The Fear Behind the Fear

My friend Greg’s mom, Alene, and I discussed dying. It’s something she thinks about, now that she’s in her eighth decade.

“I’m not so much afraid about eternity. I guess I’m scared about the actual event of dying. Will it hurt? Will I struggle to breathe or have pain?” She wonders about the moment between life and death. As with all of us, Alene hopes to go to sleep one night and not wake up.

Betty echoed Alene’s words. “I’m afraid of the unknown. And I don’t want to die from some disease which will waste my body and steal my mind.” At ninety-five, Betty thinks about death a lot. She’s buried three children and a husband, and most days, longs to see them again.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolations also abounds through Christ.”

2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (NKJV)

When I read those words, I am assured of two things. First, we will experience suffering. Second, we have a Comforter. Like Alene and Betty, I don’t like the idea of “the sufferings of Christ” abounding in me. I watched my son suffer through terminal cancer. It’s a terrible way to die. I was with my father when he passed away, gagging and struggling to breathe as his lungs filled with fluid.

That’s the real fear. We want assurance we’ll pass peacefully into eternity, falling asleep and waking up in Heaven.

Karl Pillmer, PhD, recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post. He interviewed 1200 people in their 80s, 90s, and older. “As you might expect, deeply religious elders found their beliefs to be comforting as they contemplated the end of life. Rosemary Brewster, ninety, is a regular churchgoer and has been all her life. When asked, “Do you believe in life after death?” she replied: “I often wonder about that. I think and I wonder if there really is. And I’m going to find out. I wouldn’t bother worrying about it too much, because I’m going to find out.” Rosemary pointed out that her feelings had changed greatly in later life.”[1]

A Different Way to Age

How can we caregivers help our aging parents deal with the fear of dying?

1. By dealing with our own fear. How convinced are you of Jesus’ words: He who believes in me will not die, but have everlasting life? If you were to be diagnosed today with a terminal disease, are you confident you will be with Jesus when you pass? What do you think Jesus meant when He said we won’t die?

Compassion is co-suffering, literally ‘with passion.’ He promises we won’t be alone in our suffering, if that happens in the dying process. That’s our escape from death. He knows and He will never stop being with you.

2. Have honest conversations with your loved one about dying. Our American culture has a taboo on the subject of death. Other cultures don’t have the same reticence. We need to make death and dying more natural to talk about. Ask your parent if he is secure in his place in the eternal kingdom. This is a great opportunity to lead your loved one to Christ.

Gently bring up the subject of their memorial service. What hymns are their favorites? Who should be invited? Who will give the eulogy? The first time you talk about this, don’t come armed with a notepad and pen. This should be an introduction into the subject of their final wishes. Don’t push too hard if they aren’t willing to go deeper into the conversation. Think about how you feel when someone brings up a touchy subject. Sometimes we need a few days to let things percolate.

3. Don’t avoid talking about it. If your loved one brings up the subject, don’t use platitudes like “Oh, no, you’re going to live forever.” Equally bad is saying something like, “Please don’t talk about it. I can’t bear to think of you dying.” Both responses will shut down communication faster than an office door at 5:00 on Friday afternoon.

Relying on the Sufficiency of Christ

Our aging loved ones may need constant reassurance of their life after death. I know I do. That’s why I read the Bible, and underline those passages where Jesus gives us the hope of eternal life.

I’m forced to think about my own mortality as I discuss death and dying with my mother. I have no guarantee I’ll live into my nineties like she and my grandmother. I must look deep into my own heart, asking “Am I ready?” How can I offer hope to my aging loved one that life eternal waits for us on the other side, when I sometimes struggle with my own fear?

Acknowledging fear isn’t necessarily an absence of faith. Jesus repeated the admonition ‘fear not’ several times in the Gospels. Christ is bigger than our fear. When He said, “I go to prepare a place for you,” He meant a literal place after we leave this earth. I must take Him at His word.

[1] Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D. Professor of Human Development, Cornell University; Author, “30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage” Why Should Anyone Be Afraid Of Dying? Jan 23, 2014 Huff Post – The Third Metric

Have you had “the talk” about dying with your loved one?


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