the process of my death will be an exhausting, debilitating experience for them.

I am afraid of being forgotten. Think of all the people who have died since the world began. Think of all the cemeteries you have seen over the course of your life. Think of how many obituaries have been written, how many eulogies spoken, how many graves dug and funeral pyres built around the world and throughout time. Now realize that the vast majority of those people simply sank into the dust of history, remembered by few, honored and celebrated by even fewer. Even the names on the tombstones eventually get worn away by the wind and weather. That thought saddens me so much that I feel a deep existential dread when I let myself ponder it.

Have I touched on any of your fears about death or the process of dying?

• • •

From Walking Home Together: Spiritual Guidance and Practical Advice For The End Of Life
By Michael Mercer
Twenty-Third Publications (May 27, 2016)

42 thoughts on ““Begin with fear of death”

  1. Yeah I was baptised, brought up & confirmed Catholic too. Not a good picture of God, for me, bizarrely ascetic & prone to damning people for dying without a Priest present. Not all the Irish end up with this view, but many do. And then into the evangelical church as a teenager…Calvinism & Angry Gods & all that…no better. It’s because we can;t have absolute knowledge that this fear stays with me, no absolute disproof, & much of this learned while I had an anxiety disorder so my nervous system always took it all very seriously.

    I always value your comments Dana. I am now out of the Evangelical Church & have got rid of all my associated books, & attending an Anglican Church & reading NT Wright etc. If I could find an Orthodox Church nearby, & one that really shared your views I’d be edging towards it…I do find keeping on in any faith exhausting though, but I keep my tiny light shining somehow.


  2. Lots to contemplate at Fr Aidan Kimel’s blog under “Readings on Universalism”. Some of these are books, and some are articles available on his blog or elsewhere on the Internet. People also give suggestions in the comments. You could also do a search of the blog archives, or click on the topic list: Isaac the Syrian, David B. Hart, Gregory of Nyssa.




  3. Unfortunately, there is a powerful faction of prelates in the Catholic Church representing the old ways of thinking who are trying mightily to reign Francis in. They have even lately recommended that he should be investigated for heresy.


  4. Christiane, where did you learn that evangelicals do not see or believe that Jesus is Emmanuel.? I have never encountered an evangelical who does not understand and believe in the Trinity. Hey, where did the Holy Ghost come from?
    In Christ Alone is a popular , relatively new hymn

    In Christ alone, who took on flesh
    Fullness of God in helpless Babe

    This is just too much of a stereotype and what purpose does it serve to bring up.


  5. Hello Robert F

    thank you for responding . . . . my own father had a strict Catholic upbringing also and when my mother’s family had a wedding or a funeral, my father would NOT go into a Church that was not Catholic . . . he would patiently wait in the car for my mother instead

    later, when my mother died, Marian Manor had a chaplain who was not Catholic (!) and Pastor Keith counseled with my father through the worst of the grief and helped him and we were so grateful for this; and then a miracle happened:

    my father began to go to BOTH the Catholic Mass during the week at the Manor AND Pastor Keith’s Protestant service, and I was so proud of my father when this happened . . . . . I think my father had grown to trust Pastor Keith as a kind and good Christian man and to have a new understanding of what ‘Church’ was all about, and it was so good to see my father change from the old ‘reserve’ he had held since he was a boy and to be ‘with’ others in Keith’s congregation, a blessing for him, I know.

    Yeah, I see what you are saying Robert. I think there was a new attitude in the Church about at the time of Pope John XXIII of blessed memory, and it continued with Pope John Paul II and now with Francis, who will go anywhere and pray with just about anyone, Christian or not, bless him. I guess the blinders can come off. It’s time.


  6. Being Catholic is not a guarantee against ending up with such a misanthropic understanding of God, Christiane. I was baptized as an infant and catechized as a child and boy in the Catholic Church, and the understanding of God that Beakerj refers to was the one that my experience there left me with. Read the passages regarding this matter in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a clear expression of James Joyce’s experience of the same thing in the Irish Catholic Church in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries.


  7. I learned that many evangelical people do not see Jesus Christ as God. So they don’t understand. They see God as ‘the God of Wrath’, the Father. And Jesus is ‘the Son of God’ who is being punished by ‘God’.

    They don’t understand, Dana. It’s a different perspective of ‘God’ and I’m not really sure how much of evangelicalism is ‘Trinitarian’ in the Orthodox meaning OR the Catholic meaning of the ‘Who Christ Is’ and ‘the mystery of the Holy Trinity’

    It’s hard for them. And it’s sad.


  8. Dear Beakerj,

    Jesus on the Cross is the Icon of God – the image of how God really is. He doesn’t reject us; he sits near us in whatever rejection we find ourselves.



  9. It’s hard to shake the fear of that bastard god, Beakerj. I’ve been trying for decades, and it just won’t let go. Let’s hope and pray it is just an idol that won’t survive whatever purgatorial purifications we may yet have to go through.


  10. Thank you, anon.

    Love the video – love the sea, and Loreena’s voice. And the opening chorale is from the Orthodox Holy Thursday service, very familiar 🙂



  11. HUG,

    In the East there’s not such a split between the soul and body. Hair shirts and wearing chains and not eating are not unknown ascetic practices, but they’re not encouraged and only a very few monastics have ever done such things, and that centuries ago. The general view is that anything that damages one’s health is not respectful of the body given to us by God, part of his good creation, and without which we’re not fully human beings. So don’t fear that I’ll be taking the lye route. In the East, we don’t have to seek out difficulties and pain or create them for ourselves; they simply come to us as we walk through life, and those “naturally-occurring” hardships are enough for God to use.



  12. You mean, like this…?

    “Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, ‘Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, “Sir, open the door for us.” ‘But he will answer, “I don’t know you or where you come from.” Then you will say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” ‘But he will reply, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!” ‘There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.'”

    Now, this is one of the few places where Jesus’ words DO scare me, because they DO seem to suggest God might end up being an utter bastard and rejecting most of us. But in studying this section more closely I think this is about something else. My evidence of that is that Jesus begins his speech with the seemingly contradictory statement (paraphrased): “Make every effort to enter in, but know that even those who make every effort won’t get in.”

    Say what??? First, since when did Jesus ever say EFFORT was involved? And second, if effort IS required, why does he say that for some effort WON’T MATTER???

    So what IS this about then, and who is Jesus warning? Who are the “evildoers” he is referring to?

    Without going into too much “Bible study” mode, I think this is a warning to those who DO make it all about the “effort,” especially RELIGIOUS people who saddle others with their bad religion.

    At least, I hope so. And I hope all his stuff about Jesus being he exact representation of God and covering us and winning the victory is right.


  13. I am scared God will turn out to be an utter bastard & reject most of us, no matter how hard we have tried.


  14. I recognise several of the above fears, particularly the one about, “…missing out on life.” I don’t want to go yet!

    Also a strange, irrational fear of this branch of the family dying out: I love my wife dearly and we have one son who has inherited the best bits of both of us, but he’s in his 30s and he shows no signs of leaving home, getting married or having kids of his own. I’m hoping we’ll be around for long enough to see him happily married (otherwise he could end up being isolated and lonely) and to see grandchildren come along to continue the line…

    Do childless people get similar feelings? Stupid, probably – it’s not as if we don’t have nephews and nieces. I’ve never admitted this to anybody before…


  15. Then stay away from Fundagelicals.
    They’re the current center of Anti-Intellect Christianity; “dithering drooling babbling idiot” is a mark of Godliness as long as your babbling the Right Things.


  16. More and more I am seeing whatever struggles I will undergo as I near the end of life on this side of the curtain will be for the refining of my soul…

    Just be careful not to go too far down that road, or you’ll be gargling lye with St Rose of Lima.
    Easy to tunnel-vision onto “the more struggle, the more dissolution, the more Spiritual I must be”.


  17. I have studied and trust the Bible but have NO idea about the afterlife. What kind of consciousness will we even have? If there will be no more sin, does that mean there will never be a moment we will ever do anything wrong? To reach the level of sanctification described in the Bible we will have to be transformed to such an extent as to render our current selves unrecognizable. I trust God and know what will transpire will be good, but just the vastness of the unknown is still scary at times to think about.


  18. Ha! I am approaching it with a certain grim humor. I don’t have kids so I won’t be a burden to them and they won’t be a help to me. I know that going in. My dad has Parkinson’s and can’t walk anymore but he’s managed to hold onto quite a sense of humor . My hope is that I will have a similar grace but you never can tell.


  19. Christ is Risen!

    More and more I am seeing whatever struggles I will undergo as I near the end of life on this side of the curtain will be for the refining of my soul, if I am able to trust God and be grateful. Well, there’s the rub… But undergoing any of the things I fear will be for further purification, readying me to surrender my life into God’s hands – as the first parents were supposed to do, and as Christ himself did as the First True Human. He has been there first.

    With Mule, I also am incredibly sad that the only prayer for me after my death will be from people in my parish who might remember me – for a while, for they will also pass. At least the Church will pray for me every year at Pentecost.



  20. My good father lived at Marian Manor assisted living facility in his last days. He was legally blind from macular degeneration and had purchased a ‘machine’ that magnified writing greatly and he could actually ‘see’ from his side eye vision on this wonderful invention.

    He began to set out to ‘help’ us when he was gone by carefully labeling all of his files clearly in his large printing. His filing cabinet was a testimony to many, many hours spent laboriously trying to ‘see’ and to ‘print’ as best he could.
    So that we would not be confused or think that he had neglected us.

    I think about these actions of my father as ‘love’. When he left this Earth, he left behind all that care and effort on his part FOR US. God alone knows how difficult for him was this last labor of love.

    I fear leaving a mess behind me should I die suddenly, so every day, I try to do ‘something’ to organize and label and clean up and ‘get rid of’ and ‘preserve’ for the sake of my family, as my good father’s last efforts inspire me to ‘love’ them in that practical, patient, long-suffering way of his.

    When you have a good father who shows you ‘how it’s done’ at the end, it’s not about ‘fear’ anymore. It’s about ‘love’. Always ‘love’.
    Even at his ending, especially at his ending:
    There it was: the hours and hours of pains-taking effort that showed ‘love’ as he always had done when we were young and he worked three jobs and when the time came for university, the money was ‘in the bank’. No complaining, self-giving.

    The end of life?
    Let it be about ‘love’, not ‘fear’.
    Only then does it make any sense to me, a daughter of such a father as I was privileged to have, yes, thank God.


  21. –> “I often think that I am not afraid of dying.”

    Yep. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m not afraid of dying, it’s the “growing old and losing all physical and mental capability” that scares the crap out of me.


  22. I often think that I am not afraid of dying. I welcome whatever is to come and grow weary of the pain in our world. Then I am reminded of my frailty when, say a big clap of thunder shakes me out of my boots and I realize that if I had no fear whatsoever about the cessation of my physical body, that noise wouldn’t phase me in the least. I’m still protecting my life and the people I love and I still fear losing it even if it doesn’t seem so at times.


  23. For me it would be the long slow dissolution. I judge no none of course but I occasionally encounter people whose lives seem little more than hanging on to the bitter end. Usually requiring relatives to put aside their own lives and devote themselves totally to maintaining what little quality of life remains. This is not what I want. But how often do we get what we want?


  24. –> “Have I touched on any of your fears about death or the process of dying?”

    I know that was asked rhetorically, but if there’s someone out there who could honestly answer that No, they wouldn’t be human.

    Thanks for sharing this excerpt from your book, CM.


  25. Insightful comment, Mule, much of which I found myself saying, “I hear ya.” Thanks for sharing it today.


  26. Yes. Thank you.

    “the universal reconciliation of all things to God. But I do not believe it is an automatic process”

    Over time this is what I have come to believe.


  27. As I tell my patients and families, no matter how much trust you have in the parachute, you still have to step out of the plane. And that can be daunting.


  28. This is why, in every Divine Liturgy, we pray, several times:

    “For a Christian end to our lives; peaceful, without shame and suffering, and for a good account before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.”

    I fear not having anyone to pray for me. My personal belief is in the apokatastasis, the universal reconciliation of all things to God. But I do not believe it is an automatic process, a straight line between the omnibenevolence of God and the salvation of all the Blodgetts of whom I am the Blodgett-iest. No, there will be battles to fight, loins to gird, sacrifices to make, and crosses to shoulder. But there will be rescuers and those needing rescue.

    Other than with my confessor, this is the only place I can confess this. An Orthodox Christian is allowed to believe this, but my wife thinks I’m crazy.

    In this one thing, group-solidarity religion literally beats the Hell out of Lone Ranger bornagainery.


  29. To me, this seems like a universal recap of passing on. This covers my concerns for sure and it is good to see it put down on paper. Not easy to verbalize fears, emotions and all the rest and great job, This is a keeper for me. Will get the book.

    “Babies have two great fears when they are born, fear of falling and fear of loud noises. I fear falling and making a loud noise when I land.” Steve Allen


  30. “I am afraid of the unknown. I have taught the Bible my whole adult life and have a pretty good idea of what it says about the afterlife.”

    But have you ever had that nagging feeling of… are you *sure*?


  31. “I am afraid of becoming a dithering, drooling, babbling idiot. I fear losing my mind. I fear dementia, senility.” YES. As someone whose identity has always been tied to my intellect, this is huge.


  32. Well, that pretty much touches all my end of life fears; I’d like to die like my parents; at home and still aware. God may or may not grant me that wish.


  33. “Until, after a long, long time,
    I’d be well again.
    Then I’d like to live
    And go back home again.”

    (the longing of a child
    who perished in the Holocaust)


  34. I”m afraid of dying alone. Aside from my wife, I have few social connections. I’m alienated from my own birth family, and have no network of friends but for the few I’ve been able to make in the last ten years at our most recent church home. If my wife were to die before me, I wonder if anyone I care about would be with me in the last days and hours of my life.

    I’m afraid of my wife dying alone, in the event that I were to die before her, and for the same reasons listed in the previous paragraph.


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