Fear of Dying
My major spiritual task is coming to terms with death. I’m not exactly sure what it is about death that terrifies me as it often seems a generalized anxiety that will manifest as a low grade terror during those moments when I witness a loved one’s dying. Then it is easy to see how vulnerable I am. In between those moments it is just a nagging anxiety in the back of my consciousness. Loss feels like something to avoid even though I know logically that I can’t.
What exactly am I scared of? Is it the extinguishing of my consciousness, which hardly seems anything to fear, or is it that I fear the process of dying will hurt? Then there is the critical voice in my head that reminds me how egocentric these meditations are. Intellectually I can appreciate that death is not the enemy, but my attitudes about dying that are. I can consider this point philosophically, which is to say detached. In more practical terms I’m afraid I’ll be Aldous Huxley, who was reported to have stayed in total denial of his end even on his death bed. I would prefer to be more open and gracious when my time comes.
Naturally, there is no end to the pithy clichés and platitudes that so-called spiritual people offer. I certainly don’t see them as wise people who have come to terms with death. After all, how do you come to terms with it before you find yourself actually facing your mortality? Recently, a much loved friend is confronting her own mortality and the brute fact that life is often too brief and indiscriminately unfair. Her terror is more honest to me then all of the supremely pompous nincompoops who have plenty of “wisdom” to dispense. Her experience terrifies me. Will I lose yet another person I love? What the hell does it say about me that I am preoccupied with my fear rather than being a comforting presence in her life? Is this empathy or egoism? Maybe it’s both.
I love her for her honesty. She is not hiding that she’s anxious and terrified. Perhaps, it will turn out to not be so dire for her. Regardless, her experience is exposing my own vulnerability. If I was in her situation I would not be nearly as brave methinks. This is an awful thing to write, but there is nothing like a friend in crisis to expose your own character flaws. I try to offer comforting words or shallow logical arguments for serenity when I should just shut up and listen. However, in my defense it is difficult to convey that you’re openly listening via AIM. I probably would be just as awkward face to face.
The spiritual nincompoops who always respond to these posts or email me privately don’t appear to be any less anxious then me. They cover their anxiety better with unverifiable personal beliefs about the afterlife. That is what platitudes do. They swat the pesky painful questions out of our sight. Some who profess an atheism or non theistic view, as I do, will strut in writing with the bravado of a Mussolini. The fear that I shall die alone is a pretty common fear. Yet, that is exactly what happens. We die alone even when our death bed is surrounded by the sad and comforting faces of those who love us. I will expire alone in my consciousness and what will come will come or not. That is what I think frightens me…those last moments before life ceases and my consciousness is gone forever. It’s the wondering that is killing me.
The bottom line for me here is that despite what we may earnestly believe, no one really knows what happens to human consciousness when we die. I admire the surety of faith that I’ve seen bring serenity and acceptance that helps ease the anxiety of dying. I have never been able to muster such faith. I’ve pleaded, cried and surrendered in all the ways that I know. Seemingly denied this faith, I want to prepare to die well. For me this means learning to face the reality in hopes that it will temper the anxiety when my time approaches. I want the stoical attitude that sees the death state as an indifferent even though it is okay and healthy to prefer life. When one is indifferent to the goodness or badness of death it ceases to have power over me, at least to the extent that it does now.
For the moment it seems to come down to this, uncertainty. I’ve learned through the process of recovery that no matter how well I plan or how well I safeguard myself life is often uncertain and unexpected outcomes occur. Learning to be comfortable with the discomfort of uncertainty is the keystone of a solid spiritual practice. Learning to accept this and to affirm life as it happens despite my value judgments of good or evil of the circumstances may be the approach.
Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan personified death as a presence that stalks each one of us. He taught that when we confronted this fact then humility in life was possible and real living began. I like the imagery of death as a stalker – a patient hunter who always bags his prey in the end. We cannot win the battle with death, but we can befriend it. We can accept it. Trying “not to dwell” on death has not led me to a better quality of life. Instead it has led me to greater anxiety and avoidance when I have to deal with it in life. I completely avoided my father’s final days and his funeral because of this anxiety.
My avoidance of death has led to an inability to heal through the process of grief. My avoidance of death cheats me of life. It seems that one cannot live if one cannot appreciate death and accept it as the inevitable terminus of the life cycle.