I WORK as a chaplain in a hospice. When I get to know someone I will often ask a question about what this time is like for them, as life is coming to an end, and sometimes people tell me about their fears. It seems very important to me that we can talk to one another about our fear of death and dying.
When I was a child I had a terrible fear of my own death and the death of my parents.
Perhaps this was because I lived with asthma, which back in those days was not so easy to control.
When you struggle to get your breath, it is perhaps natural to fear the absence of breath. Interestingly though, I can’t remember being afraid of dying through my asthma.
I worried I would die of blood poisoning when I had a cut knee or a whitlow on my finger. I was terrified that I would get a brain tumour. How fascinating that I would end up working in a hospice!
Perhaps we are drawn unconsciously to situations we need to face, where we have the opportunity to work through something.
By the time people come to us in the hospice many of them have worked through their fear of dying.
Indeed if symptoms have been very unpleasant, it can be very hard to value a life of limited activity and dependency. A person may hope fervently for death and welcome it when it comes.
But there are also some people who fight death, who wish to keep one step ahead of their dying by an exercise of fierce will. The fear is often hard to articulate.
Usually it is not death itself that is feared but the dying process. It is often described as a loss of all that is familiar, as a journey into the unknown. Dying is the ultimate letting go.
Interestingly those who have been close to death at some previous point in their lives, usually do not fear it. I think of a man I knew who was in an ambulance and his heart was failing. The paramedics were working on him on the way to the hospital, and he described being suffused by a golden canopy of light. He was utterly calm and peaceful. From that day on he had no fear of dying.
One of the central teachings of Jesus is that we must lose our lives in order to truly find them. This paradoxical teaching is lived out in his cross and resurrection. Through the many small deaths in this life we are preparing ourselves for our physical death. Our small and large losses, our daily little humiliations when we cannot be the people we would like to be, the failures of our grand plans… all these are ways in which we lose our lives.
And out on the other side is something new. Here we are not in charge, and we can learn to trust that which is greater than us. God is living in and through us. And we can finally believe that we came from life, and when we die we will return to life.
Perhaps dying is a bit like fledging. The small birds have inhabited their nest-world, and it is all they know. But there comes a time when they have to jump. I love this poem by Christopher Logue: Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came, and he pushed, and they flew.