A Practical Approach to End-of-Life Issues: Facing the Fear of Death

Close up hands of helping hands elderly home care. Mother and daughter. Mental health and elderly care concept

A Practical Approach to End-of-Life Issues
Presented by Rev. Robert R. Fleischmann

VI. Facing the Fear of Death

It is a reality that as death near, fear increases for many people. When Barbara Walters hosted that edition of Nightline I referenced earlier with Derek Humphry she had another guest by the name of Dr. Joanne Lynn, a hospice doctor. Dr. Lynn referenced this matter when she said:

“All of us are under a death sentence. Its only a matter of how long is it and the way it is. Sometime close to the time of death people do have to come to terms with the fact that they are really leaving. And most of us die of a chronic disease over which we have all kinds of choices. That does make it different than it was 40 years ago when people died rather suddenly. That gives us some degree of control and insight. But it is still very uncommon for people to persistently be despairing that they don’t find very valuable things in the life left to them. They find it valuable to watch a flower open, to see a grandchild, to write a letter, to finish a life project. They find those things terribly rewarding as long as they’re supported by loving friends and family…if they are kept out of pain..if they are confident they aren’t going to be abandoned or left in terrible suffering.”

Because every one of us wrestles with the old and new man we lack that perfect faith to enable us to face great challenges without glimmers of doubts and fears. As we help our members face death we must be prepared to recognize that most, if not all of them, will face it with some fears.

A number of years ago I ministered to a woman who was dying. She displayed an incredible grasp of the battle between the old and new man and the paradox of longing for death and fearing it. She taught me the three reasons people fear death:

  • The first reason people fear death is because they do not know what lies beyond. As she expounded on this point she was a wonderful reflection of Christian faith. She professed that Jesus died for her sins and that upon death she will be in heaven. In a sense, she was eager for death and the meeting with Christ that it will bring. But she also acknowledged the times when doubt creeps in. To address those doubts we need to witness with the wealth of biblical testimony that talks about eternal life for the believer after death.
  • The second reason people fear death is that they fear the path that leads to death. Many perceive that in their closing days they will be hooked up to all sorts of medical equipment and will be left lingering. They fear that as death approaches it will result in diminished dignity to life and may be filled with much pain.

    Medical experts insist that most pain can be managed. When Dr. Lynn appeared on Nightline she made this observation about the pain issue:

    “There is no one who is dying that can’t be kept out of suffering. There is no one who must be in terrible pain. And there is no one who must be alone. It is that we set up a system of health care that doesn’t provide those services. [A system] that routinely abandons people, that doesn’t provide good pain management, [and] doesn’t provide support services. And to the usual person in the usual situation in this country facing their dying is relatively alone and facing bankruptcy.”

    Related to this is the desire to maintain a “death with dignity.” While we cannot deny that the quality of life diminishes with the approaching of death in many cases, we must be careful not to buy into the jargon that death should somehow be dignified. You cannot find dignity in any kind of death, for it will always be the final earthly consequence of sin. In this regard hospices and intense congregational visitation programs can enhance the quality of life in the closing days and hours of life.

    For this woman who was teaching me these things, she acknowledged that as she approached death her type of cancer may bring suffering. And I still see her pausing for a moment and then referencing the Bible passage which reads: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18 NIV) She felt she could tolerate a few months of misery by keeping her attention on the eternity that lies ahead.

  • And the final reason she noted why death is feared is that she worried about Edward. Edward was her husband and as she faced the prospect of her own death, she worried about who would take care of him. It is this particular fear that I find extremely sad as it suggests that as a Christian community we have failed each other. How many of us have been such good and supportive friends for our neighbors that if they faced their impending death they feel they could count on us to help after they are gone? Are we that good of friends? As I converse with patients who are dying the answer I generally get is “no!”

As pastors, we can address this concern by training our people to show the kind of concern that alleviates this fear. It can be done. It involves teaching our people the biblical concepts of burden-sharing, sacrifice, and priorities. Even the early New Testament church developed a structure to assure that widows and orphans would be cared for. I believe we do a disservice to our people to imply actively or passively that the state will do the job. That is not the kind of support most of us are counting on for our loved ones when we should die.

The above article is part 6 of Rev. Fleischmann’s 10-part paper. Click here to view the complete outline.


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