Research

TO Fear Or Not to Fear Death

Saul Ebema, DMin.

One evening, I received an emergency death notification for one of the hospice patients. I had met this patient a few times prior to his death. He was a man of faith who had grown up in the church, and served on different church leadership boards. Prior to his illness, he was serving as an elder at his Baptist church.

Every time I visited him, he would ask me to read Psalm 23 and other bible passages that came to his mind. After reading scriptures, we would sing a few hymns. He liked, ‘Amazing Grace.’He often spoke about his readiness for death. One of his favorite scriptures was Philippians 1:21 which states; “For me to live is Christ and to die is to gain.”

Over the years working as a hospice chaplain, I have seen dying patients frightened by the reality of death but not this man. He faced the final days of his life with grace and a genuine sense of peace. For him, death was not something to be afraid of but a journey back home to be with God. His theological understanding of death was a source of strength and comfort.

Although for some Christians facing mortality, a Biblical understanding of death offers a source of comfort but death is usually an unpleasant truth that is avoided in our contemporary American culture.

Feifel notes “four primary reasons for why Americans have difficulty dealing with death.”[1]

The first reason he gives is urbanization. He states that in western culture, individuals are increasingly removed from nature and witnessing of the life/death cycle. The process of urbanization has led to people having less sense of community with others, and few common rituals to express feelings and guide behavior.

Secondly, healthcare practices segregate the aged and dying from the general populace into nursing homes and hospitals, making death a foreign experience that elicits the fear of being alone.

Thirdly, the movement from extended family to nuclear family has limited the opportunity to see aged relatives die and to experience death as a natural part of the life cycle.

The fourth reason is the increase of secularization. “Religion minimizes the impact of physical death by focusing on the hereafter, endowing death with a special meaning and purpose and provides a future and immortality. With the decline in religion there has been a marked loss of these coping mechanisms.”[2]

The fear of death is not only an American experience but a universal phenomenon. If you think about it, there is much about death to fear. The dying process has the potential to be painful and lonely. The threat of losing everything we have worked for and all the meaningful relationships we have established during the course of life can be overwhelming. Not only that but;

The loss of a loved one to death is often one of the most emotionally painful experiences that we can have. Even when the death is not that of a loved one, simply being a witness to death can evoke a natural horror and revulsion.

Furthermore, because of its seeming finality, “death presents one of the most formidable challenges to the idea that human life has meaning and purpose. Given these facts, it should be no surprise that fear has been one of the most commonly expressed responses of humans to death and dying.”[3]

Rando however sees the benefit of the existence of death in human experience. She says;

Life as we know it is inconceivable without the tacit assumption that it must end. Such things as reproduction, emotion, competition, and ambition would be pointless if there were never any death. The very fact that we are finite and have only limited time makes life all the more poignant and meaningful.[4]

Whether we are comfortable with the reality of death or afraid of it, death remains a fact of life. So, what are you going to do? When it comes to death and dying, do you find comfort in your theology like the patient in the story I started with?

Sources


[1] Herman Feifel, Stephen Strack and Jason Aronson, Death and the Quest for Meaning (New York: Jason Aronson, 1997), 61.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck, Handbook of Death and Dying (London, UK: Sage, 2007), 51.

[4] Therese A. Rando, Grief, Dying, and Death: Clinical Interventions for Caregivers (Champaign, IL. Research Press Company, 1984), 26.

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