Death's Fearful Curse: Losing This Life's Dear Pleasures

By Callhan, Sidney | Commonweal, October 25, 1996 | Go to article overview

Death's Fearful Curse: Losing This Life's Dear Pleasures


Callhan, Sidney, Commonweal


Are you afraid to die?" my newly bereaved son asked. "If you believe we're all going to heaven, aren't you eager to get there? So why forbid suicide to those people who don't want to live?"

Oh, oh, I thought. Here's another instance where the personal and the political meet. My general opposition to suicide must start at home.

"Good question," I reply. "When I'm out giving talks against assisted suicide and euthanasia I try to be honest about my own feelings about death. It's crucial to recognize how important emotions are when considering end-of-life decisions."

So, yes, I admit it, I am afraid of dying. Even though I do not doubt the good news that Christ has won for us the gift of eternal life, dying scares me. I am mortally afraid of facing death because I fear that at the last moment I might be overwhelmed by panic and anxiety. And then I might doubt and despair.

Thirty-five years ago I had a few panic attacks after losing my infant son to sudden infant death syndrome. I've never forgotten the intense dread and horror of the feeling that I was dissolving into nothingness and would explode and be extinguished.

If I should experience such a fear when facing death, I doubt that my faith could stand against the terror. Saints such as Therese may have experienced blackness and loss of faith at the approach of death, and who knows what Jesus felt as he sweat blood on the night he was betrayed. In the Iliad, Homer repeatedly sings of "courage-shattering death," and I can imagine how one's courage might fail before the great transition imposed by the grim reaper.

On a lighter note, I must admit that I have always hated transitions, especially those totally out of my control, such as the second stage of childbirth, airplane takeoffs, or becoming the anesthetized patient upon the operating table. My own private metaphor for living and dying is to envision our existence here as something like that of the fetus in the womb, and when we die we are born into the new creation. Unfortunately, I'm sure I was the kind of fetus who didn't want to risk the trip. As an adult but fairly infantile Christian, I could never say with Saint Paul that I long "to depart and be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23).

Part of my problem has to do with capitulating to inertia, that motherlode of sin, but also with the fact I am much too content and happy with my family, work, friends, and this life's dear pleasures: hot baths, the New York Times, good novels. Only occasionally do the sorrows and evils of the world intrude on my life strongly enough to produce a pang of loathing for this world, along with a strong desire to escape this life. Enough already. Maranatha.

Of course, if I have to face impairment and chronic illness in old age, death may not seem so horrible. As a coward I already dread the pain, suffering, and irritating tedium of dying. To my way of thinking there can be no natural death. Death is always an affront, that effect of the Fall that Saint Augustine says will always mar the happiness of human beings. We are made for eternal blessedness. …

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