The survival instinct, implanted in us by the Divine Giver of life, inspires a skier to overcome seemingly impossible odds by outracing an avalanche or a sailor marooned in the middle of the ocean to battle circling sharks and hope for rescue.
Given such a strong drive to live, is it any wonder that we fear death? It is an impenetrable mystery. We have no power to control the time, the place, and the circumstances of our passing from this life to the next. The fear of finitude is inherent in our nature. Our instinct for survival goes into high gear when the danger of death threatens to overtake us.
That skier may end up frozen in the snow. That sailor may not be rescued in time to survive the beating sun and the lack of water in his lifeboat.
Viewed from a merely human perspective, death appears to be a tragic separation from all we hold dear. What helps us to overcome our fear of dying is the belief that our true destiny is to pass over to that place prepared for us by our risen Lord. Jesus teaches us to view our death not an end but as a new beginning:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so,
would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you.
I will come again and will take you to myself,
so that where I am, there you may be also (Jn 14:1-3).
Faith in the dying and rising of Jesus gives us the courage to look upon death simultaneously as the closure of our earthly window and as an opening to eternal life.
Fear can hinder our freedom to surrender to the mystery that governs life and death. It can also alert us to the truth of our dependence on God and urge us to treasure every precious moment of life God grants us on earth.
Fear of death may be the Lord’s way of inviting us to face our finitude and to acknowledge the truth that we die a little every day we are alive.
Our ending may come at an hour we do not expect. That is why we must ready ourselves to greet death with courage and confidence in God’s saving promise that it is the portal to paradise.
A friend told me that her near-death experience was the highpoint of her life. She sat in the backseat of the limo conveying her to her hotel, realizing that her eyes were closed and her fists clenched because the driver seemed to be speeding on an icy road. She tried to concentrate on prayer and was about to shout at him to go slower when they swerved off the two-lane highway into a deep ditch. She screamed, went limp, and thought to herself, “This is it!”
The limo turned over on its side, and all she remembered was that she and the driver climbed out of the dented vehicle bruised but alive.
As first responders sped to the scene, she wept in gratitude to God. Only on the way to the hospital did she start to breathe normally. Only later, when she recalled this terrifying incident, in more detail, did she dare to ask herself if it was fear of death that made her short of breath and accelerated the panic of the moment more than the possibility of death itself. All she knew was that she would never again take the precious gift of life for granted.
As we learn to see ourselves as the finite creatures we are, we trust that the Good Shepherd will be with us in the valley of death and that only “goodness and kindness shall follow [us] all the days of our life (Ps 23:6).
My friend’s near-death experience gave her the deep faith she will need when it is her time to pass from this life to the next. She learned first-hand that “little deaths” like that night on a slippery road make us aware that we do not control the length of our life. We fear letting go until we really listen to the words of Jesus: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn 12:25).
Death is a topic shunned in most conversations, yet it shadows our thoughts more often than we care to admit. One reason why the thought of dying causes us to be afraid may be found in our having to let go of what gives us a feeling of safety and security.
Our fear of death decreases to the degree that the strength of our faith increases. Only faith offers us the blessed assurance that death is but a brief passage into the waiting arms of our risen Lord. He alone has the authority to say: “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn 5:25).
Because he has gone ahead of us to prepare “a place” for us (Jn 14:3), we need to focus our attention not on our fear but on this supernatural promise. To do so is the wisest and best way to allay our fear of finitude and, to say with the apostle Paul, “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55)