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
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
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
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 (https://www.christopharnold.com/).
Arnold is senior pastor of the Bruderhof - an international
communal movement dedicated to a life of simplicity,
service, sharing, and nonviolence. (https://www.bruderhof.com/).