Fear is a universal emotion, if not a primal instinct. Each of us has felt it - recoiling from a sudden burst of flame or a snarling dog, for instance, or grasping at a railing and backing away from a sudden drop-off. But there's another type of fear: the fear that comes with serious illness and the prospect of death. This fear has less to do with self-preservation. It is fear of an uncertain future, fear of change, and perhaps most importantly, fear of facing one's life squarely and coming up empty-handed.
When Matt, a 22-year-old I knew, was stricken by a malignant lymphoma a few years ago, we talked about this fear, and those conversations have stayed with me ever since. Like most patients who have just been diagnosed with a serious illness, Matt was primarily concerned with his physical condition, at least at first, and peppered his doctors with all sorts of questions. What was the cause of the lymphoma? How effective was the treatment supposed to be? What were his chances of survival? What did this or that medical term mean? Within a few days, however, his overriding concern had changed to his spiritual state. It was as if he sensed that his life had taken an irreversible turn and that no matter what the outcome, he needed to set it in order.
Matt changed greatly over the following months. At the time he was diagnosed, he was a brash and often loud-mouthed joker; happy-go-lucky on the surface, but privately terrified. Six short months later, however, he was a different person. True, he never lost his silly streak, and was still scared at times, even near the end. But having gone through days and nights of the most excruciating pain, he had developed a new, deeper side. And having stopped looking for an escape from the hard fact that he was dying, he had come to terms with the thought, and faced it head on. In doing so, he found strength to meet the agonies of death calmly.
Not everyone dies peacefully, and it's not just a matter of emotional make-up or personality. Peace cannot be found solely by “working through" one's feelings on a personal level. After all, we are never alone, but are surrounded at all times by the cosmic forces of evil and good. And though the battle between them is played out in many arenas, I believe it is most intense wherever the soul of a dying person hangs in the balance.
Dorie, a close friend of my mother's who felt continually tormented by this conflict, lived with it not only at the end of her life, but for decades. Dorie lived next door to our family for many years, first as a part of my parents’ household and, after their deaths, as part of my own.
The Dorie most people knew was a happy person who found great joy in helping others. When a baby was born, she was the first to arrive with fruit, flowers, and an offer to clean the house. It was the same when guests were expected. Nothing satisfied her as much as making sure the extra room was dusted and the bed freshly made. She was endlessly cheerful, it seemed, and willing to do the most mundane chore. She never expected or wanted thanks.
Underneath, however, Dorie was a nervous, anxious person. She had trouble sleeping at night and always wanted to have someone nearby. She worried over every symptom of aging and dreaded the prospect of physical ailments or disabilities. By fifty she was already worrying about dying. Thankfully, her determination to be of use to other people and brighten their day kept her afloat - and prevented the fears that plagued her from driving her to the brink.
Then cancer struck. Initially Dorie underwent several rounds of chemotherapy, and enjoyed several cancer-free years. Then came a relapse. This time the cancer grew rapidly, and we knew Dorie did not have long to live. She was in severe pain, and radiation provided only partial relief. Sitting with her and talking seemed to help more. With her, my wife and I sought for answers to her questions: What is death? Why do we have to die? Is there life after death? Together we read many passages from scripture about death and resurrection, searching for verses that would strengthen her. I reminded her that she had served God and those around her for decades, and said I felt sure he would reward her.
All the same, the last weeks of Dorie's life were an enormous struggle, both physically and spiritually. One sensed it was not just a matter of ordinary human anxiety, but a vital fight for her soul and spirit. She seemed besieged by dark powers. My wife and daughters nursed her for days on end and accompanied her through long hours of inner torment. Once she cried out that something evil had entered her room. With what little strength she had, she threw a pillow at it, shouting, “Go away, darkness! Go away!" At such times those of us with her would gather around her bed and turn to God in song or in prayer. Dorie loved the Lord's Prayer very much; it was always an encouragement to her.
One morning, after a particularly restless night, Dorie's fear was suddenly gone, and she said, “I want to depend on God alone. " She was full of joy and anticipation of that great moment when God would take her, and felt it would be very soon. She said, “There's a surprise today: the kingdom's coming! When it comes, I will run downstairs and outside to welcome it!" That same afternoon she exclaimed, “All my pain is gone. I feel so much better! Thank you, thank you, God!" A little later she said with a smile, “God will call me home tonight. "
In the evening, she called my family - her adoptive family - together and hugged each one of us in farewell. We sang and prayed by her bed, and she remained peaceful through the night. She slipped away from us for good as dawn was breaking.
Having fought as long and hard as she did, Dorie's departure was nothing less than a victory. She knew what it was like to be gripped by cold fear, but she clung to her belief in a God who was greater than her anxieties and never let them completely overwhelm her. And as she breathed her last, she did so with the calmness of those who have come to realize, as the first Christian believers expressed it, that the world is merely a bridge between earthly and eternal life: “Cross over it, but do not build your house on it. "
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Article by Johann Christoph Arnold (http://www.christopharnold.com/ ). Arnold is senior pastor of the Bruderhof - an international communal movement dedicated to a life of simplicity, service, sharing, and nonviolence. (http://www.bruderhof.com/ ).