October 21, 2006

On the Fear of Dying

My father visited again yesterday. He brought fruit and peanut brittle, which he always brings to help me gain weight but no longer forces it on me. We talked about a lot of things but when we got onto the subject of death and dying, he said that at his age death was no longer frightening, that one knew death was a possibility at any time and was aware of one’s mortality. Reaching, I think, for a lighter note, he observed that when you have more doctor’s appointments than friends' visits, and more doctors than friends, you know the time is coming when you will be reaching the end.

At some point in this discussion, I started crying, as I quite literally always do in a discussion of people dying, whether it be those close to me or someone I do not even know. More on that later but for now the important thing is that my father worried about upsetting me and tried to change the subject, to cheer me up again. But I was not upset for me. I was upset because I didn’t want him, or anyone else, to be afraid of dying; I don’t want anyone to die in fear and panic. He still worried that he’d initiated a topic that was “bad” for me. I tried to explain that tears aren’t bad for me, they don’t mean that I feel bad about myself, only that I feel bad on behalf on others, in this case lest they are fearful of that final minute when it all goes blank...Of course, some believe it does not all go blank, which is a blessing I think. But I do, and in some measure, I suspect many, even those who claim to believe in an afterlife, fear it too, or they wouldn’t cling so to life and fear dying -- fear cancer, auto crashes, murderers, sky diving -- not if they truly were assured of a life after death.

Be that as it may, the question arises of why it matters so much to me that people not be so scared to die. I don’t know. But we enter the world unafraid, or unaware that we are afraid and unable to call upon memories to tell us “fear this experience!” and I want us to enter death with the same and equal innocence, i.e. without memories (since we have none of the only like experience, that of before birth). Alas, death is the Great Unknown and we do have memories of experiencing the unknown before, of the unknown becoming known as unpleasant, even awful, and so we are able to anticipate the big Unknown of death as a possible Awful Surprise (ie Hell), and why not? No one ever comes back to tell us otherwise. Or those that claim to, go on living and so were only dubiously “dead” to begin with. (The similarity of their stories, however, is striking enough to me to suggest a kind of universal mechanism to the way in which the brain processes its last moments of consciousness, a wonderful instance of evolutionary “kindness.”)

But why does the fear of others at their deaths matter to me, especially if I can’t change it? Is it simply vicarious suffering? Or excess of empathy? Or a too intimate identification with those who are dying? Why does it matter, and every time I think about it or hear about it or am told about someone dying?

I truly do not understand, one, why it shouldn‘t matter to me. Why should I NOT care if a person I hear about is facing death with abject terror? By contrast I know I should care if a whole society courts death and greedily seeks it out, taking as many others with them as possible in as high a degree of fear as possible? That to me is the most repulsive and despicable perversion of a gentle gracious acceptance of the end of one’s god-given life (in whatever sense you want to read “god-given”): to aggressively bring death on not just your own head but that of 10s or 100s or 1000s of innocents around you who do not want to die. I do not know how to punish someone like that, except with solitary confinement (and I do not mean in an otherwise crowded cell block) with LIFE in prison, deprived of reading matter pertaining to that death-dealing philosophy. But that is my anger talking; what I propose is torture and I abhor torture, so as I said, I do not know how to punish someone like that...

Getting back to my subject, though, of those who, instead of courting death** and killing others, fear it: I do care tremendously if a person is ill or condemned and facing death in fear. I want to give them my hand, yes, physically, and sit with them and talk with them until they have found their way to peace and an acceptance of dying that will take them through the final moments in ease and with serenity. Even the condemned prisoner, guilty or all too possibly innocent, both of whom I personally believe are being murdered by a state that has no business doing so, perhaps the condemned most of all, needs to come to some peaceful place in himself and accept death and NOT fear it, even at the unnatural hands of his executioners. I don’t know how one does that. I don’t know how a healthy, relatively young man (overwhelmingly likely to be male) goes to his deliberate extermination in peace, but it can be and has been done, at least from what I’ve read of Sister Prejean (is that her name? It doesn’t look right, and memory definitely does not correct me someone if I have it wrong!) It ought NEVER have to be done, mind you, ever, anywhere, most certainly not in a country like ours that calls itself advanced and civilized (hah!). But I remain convinced that it can be.

**I leave quite apart the questions of depression and suicide, which are utterly different

But I still haven’t answered my own Q. Why does this matter so to me as an individual? I can’t do anything about the condemned, me, myself, either in a small way or a big way, except write about it in my notebook or blog, or talk about it with friends, maybe bring it to the attention of a coupla dozen people in the end. The reality of schizophrenia constrains me, let’s face it. All I can do for the dying is what I can do for Joe and people I know, which is probably all I need to do at this point. But who was it that wrote: “Any man’s death diminishes me”? Its grandiloquence sounds like Walt Whitman but my memory gave out of me long ago so I won’t even venture a guess. It could be a lot older, one of the more theological poets who said it. (BULLETIN: This just in from MLBV who announced that it is from John Donne, my second choice, in his "No Man Is An Island" poem.) But it is, in any event, how I feel: that if any one person fears death, has not been able to find peace before dying or peace about dying itself, that fear, the fact of that fear diminishes me. It actively causes me visceral pain and brings tears to my eyes as I contemplate the pain that such fear caused one person’s dying. I detest anyone’s suffering pain. Physical pain is one thing, but psychic pain, the pain caused by fear (most fundamental and therefore worst) or sadness and loss (second worst because secondary – you can fear loss or sadness) is the pain I’m talking about. Psychic pain of all sorts is the kind of pain that drives a person to suicide, not physical pain. I think most of you at this website would agree that PSYCHIC PAIN is the WORST PAIN there is. I know, I know, you can’t compare pain...But I’m saying only that the mind’s pain is more unendurable than pain that is felt only as bodily pain, because it truly is a matter of mind over body and the mind can control how it experiences bodily pain, but not psychic terrors, by very definition. Therefore, fear of death may well be the most fundamental, most basic, and worst fear there is, though ignored for all that for being so universal. What is the worst thing in the end that can happen to a person? Well, really only one thing: death, nothing else! And what is the worst psychic pain? Fear. So, Fear of death is the worst pain and the worst consequence. Now my preoccupation no longer seems so trivial does it? I’m concerned with the single most critical and universal question of our existence.

In a nutshell then, we live with the worst psychic pain humankind can imagine (Ultimate fear) along with the knowledge of the worst but most inevitable natural consequence of living (Death). My burning concern is that people not die still tortured by this fear but that during their lives they come to some place of peace and acceptance. My tears are for those who cannot, and so die frightened, and by definition alone in their fear.

Posted by pamwagg at October 21, 2006 12:27 PM


Pam, I must midly argue that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. I can think of a whole host of worse things--but this is, doubtless, at least in part because I am one of those who believes that our present lives are just a leg of a long, long journey. (To say this is such digression, but it is, indeed, a journey beset by potholes, bad weather, bad directions, good directions badly heeded, wrong turns, backtracking, and seemingly interminable stays in ports of circumstance resembling, in their bleak ambience, the bus stations of Toledo or Peoria.)

Anyhow . . . your compassion for those afraid of dying is a lovely thing. I think, although I may be wrong, that all suffering on behalf of the suffering is commendable. I am one less person to be concerned with on the fear-of-dying issue, however, as I do not fear cancer, heart attacks, or deadly auto accidents. This has nothing to do with courage. I do fear debility and I do fear helplessness and I am afraid for my child every single day and every single night. But dying, no, save for the sad realization that a dead mother is hardly useful in a practical sense.

With much more cheer than is apparent from any of the above, and wishing the same for you--


Posted by: Cynthia at October 22, 2006 06:18 PM

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