No fear of death

I don’t stop to think about death often. But when I do, as I did today, it triggers no anxiety in me.

I’m not talking about the dying part of the process, the cause of death, the time—minutes or months—before the moment of death. That, we all know too well, can be gruesome. None of us wants to suffer in pain or die in an undignified manner. It’s the key reason I submitted my body to the monstrous anti-cancer program; the expectation that after the treatments, the cancer in my breast would not reappear in my bones, brain, liver, or lungs. Ugh.

No, when I think of death, it’s about the end of life and the beyond. And not even a cancer scare elicited a fear of death in me.

For many, their fear of death is strong, yet often mostly unconscious, manifesting only with certain situational prompts. Maybe that fear is really the fear of the unknown or the sense of finality of everything.

Each person fears death in his or her own way. For some people, death anxiety is the background music of life, and any activity evokes the thought that a particular moment will never come again. Even an old movie feels poignant to those who cannot stop thinking that all the actors are now only dust.

Irvin D Yalom (Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death)

I remember many decades ago, my brothers avoided seeing our grandmother in the hospital in her last days and hours. And then they cried when she died.

I was at ease to sit with my beloved bonmama, as we called her, and to hold her soft-skinned hand as she took her final breath and peacefully slipped away. I adored how serene and lovely her face looked. And I did not cry.

It taught me that death itself, that moment we pass from breathing to not breathing, is not a dreadful or painful event.

This lesson was repeated when we lost our mother and brother. Both died of metastasized colon cancer, at home surrounded by loved ones; both took their last breaths peacefully.

The two men I call my fathers both died suddenly and fast; one from a brain aneurysm, the other from a massive heart attack. Their deaths were shocking, not only because there had been no forewarning, but also because they were relatively young—63 and 71—and seemingly strong.

With each death of family and friends, I was sad the loved one was gone, of course; yet most of my heartache was for the closest family he or she left behind.

But I’m not alone in feeling at peace about death.

I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.

Mark Twain

I’ve come to a point in my life when I can look back and be content. It’s been an exciting, fascinating, and satisfying journey, albeit never a straight line, with periods of highs and lows.

Without wishing it (at all!) to happen now, I can say that I am ready to die. I listened to my body as I typed that last phrase, and it was truly at peace.

People living deeply have no fear of death.

Anaïs Nin

But none of this is to imply that the death of others has no effect on me. Of course it does.

Grief is a powerful emotion. On the death of people I feel close to, I express my grief in writing, my thoughts about them, my relationship with them, and quietly, in solitude, gazing through photos I have of them, fondly remembering times spent together, good ones and yes, bad ones, too, letting deep emotions freely well up in my body. Accepting life goes on without them.

The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.

Francis Ward Weller

Also related to fear of death, what does give me pause is the thought of the inevitability of my honey dying. Not my death, his. There’s no surety that he will go before me, but he is a decade older than me. That thought, when I dwell on it, builds a knot in my belly and initiates my grieving process.

Both of us accept as a natural fact that we’re in our third stage of life and we accept death and dying as the end stage of life. We make lifestyle adjustments. Sure, we miss playing tennis regularly. We miss our youthful strength and levels of energy. But that’s okay. Our aim now is to age with grace, continue to find meaning, and intentionally remain as healthy as we can. And we imagine connecting again in the next world, as a seer prophesied many years ago.

What’s not okay with me is imagining this life without him. Big sigh. So I don’t dwell on it often. It will happen when it happens.

You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved.

But this is also the good news.

They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly — that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.

Anne Lamott

I also want to share this from my dear friend Lable, because it’s related to today’s topic of fear of death and inner peace. He was diagnosed with kidney cancer a couple of months ago and surprised himself when he felt completely at peace with it (like I did with my breast cancer diagnosis). He then went through what he calls an archeological dig of his soul to discover how he had come to this place of peace. That led him to develop the philosophical pillars of peace, the four cues or characteristics of the universe: connection, uncertainty, entropy, and subjectivity. The lack of peace in the world, he says, stems from the discomfort modern humans feel with all four. I invite you to listen to an interview where he explains these cues in more depth (40-minute YT video, 10K views so far).

All that happens at death is we lose our illusion of separateness. That’s what happens. Our subatomic particles are free, not constrained by our brain’s current ego, but to go play with all the other subatomic particles in the universe. That’s what happens at death. So death is not fearsome.

Lable Braun

That’s a comforting thought, Lable.

And yet I give the last word to Socrates, as it reflects my view that there is much we don’t know, and as I’ve written before, I’m at peace not knowing:

To fear death … is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.

Socrates (Plato’s Apology)

How about you? What are your inclinations when you think about death? Your own or someone else’s?

16 comments

  • I love that graphic to explain not death, but grief: a ball in a jar. The ball of feelings/loss/pain stays the same size and, over time, the jar of us and our lives can get larger, even though the ball of grief can stay the same size and quality. That we connect as universally as Lable describes after death is how I think of it too: that a contemplation of heaven, distance, angelic (or the opposites of them) is just contemplation…thought. It can drown us.

    I think, so far, I’m lucky: my father, who passed in 2016, is as present as he ever was, unless I’m visiting with Mom and he is physically missing but not away from me otherwise. I’m blessed to have that, I think, this thing that means I hear his voice and can feel his warmth just the same as before he was ‘gone’ – I’m sure many don’t have that kind of blessing. I found his loss was a shock, even with that and even though we’d been expecting it. That surprised me – I’d mourned his illness and grieved the changes long before. But I too feel deeply peaceful around the whole thing. I think of it often as I far more frequently see the signature of age all over my body, face and life. I worry only about the unfinished and only momentarily.

    So, I do contemplate it like you. No surprise there: we think. We see the connections – and the gaps…and think some more without pain. A lovely kind of wisdom in both ownership/accountability and neutrality/allowing.

    A wonderful post again, Francisca! XO

  • Hi Francisca. Thank you for the prompt to comment on your reflections on death. But first of all, my condolence about the death of your friend. May your fond memories of him/her comfort you and give you fullness of life. That his/her presence enriched yours.
    I have never been afraid to talk about death. (I think). Three decades ago, I had a friend who was dying. I asked her how she felt about it.. She was so relieved to talk about death. Everyone around her had tiptoed on this subject. When I left, we said our good-byes to one another. When she died, I was at peace with it. I think it was because we had a chance to toast her life, to celebrate her.
    In these past two months, my sorrow with death – two friends who mattered to me – was precisely that. That I did not get to see them, I did not get to salute their presence in my life and to say thank you. I can only do that now in my prayers for them.
    There is an exception. I had a soul friend who died also three decades ago. (That decade was a nasty one). I was there for him in his illness. And we had our conversations. We had a deep soul connection. And when he died, I flew to his country for his burial. And yet to this day, the sorrow remains. There is peace with his death. But the loss still moves me.

    • In recent months there have been three friends who died, and yes, their existence enriched my life, Rose. Sounds like our experiences with death, and our comfort with it, are similar. And I agree that not having unfinished business is key to inner peace. It’s also a reminder to tell people we cherish that we indeed cherish them. So let me say again to you, Rose, I love you and you matter to me. 🌸💜🌸

  • As a child born to older parents, I grew up with death as I grew up knowing the great grandmother and great aunts and uncles. Then the summer when I was 13, I stayed home to take care of my dying father. So, death was normalized for me at a very early age.

    I have a sister who really spoke to our family’s views on this topic. When a doctor asked her what would she do if she knew she only had 15 minutes left to live, she knew she had left nothing unsaid or undone and thought she would like to eat an entire chocolate cake. After all, there would be none of those bothersome consequences! I agree.

    • Lots of wisdom in just two short paragraphs, Susan! One, as a culture, we could do better at normalizing death as part of the life-death cycle. Precious you got that as a child, even as I recognize that would not have been an easy summer for you. And yes, so much about the fear of death is about the anxiety of leaving things unsaid and undone, and once that is faced, we can do something about it. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. 🌸🙏🌸

  • I dread loved ones dying, and so I worry about leaving people behind and the grief that they might feel.

    • Ihor, I get it. A quote to consider: “Fear doesn’t prevent death. It prevents life.” — Naguib Mahfouz 🌸💜🌸

  • Beautiful post. Thank you. I love the part about holding the sorrow, hand in hand with appreciation and gratitude. Helps us to be whole now and not separate from all that is.. and ever was. Mahalo nui as they say in Hawaii.

  • Thank you, dear friend for the shout-out. And I agree with your sentiments – every single word.

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