Life among the Dying

new dayIt’s been over 3 months since I’ve written an article. I’m not sure it’s the time to start again, but what the hell. Life is short; a lesson I’ve learned every day for the last 3 months.

It used to be that death almost never crossed my narrow little mind except to make a point or a joke (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference) in conversation. Now I think about it, quite literally, every hour of the day.

3 months ago I started a counseling internship at a cancer treatment hospital. When interviewing for positions the cancer hospital was my only choice. I didn’t have a backup plan. I only wanted to work at the hospital because I knew that inside its halls lived the sort of reality I had only a pale acquaintance with.

Our hospital is one that treats mostly stage 3 and 4 cancer patients. We have a lot of success stories. But by “success” I don’t mean that we have a lot of survivors. I mean that we have a lot of people coming to grips with the reality of their own mortality; husbands, wives, parents, children, standing at the bedside of their loved ones saying their final goodbyes, discovering love for each other in ways they had never experienced; people dying well, that is, people dying with time to reckon with life.

How is any sort of dying a success? Well, it’s not if your ‘immortality project’ is firmly entrenched in your conscious with the help of a myriad of smokescreens and delusions necessary to make one forget – or at least defer – the reality of creatureliness. Unless the veil is torn away death can be terrifying, and for that reason taboo.

Truth is, at some point we all develop a fetish for falsity which corresponds to reality-blindness – the haunt of all neuroses.

It occurred to me early on in my internship that on the outside of the hospital walls death is not favorite subject with most people. It used to be that when someone in the family was sick or dying the family took them in and grieved with them, stayed with them through the pain and sorrow till the very end. Death was a part of everyday life for many in our not too distant past. Today if someone is ill, old, or dying we make them disappear into a nursing home or hospice center so as to not become too familiar with the reality of death; someone dying next to you is a terrifying reminder that you might be next.

And you will be.

As a Christian I imagined that I was psychologically above death, that I had successfully transcended death through my belief in the afterlife. This delusion was tested to its limits a few weeks ago. For a 3 week period I was convinced I had colon cancer. It’s hard not to laugh at the idea now, but only because I had a colonoscopy to verify that I was in the clear. To make a long story short, my family has a strong history of colon cancer. My grandfather had it at my age and died at 44, so I had ample reason for concern. Besides that, I had daily reminders that guys my age, and younger, died of colon cancer all the time. It’s not some ‘old guy’s disease,’ as many imagine.

At any rate, I experienced what it felt like to walk around, day after day, with the idea that I was soon to leave my wife, children, friends, family, and unfulfilled dreams behind. It’s a feeling that is truly indescribable so I won’t butcher the experience by trying to be an artist about it. It was terrible.

I learned some things about myself during that period that deeply disappointed me. For starters, I was appalled that my faith was not able to lift me above the chaos of fear and plant me in some sort of ethereal wonderland of expectation – like the Apostle Paul who welcomed death as personal gain, to be present with the Lord. I had that feeling, but only in brief flashes. For the most part I was a total wreck internally.

I knew things were bad when I was in a session with a lady who 30 minutes previous had received the results of a scan which told her she had terminal cancer. As she and her husband sat weeping my empathy went from ‘healthy’ to ‘panic’ in just a few seconds time. As a counselor you need the ability to experience emotion with a patient on a deep level (i.e. empathy), but not become completely overwhelmed by it. Well, I completely failed that day.

If it were not for a strict regimen of morning prayer I would not have made it. Even though my faith did not transplant me, as described above, it did keep my head above water just long enough to experience perhaps the most profound internal ass-kicking I’ve ever endured. And I wouldn’t take back the experience for anything!

When people talk about total despair, I get it. I now know anxiety on a level I never conceived of before. I believe God allowed me to coast along the edge of death-reality just long enough to cure me of the smokescreens and delusions I fed myself in hope of denying my creatureliness (a subconscious denial).

The truth is that the dying are not found in hospitals and hospices. Those are just places inhabited by people keenly aware of their mortality. Drive down the street, take note of everyone around you, those are the are dying – everyone. Try as they might to keep busy with work, school, sports, politics, whatever, to protect their conscious from the terror of reality, reality eventually has its way with all illusions. A man-made immortality project is the ultimate illusion.

Those who are ‘keenly aware’ of mortality actually live with one of the greatest gifts a person can have: the gift of being able to decipher meaning in existence – especially in the hard to reach places of pain, suffering, loneliness, and anxiety – as opposed to the sort of sham existence build on distractions and pretense which merely sedate life’s disappointments common to all.

We all live in the land of the dying, but that doesn’t mean we live in a nightmare. It means we live for a season. Every season is loaded with meaning, in many ways precisely because it is only for a season.

When the season ends I hope to meet death with open arms.

Thanks for reading.


24 thoughts on “Life among the Dying

  1. Welcome back! As someone who suffers from almost constant anxiety and can have a panic attack at the drop of a hat – I can say I am sorry in a sense for what you had to go through. On the other side of that, I am so glad for all you learned. Something to keep in mind about Paul. I think by the time he quipped “to live is Christ” he had probably faced death more than a few times at the hands of his persecutors and maybe even a shipwreck or snake bite or two. He was an old hand at it by that point so take some comfort.

  2. Eric, I’m very glad to hear that your fears were wrong and it’s good to hear from you again.
    Knowing and staying with the belief that everything is in God’s hands is the best way I know of relieving anxiety over death. I find severe long-term mental or physical pain is the really difficult task. As for deciphering the ultimate meaning in existence, I have long since believed it to be that we are to realise the meaning of impartial love and to live it. Do you feel you have deciphered some other meaning and, if so, would you be able to share it with us?

  3. Hey dichasium, nice to see you posting again as well. 🙂

    Maybe “ultimate” meaning was the wrong way to phrase it. I mean instead something like the ability to decipher what is meaningful in life, wherever one might be at the time. The ability to find meaning even in things that many have a difficult time at like: suffering, pain, loneliness, anxiety, etc., and ultimately death itself.

  4. Ah, now I get it! Thanks Eric. It reminds me of a quote i once heard ‘ Live every moment as though it were your last’. Nice one! And for some reason I wrote this for the world (!) the other day- ‘Time is so precious- so, love now, love always. We should have had so much fun, today may be our last chance.’ I was thinking it would be quite a good epitaph.

  5. Eric, this seems like a great opportunity to ask you for your view on this topic which has baffled me for years now about believers. The question in its simplest form is “why?” Why worry, why be afraid, why feel stressed about it, why is (your) death a concern of yours in any way?

    I see it as such: We’re both walking down a hallway. Mine ends in a wall. No turning back, no place else to go. My journey is over. Those I leave behind I lose forever. This seems like a normal thing to worry about, or to not desire.

    Your hallway, as a believer, ends in a doorway. You also can’t go back, but you wouldn’t want to anyway because through that doorway is the greatest place imaginable (perhaps even greater than what we can imagine). Your time in that room is limitless, and guaranteed to be nothing short of pure bliss. Your loved ones, who are still traveling in the hallway you were in, will eventually join you. This seems like an abnormal thing to worry about, or to not desire.

    So why worry about it? Unless somewhere deep down you don’t truly believe what you claim to believe, I can see no reason why anybody would worry about such a thing.

    As I mentioned earlier this is something I have never understood about believers. You believe someone is promising you an amazing reward at the end of the race and yet you worry about, fear even, crossing that finish-line.

    Anyway, I’ll close by congratulating you on a wonderful description of religion ” . . . the sort of sham existence build on distractions and pretense which merely sedate life’s disappointments common to all.”

  6. Pavlos, great to talk with you again.

    One of the thoughts that ran through my mind continuously during those 3 weeks was that my twins (ages 2) would not have a memory of their dad if I died right now. A second issue was the feeling that I had wasted time in life that I wanted to make right before I die (even though we look forward to bliss, this life and how we live it is of eternal importance). A third issue was the way cancer makes one die. It is often a very slow and painful process, one in which not only the person with cancers suffers through, but one which his loved ones suffer through with him bedside.

    Hope that helps.

    To answer the general spirit of your questioning I often wondered the same thing about the naturalist: if naturalism is true nobody should worry about anything, let alone death, since mind-independent meaning and truth would be out-of-court if such were the case. Yet I’ve never met an anxious-free naturalist. In line with your reasoning, this would be evidence of deeply held disbelief in naturalism.

    But maybe the human condition does not lend itself to such reductionist formulas. Maybe anxiety is an existential concomitant of freedom which verifies our humanity – theist and atheist alike.

  7. Hi again Pavlos. I wondered about saying this but I believe it is relevant to you, sorry if you don’t see it that way –
    When I finally found a logical way (without inconsistencies) to understand the concept of a God with a good plan it was like eventually finding my way through an extremely long and difficult maze. I thought I had at last found my way to God, bringing me freedom and fresh air. But, I was soon to realise that believing is a separate matter from understanding, it is not a question of logic. This explains why there can be believers who are not very logical people. It also explains why looking for (or finding) illogicality and inconsistency will not defeat belief. It is merely throwing the baby out with the bath water and fighting a losing battle with oneself. My apologies, if you find this comment pointless.

  8. Thank you for this post. True inner recognition of one’s own mortality must be a gift–I say this, as one psychologically all too distant from the reality of my coming death. I don’t think morbidity is the same thing as true recognition or reconciliation. I thought about death a lot when I was younger, without fear, but I think it was still very unreal. Nowadays when I think seriously about death, it is a lot more terrible to me, though I have also grown commensurably in my faith. Perhaps this indicates that we are intended, as we mature, to grapple seriously with the threat of nothingness that attends all contingent beings. An immature faith in golden shores is content with an unreal death, a vision solely of happy translation; but death is not nothing for the Christian: it is total vulnerability, and a step on the hard (though ultimately victorious) road of the Christ.

  9. Interesting thoughts on both counts. From your reply to my question I gather then that it is a worry about the process, the temporary torture of the ordeal, and also its affect on the survivors. This I understand fully, but I remain puzzled by the fear of death by a believer. If anything, the promise of what comes after should overshadow all that precedes it. What are a few decades after all in the face of eternity?

    In my experience (and unfortunately I’ve had too much experience with death . . . though your last few months have probably been more than enough to outpace my experience with it) people are afraid of both the temporary ordeal of the process of dying *and* the actual state of death. Of course, I’ve met a few individuals who seemed too eager to be dead and too afraid of the sin that is suicide, but they have been not only the exception to the rule, but also the . . . less than “sane” variety.

    You’re right, to an extent, about the non-believer who should have no fear of death. Most of it is along the same lines that you articulated. It’s a fear of the process, not the end result. But for those of us who fear the end result it’s precisely because of the finality of it. Of course once I’m dead I wont exist to know (or worry) about being dead, but now that I am alive I’m also aware of just how much I enjoy being alive. And this is something I don’t want to be over. So it’s not so much a fear of death or none-existence, as it is a greedy (almost) desire for more of it.

    I will say, however, that I don’t follow your reasoning about a non-believer having no worry about anything at all. If anything, the uniqueness of the state of life serves to magnify the importance of each action. The fact that nobody can live such an artificially grandiose existence is both because it is such a facade of romanticism and because our ancestors (and biology) have constructed our circumstances so that they offer no real alternatives.

  10. No, your comment is not pointless, but it does seem self-defeating. I fully understand the separation off logic and belief, but I also recognize it as a shortcoming to be corrected. If a belief does not stand up to the scrutiny of logic then it is by definition irrational to hold. I suppose my “breath of fresh air” comes from logical consistency in my mental productions.

  11. Pavlos you say ‘I fully understand the separation of logic and belief’. I’d say that you fully understand the superficial difference between them (belief is not logic), and you think you know what human weakness/ignorance makes belief, but you do not understand the experience of belief when applied to what is commonly referred to as God. It is impossible to compare it against logic and rationality because it is not subject to the same standards. The difficulty is that, being a separate sense, belief in God is nigh on impossible to explain to non-participants. The nearest explalnation I currently have is that it is a love of/for love and an a sense of ‘knowing’ that love has an immeasurably capacity. This immeasurable capacity is what prevents it from being assessed by our understanding of rational and logical. A genuine believer has glimpses of this and a love for it which can overcome so much when applied.

    It is impossible for someone in your position to find this because you are determined to rely on logic and rationality which will always keep you away. It belittles God for you and will always be fighting a losing and imaginary battle by using tools that do not fit the job at hand.
    My best wishes, dichasium.

  12. Eric, Just another agreement with your article. Relationships are the most significant part of life. We can learn to experience the receiving and giving of love. The ‘tests’ help us to develop, understand and express it more fully till we learn how to love impartially. (I remember someone once saying to a friend that they didn’t give to charities because ‘ Charity begins at home’. I said to my friend, ‘Yes, but it doesn’t have to stop there’). We sometimes need promting to excercise our capacity to love when we are resting on our comfy sofa (so to speak) and though hard at the time, we must be glad for the beneficial ‘tests’. So, I understand and agree with your comments and I’m glad to hear them.

  13. ” I remain puzzled by the fear of death by a believer.”

    I guess if I’m totally honest, I remain puzzled as well. This is why I mentioned my disappointment in my faith when it was tested in such an extreme way. The best way I know to respond is to say that I doubted my own eternal place with God. It was not generated from a disbelief in God, but a disbelief in my understanding of it all. I am encouraged by those like John the Baptist who just before being killed in prison by Herod sends word via his disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you the Christ or do we wait for another?” This is a powerful moment of weakness in a man whom Jesus says was the greater than all the prophets. John apparently had a last moment lapse in confidence that Jesus was who he claimed to be, and even doubted his own experience of the decent of the Holy Spirit on Christ at his baptism. It’s the struggle of faith. God called Jacob “Israel” after Jacob struggled with Him. We are called to the same struggle.

    My rational for the naturalist (not merely non-believer) to not worry over anything is a proper evaluation of the idea behind mechanical determinism of nature. Without freedom anxiety has no home. No anxiety = no worry. The fact that naturalists continue to have anxiety even though they do not believe in freedom of will is manifestly a lack of existential congruence in the naturalists espoused philosophy and his/her actual living experience. This can – under the naturalists rubric – have only one of two answers: (a) nature has determined us to believe we have freewill even though we don’t, thus making a complete mockery of human nature, or (b) the naturalist simply doesn’t believe his philosophy of existence.

    But it gets even deeper than just anxiety. The idea of naturalism makes no room for mind-independent meaning and truth. In other words, our death ends all notions of such since they do not have existence outside our minds. With such a revelation the naturalist should be the most stoic of all humans; totally unaffected by trials, death, and even the process of death all of which are meaningless. Why would anybody take meaninglessness seriously? But, we’ve had this discussion already ad nauseam so I won’t bore you with a rehash. 🙂

  14. dichasium, about 15 years ago I spend a week and a half camping in Payson, AZ. I fasted food and spent every waking hour either praying, reading scripture, or journaling. At the end of the 10 day experience, God sent me home with one major lesson: Relationships are the most significant part of life. I’ve been working on catching up with that lesson ever since. This latest test brought me closer to actualizing the lesson in my being than anything yet to date. Your words find a secure home with me. 🙂

  15. The answer to your puzzlement regarding the naturalist (sorry, that title is uncomfortable for me because I have associated it with nudism for some reason) is that free will is one of the most powerful illusions we have. Even well educated people, hell even experts on several related subjects, fail to see the obvious. There is a TED talk by well-respected American philosopher John Searle who at some point says (I’m paraphrasing from memory) “It’s absurd to claim we don’t have freedom of will; look, I’ll tell my arm to raise and it goes up.” The irony here is that we are naturally determined to believe we have free-will.

    I suppose you can look at it like an anxious passenger on an airplane. Clearly he has no control over the plane, but that doesn’t prevent him from being anxious when heavy turbulence shakes him like a cocktail.

    “The idea of naturalism makes no room for mind-independent meaning and truth. In other words, our death ends all notions of such since they do not have existence outside our minds.”

    How so? The sun will remain hot whether or not I’m there to perceive it. This is true under either camp. The only people who deny this are solipsists.

    Your opening paragraph is very interesting to me and I wish you would explore those thoughts (and their potential implications) with yourself a bit more. There is a lot of meat worth picking off the bone in them.

    By the way, something to keep in the back of your mind when interacting with your clients is that grieving for ones own mortality is often the storefront concealing the grief over the loss of the ability to dream. We all value the dream (desire, possibility. potential, etc.) more than the actualization of it.

  16. In response to Pavlos above:

    Like I said, I’ll leave off rehashing material from our past lengthy discussions on naturalism, but I’m curious to get one answer from you since you brought up “ironies.” If everything you think appears in your mind according to mechanical determinism how is it possible to verify your belief in naturalism without circular reasoning?

    Also, by “truth” I of course do not mean the truth of natural phenomenon (such as the sun being hot) being subject to the human mind, but rather philosophical truth, such as a belief in naturalism and its implications on human existential issues.

    And, I prefer to think of a passenger on a plane reacting to strong turbulence as fear rather than anxiety. There are some significant differences.

    Your second to last paragraph is hopelessly patronizing, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and pretend that you don’t mean for me to become an enlightened atheist by exploring my weakness of faith through the ordeal with death-fears. 🙂

    In addition to your last paragraph, I would wholeheartedly agree and further describe it as existential guilt: guilt from the knowing that one could have been more honest with and done more with the life and talents he possessed. But well said anyways.


  17. Circular reasoning is only problematic when a concept is used to verify itself. Sort of like the statement “I know I’m right because I just said I know I’m right, therefore, I know I’m right about knowing I’m right.” There is nothing problematic, though, about a determined thought about determinism. Consider this easy example: say we program a basic software with determined responses, one of which being a programmed/determined response to the question “have you been determined to answer me in a determined way?” The software’s answer “yes” is not invalidated by the fact that it was programmed to respond “yes.” It remains true that it was programmed even if it was programmed to acknowledge its programming.

    Now, you may ask “how can we verify determinism?” but that question is mostly a matter of scientific discoveries. Sure we could go down the philosophical road, but ultimately we already know that the brain precedes the mind. To assert that something else precedes the brain you have to identify it, prove it exists, and then show/prove it functions in such a capacity.

    Ultimately, it’s only beliefs that are purely circular precisely because they have no external verification outside the subjective interpretation of the person seeking to confirm that same belief. For instance, I’ve somehow become involved in a multi-person debate, some of whom have told me they have proof (verification of belief) God exists (the belief) because they have witnessed a miracle. Of course it makes no difference if the event is a miracle or not because this is purely circular reasoning. They started with a belief in God which they “verified” by attributing an event to that God they believe in. There is no external verification of this belief, just the circularity of the belief verifying itself.

    I realize what you mean by “truth” but clearly the difference is that you consider it (naturalism) a philosophical concept, while I consider it a “natural phenomenon.” So just as my example of the sun remaining hot, naturalism also remains independently of the mind. What I find somewhat humorous here is that I consider the roles entirely reversed. I see theism as being completely mind-dependent. Eliminate all life in the universe and there is nobody left to believe in this unverified, and unverifiable, hypothesis. However, eliminate all life in the universe and things will continue to act when, and in accordance with being, acted on.

    Stress vs fear . . .I’m not so interested in that one. To some it’s a linguistic difference, to others it’s the difference between a reaction to actual imminent danger (fear) and the anticipation of perceived danger (anxiety). In relation to the airplane analogy we would have to explore the danger posed by the turbulence etc. I left the field of psychology a long time ago because I realized that what I thought intrigued me about the human mind wasn’t what really intrigued me.

    Speaking of which, I can’t take credit for the concepts in my last paragraph. I was remembering the words of a psych professor of mine from years ago. She had decades of experience in grief counseling and the class was called “Death and Dying” and that lecture of hers just stuck with me because it rang so true.

  18. Thank you for the honesty. Refreshing. The Body of Christ has allowed our culture to influence the way we approach death, from the way we treat terminal relatives to our decisions in extending life. As Christians, we must not only be known for how we live but how we die.

    “Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all, everyone dies–so the living should take this to heart.” Ecclesiates 7:2

  19. Very true. The Orthodox Church is unique in this sense that much emphasis is still given to “dying well” and seeing life as a preparation for ones own death. The funeral service contains some of the most beautiful words ever put to paper. The monks and ascetics throughout the ages in their writings worked to help destroy the smoke screens and delusions man puts before his eyes to shield himself from the awareness of his mortality. But you’re right. Many Christians in our time have followed suit with the reigning culture to make death something in the background, something taboo, off-limits for thought. Its sad.

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