On the Fear of Death

This is the second in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

For the faithful, the day we die is the greatest day of our life on this earth. Even if some final purifications await us, the beatific vision for which we long lies just ahead; our exile in this valley of tears is ended.

Is calling the day we die the greatest day of our life too strong a statement? I have seen some fellow Christians wince at this statement. In this age of emphasis on worldly comforts, medicine, and the secular, we rarely speak of Heaven—or Hell for that matter. I wonder if we have lost some of our longing for Heaven and cling too strongly to the trinkets of this life.

At the funeral of a relative several years ago, I was approached by a friend of the family. She was an unbeliever, a self-described secular humanist, and she made the following comment to me: “Perhaps there is Heaven for the faithful who believe that there is life after death, and perhaps, then, for them the day they die is the greatest day of their life, but I do not observe that Christians live as if they believe this. It seems to me that they are as anxious as anyone else about dying and earnestly seek to avoid death just as much as anyone else.”

It was a very interesting observation, one that I found mildly embarrassing even though I quickly thought of some legitimate explanations. Even after giving her some of those explanations, some of the embarrassment lingered as to the kind of witness we Christians sometimes fail to give to our most fundamental values. Based on her remark—and I’ve heard it before—most of us Christians don’t manifest a very ardent longing for Heaven.

There are, of course, some legitimate reasons that we do not rush towards death; there are also some less legitimate ones. Here are some legitimate and understandable reasons that we may draw back from dying and may not at first think of the day we die as the greatest day of our life:

  1. There is a natural fear of dying that is part of our physical makeup and, it would seem, hard-wired into our psyche as well. Every sentient being on this planet, man or animal, has a strong instinct for survival. Without this instinct, strongly tied to both hunger and sexual desire, we might not only die as individuals but as a species. It also drives us to look to the future, as we work to ensure the survival, even thriving, of our children and those who will come after us. It is a basic human instinct that we ought not to expect to disappear, because it has necessary and useful aspects.
  2. We would like to finish certain important things before we die. It makes sense, for example, that parents would like to see their children well into adulthood. Parents rightly see their existence in this world as critical to their children. Hence, we cling to our life here not just for our own sake, but because others depend upon us.
  3. The Christian is called to love life at every stage. Most of us realize that we are called to love and appreciate what we have here, for it is the gift of God. To so utterly despise this world that we wish only to leave it manifests a strange sort of ingratitude. It also shows a lack of understanding that life here prepares us for the fuller life that is to come. I remember that at a low point in my own life, afflicted with anxiety and depression, I asked the Lord to please end my life quickly and take me home out of this misery. Without hearing words, I felt the Lord’s silent rebuke: “Until you learn to love the life you have now, you will not love eternal life. If you can’t learn to appreciate the glory of the gifts of this life, then you will not and cannot embrace the fullness of eternal life.” Indeed, I was seeing eternal life merely in terms of relief or escape from this life, rather than as the full blossoming of a life that has been healed and made whole. We don’t embrace life by trying to escape from it. A healthy Christian attitude is to love life as we have it now, even as we yearn and strive for a life that we do not yet fully comprehend: a life that eye has not seen nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.
  4. We seek to set our life in order to some degree before we face judgment. While it is true that we can procrastinate, there is a proper sense of wanting time to make amends and to prepare to meet God.
  5. We fear the experience of dying. Dying is something none of us has ever done before and we naturally tend to fear the unknown. Further, most of us realize that the dying process likely involves some degree of agony. Instinctively and understandably, we draw back from such things.

Even Jesus, in His human nature, recoiled at the thought of the agony before Him—so much so that He sweat blood and asked that the cup of suffering be taken from Him if possible. Manfully, though, He embraced His Father’s will, and our benefit rather than His own. Still, in His humanity, He did recoil at the suffering soon to befall Him.

Despite this hesitancy to meet death, for a faithful Christian the day we die is the greatest day of our life. While we ought to regard the day of our judgment with sober reverence, we should go with joyful hope to the Lord, who loves us and for whom we have longed. That day of judgment, awesome though it is, will for the future saint disclose only that which needs final healing in purgation, not that which merits damnation.

We don’t hear much longing for our last day on this earth or for God and Heaven. Instead, we hear fretting about how we’re getting older. We’re anxious about our health, even the natural effects of aging. And there are such grim looks as death approaches! Where is the joy one might expect? Does our faith really make a difference for us or are we like those who have no hope? Older prayers referred to life in this world as an exile and expressed a longing for God and Heaven, but few of today’s prayers or sermons speak this way.

Here are some of the not-so-legitimate reasons that we may draw back from dying:

  1. We live comfortably. While comfort is not the same as happiness, it is very appealing. It is also very deceiving, seductive, and addictive. It is deceiving because it tends to make us think that this world can be our paradise. It is seductive because it draws and shifts us our focus away from the God of comforts to the comforts of God. We would rather have the gift than the Giver. It is addictive because we can’t ever seem to get enough of it; we seem to spend our whole life working toward gaining more and more comforts. We become preoccupied by achieving rather than working toward our truest happiness, which is to be with God in Heaven.
  2. Comfort leads to worldliness. Here, worldliness means focusing on making the world more comfortable, while allowing notions of God and Heaven to recede into the background. Even the so-called spiritual life of many Christians is almost wholly devoted to prayers asking to make this world a better place: Improve my health; fix my finances; grant me that promotion. While it is not wrong to pray about such things, the cumulative effect, combined with our silence on more spiritual and eternal things, gives the impression that we are saying to God, “Make this world a better place and I’ll just be happy to stay here forever.” What a total loss! This world is not the point. It is not the goal, Heaven is. Being with God forever is the goal.
  3. Worldliness makes Heaven and being with God seem more abstract and less desirable. With this magnificent comfort that leads to worldly preoccupation, longing for Heaven and going to be with God recedes into the background. Today, few speak of Heaven or even long for it. They’d rather have that new cell phone or the cable upgrade with the sports package. Some say that they never hear about Hell in sermons, and in many parishes (though not in mine, thank you), regrettably, that is the case. They almost never hear about Heaven, either (except in some cheesy funeral moments that miss the target altogether and make Heaven seem trivial rather than a glorious gift to be sought). Heaven just isn’t on most people’s radar, except as a vague abstraction for some far off time—certainly not now.

This perfect storm of comfort and worldliness leads to slothful aversion to heavenly gifts. That may be why, when I say that the day we die is the greatest day of our life, or that I’m glad to be getting older because I’m getting closer to the time when I can go home to God, or that I can’t wait to meet Him, people look at me strangely and seem to wonder whether I need therapy.

No, I don’t need therapy—at least not for this. I’m simply verbalizing the ultimate longing of every human heart. Addiction to comfort has deceived and seduced us such that we are no longer in touch with our heart’s greatest longing; we cling to passing things. I would argue (as did my family friend) that we seem little different from those who have no hope. We no longer witness to a joyful journey to God that says, “I’m closer to home. Soon and very soon I am going to see the King. Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world. I’m going home to be with God!”

There are legitimate, understandable reasons for being averse to dying, but how about even a glimmer of excitement from the faithful as we see that our journey is coming to an end? St. Paul wrote the following to the Thessalonians regarding death: We do not want you to be like those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). Do we witness to the glory of going to be with God or not? On the whole, it would seem that we do not.

The video below features a rendition of the hymn “For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest.” Here is a brief passage from the lyrics:

The golden evening brightens in the West,
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise most blest. Alleluia!

9 Replies to “On the Fear of Death”

  1. If we are in Sanctifying Grace, than we have no reason to fear death. And since we cannot know if we are, we can ask God for His Grace rather than fear death, knowing that He wills us to be in His Grace, that He prays in us, and that before we pray He knows what we need and takes everything into account.

    Fear of death is an error, and so, a fruit of our concupiscence, which we must battle. The more God sanctifies us, the more inclined to the truth we become, and thus, the less inclined to error – and so to fear of death – we become. Let us trust in the Sanctifier to sanctify us, for the Truth is trustworthy.

  2. Three more thoughts:

    Fear of death can also be a test of faith. If we believe what God says, than we believe that not even death can stop Him. Even if Yellowstone were to erupt tomorrow, we hope in Jesus’ Return.

    Fear of death leads to drama. We root for the heroes of stories to overcome villains, destroying evil, and we hope they don’t die, but succeed and be rewarded. This is a sense of justice.

    Fear of death can lead to bravery, and bravery to fortitude. Love fears no evil, yet still we must learn courage and courageously love others. We do good despite our fears, to overcome them.

  3. On our best day, we want to commune with God in this earthly world. “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The greatest day in our life is when we commune with God in His heavenly world. I’ve been told it’s to die for.

  4. The day I was ordained, both to the diaconate and to the priesthood I experienced some nervousness right up until the Masses began. It’s understandable to have some nerves on the biggest days of your life. Especially on the biggest: the day we get to meet Christ face to face. For the faithful, once the eternal Mass begins there are no more nerves.

  5. Thank you, Monsignor. I always appreciate the thoughts you share. I sometimes wonder if perhaps death is so deeply difficult to accept, because it reminds our soul of the fall. In death, our bodies return to dirt. Humus. Quite literally, humiliation. Until we truly know we are nothing without Him, it is hard to face. I pray for the strength to know this humility.

  6. This is how a born-again believer in Jesus Christ dies. Taken from allnurses.com.

    I’ve done both SICU and hospice nursing, and have seen many, many memorable, special deaths. But one haunts me to this day..

    I was charge nurse in a busy SICU. Got a call that we were getting a woman patient from OR, late 50’s with metastatic ovarian cancer who had a horrible necrotic bowel. She was a DNR and surgeon came in and told me that the goal was to just “keep her alive” until her daughter and husband got there from a retreat that they had been at and that they were expected by morning. She had battled cancer for a long time, and had actually had terrible pain for days, but wanted her family to go to the retreat so never told them. The surgeon had opened her up and found a totally dead bowel and she was horribly septic. She was surprisingly, extubated and arousable. He ordered a morphine drip and basically told me to do whatever I needed to do to keep her going and that he would cover my actions with orders in the morning. I know, please no lectures about my license, etc. I found out from someone that she was actually a relative of his by marriage. He then went over, pulled the drape and talked with her, told her that there was nothing they could do, etc, but that we would keep her comfortable.

    AFter he left, I went and talked with her for a few minutes, did my assessment, gave meds, etc. I noticed she was not scared, in fact she was quite calm and peaceful and alert despite just having had surgery. A little while later she told me “I know what’s happening, and I know you’re not God..but could you do whatever you can to keep me going just until morning so I can see my husband and daughter one more time. But, if I die before then, just know I am with the Lord and tell them I love them”.

    As the evening progressed, she worsened. Her B/P dropped, and she started looking worse. I started working nonstop, filled a saline bag with dopamine and started it (she was a DNR and in that hospital we couldn’t have started Dopamin in the unit on a DNR) with no label, gave liter after liter of fluid, blood, etc. Gently titrated her morphine. It was this beautiful dance between us..dark and quiet in the unit, me working my a## off without a break trying to let her rest while she would occasionally wake up and talk with me, forcing me to slow down and just be with her. When I finally got her somewhat stable I noted she was awake and almost smiling. I decided to sit down for 5 minutes with her and asked her how she looked so calm in this horrible storm. She asked me…”are you saved, do you know Jesus?” I replied, “no, not really”, and she said “you don’t want to be where I am without him..but I know where I am going. If you like, we can pray together”. And this beautiful dying patient said a simple prayer for me! A prayer that God would bless me, guide me, and show me his love and mercy. I cried and we held hands. I wasn’t saved that day, but I was so touched by this brave woman that I still remember her face and name.

    Towards morning, she drifted off into unconsciousness. About 4 am her daughter and husband rushed in, she woke up and they actually spent about an hour talking softly and praying, until she required a lot more morphine. Finally when dawn approached, she started deteriorating quickly. The surgeon came in, talked with the family and told me to stop the dopamine, etc. She died about an hour later. I’ll never forget her and the gift she gave me by showing such bravery and grace in the most horrible conditions. A few years later when my young son was diagnosed with a severe disability, I remembered her and her example and finally was saved. I have had hundreds of patients since then, but that night remains etched in my memory as one of the more important of my life…

  7. Thank you, Monsignor! You have articulated a number of things that I have been reflecting about lately, especially since I turned 60 this year 🙂 Isn’t it interesting what some of these life-moments start us thinking about!

    My mother died a few days before Christmas a number of years ago. She had been in the hospital wih serious chronic illness that severely affected her health. Our parishioners were praying for her recovery, and because I work at our parish, a lot of people were aware of her/our situation. A parishioner came up to me after Christmas morning Mass and asked how my mother was. I had to tell her that she passed away a few days before, to which this lady said, “well PRAISE GOD!” It took me by surprise, as I think it would most people, but the more I reflected on it, I knew she was right! My mother was a wonderfully faithful woman, and even though I suspect that she went to Purgatory (as most of us do), she was still closer to heaven and her final reward. Of this I am most certain! Heaven is where we all want to go – and while it was a little disconcerting to hear in my grief, it was probably what I actually needed to be reminded of! It also is what I hope my family will say when I die 🙂

  8. Another reason for the fear of dying could be the sense that one feels inadequately prepared to stand before God who will judge us. An uncanny fear that we have shaped our souls in the course of our earthly lives in a way that is not Heaven-compatible.

  9. When I was ‘grieving’ over my dad’s death, I heard a voice asking why n calling me a hypocrite. The reason why we seek baptism is to see God n the time we see Him is upon our death.

Comments are closed.