The National Catholic Review
Sidney Callahan
A Christian fears suffering and loss.
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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.

Lifted Spirits

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.

Sidney Callahan is a scholar, writer and licensed psychologist. Her most recent books are Created for Joy (Crossroad) and Called to Happiness.

Comments

JANICE JOHNSON | 10/25/2011 - 10:07pm

Sidney, your reflections on the art of dying are so wise and so human. Maybe, it is being an older person, but I can relate to much of what you wrote although in different ways. My lilfe seems to exist in that tension between the deep desire to be with God and the equally strong desire to experience the joys of the earth, continuously. Over the years I have often thought how St. Augustine's saying: "we are made for thee O Lord, and are hearts are restless until they rest in you." applied to me. Yet, throughout my life I have been deeply involved with family, friends, work and enjoy the pleasures of music, plays, art and travelling. It seems a lot to give up for the unknown future. Yet, as I get older I find the balance between these poles tilting more and more toward the desire to be with God. I wonder if this is an experience shared by other older people.


Sidney, I have never experienced the loss of a child or the suffering of panic attacks. Thank you for sharing that part of your life. It seems we are never free from our past, painful as it may be. Always, the need to learn from the suffering as you have shown us. My own suffering is the bouts of depression I occasionally fall into during times of loss, separation and overwhelming circumstances. It is during these time I feel closer to Christ and yearn to be with him. I think about the passage from Revelation: 7:16-17 "They will hanger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at he center of the throne will be their shepherd and he wll guide them to springs of the wter of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

ANDY GALLIGAN | 10/25/2011 - 1:32pm
Some musings that may (or may not) help. Faith or no faith, doesn't any living organism automatically recoil from its own demise? Isn't that part of its God-given nature?  Self preservation, an urge stronger than even sexual attraction.  Reminds me of Christ in Gethsamane.  Different, to be sure, from Socrates, or the Stoics, or Francis.  And yet more natural and more human.  Not bad, Sydney, to be human like Christ.  On the other hand I often think of the protagonist's reply in the once popular "Catholic novel" Mr. Blue when he was asked if he feared death.  He said something like: Every coward the world has ever known has had to die, so I think I can too.    
6466379 | 10/25/2011 - 9:33am

Hi Sidney, Try what  Francis of Assisi did, make death a “family member” it “worked for him”  and no doubt for  other millions over the centuries. He called death, “Sister” and when the time came even sang a welcome to his loving sister, “Sister Death.” That’s unique!”


For a lot of us death seems to be a nasty trick, from which there is no escape. Faith in God helps and also I suggest death would be a welcomed relief from intolerable, irreversible  pain if such   happens at the end. But even there, the ability through Faith to unite personal pain with the sufferings of Jesus does give the mystery of pain some cogency towards a greater good, in a way turning agony into ecstasy to the end as saints manage to do.


  Yes, without Faith, that wonderous “dark light” which Faith  is, life, of which death is a part, would surely seem to be an intolerable mistake that ends up with us as piles of bones buried in  boxes in the ground and soon forgotten! What a horrifying thought! If that’s the case one have to wonder why be born at all? But thanks be to God that’s not the case – life doesn’t end with death .Faith assures life changes into something altogether “other!”


Because that’s true we can sing as Francis did joyfully saying in effect,” O Death where is your victory? O Death where is your sting?” Faith takes a lot of the scare out of death because it tells us where we’re going, right into the Everlasting Arms!  

Craig McKee | 10/22/2011 - 10:41am
ARS MORIENDI (the ART of dying) literature abounds in the Catholic tradition....and admit it, Sydney et al. aren't you just DYING to know? I know I am; if only to prove how LITTLE these current petty little REFORM of the REFORM hierarchs actually know about what really matters...
Lisa Weber | 10/21/2011 - 11:01pm
If the author has never been around people who are dying, spending time with them might ease her fears.  Her fears seem to be mostly fears about the unknown.

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