If not with hope of life,
Begin with fear of death:
Strive the tremendous life-long strife
Breath after breath.
• Christina Rossetti
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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?
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From Walking Home Together: Spiritual Guidance and Practical Advice For The End Of Life
By Michael Mercer
Twenty-Third Publications (May 27, 2016)