Overcoming a Fear of Death: Our Own Stories Show There’s Nothing to Scare Us

Maggi Dawn, a Yale Divinity School professor and ordained priest in the Church of England, recently posted on Facebook a photograph of Kermit the Frog riding a bicycle by standing on its saddle with one leg and flashing a wide, open-mouthed, toothless grin. The caption of the image reads, “Don’t take life so seriously. It’s not like you’re going to get out alive.” Yet we still think we will.

Death continues to be our ultimate fear, and it makes sense that it is. For what are other terrors or anxieties, regardless of magnitude, if not thoughts that something bad—something that may shorten or end our time—should happen to us? Kierkegaard, like most of us, found these trepidations consuming: “All existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable, I most of all; to me all existence is infected, I most of all.” And Kerouac likewise found trouble basking in the glory of life: “I am young now and can look upon my body and soul with pride. But it will be mangled soon, and later it will begin to disintegrate, and then I shall die, and die conclusively. How can we face such a fact, and not live in fear?”

Embracing our infected existence, even while we teeter on the brink of nonexistence, serves as the sole saving grace to quell these fears. Sadly (or happily, depending on our framing), this acceptance of our curious, awkward and mangled journey to a stop often happens only when we see the last signpost—whether up close, a few clicks ahead, or as it barely becomes visible over the horizon. It’s these stories, not of close calls but of how to embrace a life of grace after the call begins to faintly ring in the background, that help us, if ever so slightly, quiet our disquiets.

Meghan O’Rourke called them “the literature of protracted death” in a Times essay earlier this month, and the narratives comprise “a slow, medicalized end, portrayed in documentary detail.” She focuses on a subgenre of writers who record their own deaths. But accounts of writers chronicling others’ deaths, especially those that illustrate “the predicament of feeling vividly alive—perhaps more alive than ever—while facing imminent demise,” have become similarly ubiquitous.

A third-person piece can reveal just as many raw truths and make us feel just as un-alone as a personal lament if written with a special combination of empathy and outsider objectivity. This formula is hard to pull off seamlessly, and it’s even more difficult to execute without portraying the dying as a helpless victim, or worse, as an example. But Robin Marantz Henig, writing for The New York Times Magazine, and Wright Thompson, writing for ESPN’s Outside the Lines, both gave us works a couple of weeks ago that accomplish the feat—pieces that show the beauty of the mangled, the unavoidable worry of upcoming signposts and a long-fought acceptance that we’ll all be there soon enough.

Henig’s profile, in which she spends a few days with English professor Brooke Hopkins and his wife and bioethicist Peggy Battin, leaves us, she says in a later interview, with the notion that we “need to stay open to the fact that we just can’t truly know in advance how much we would be willing to bear.” Hopkins became a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down, after a bicycle accident in Salt Lake City. “If Peggy had been there and known the extent of Brooke’s injury, she might have urged the rescuers not to revive him,” writes Henig. Though Peggy focused her life’s work on advocating for the right to a comfortable death, even if it meant euthanasia, her husband’s new circumstances made her rethink some of her work as it related not to the dying but to their loved ones:

Scholarly thought experiments were one thing, but this was a man she adored—a man with whom she shared a rich and passionate life for more than 30 years—who was now physically devastated but still free, as she knew he had to be, to make a choice that would cause her anguish.

“It is not just about terminally ill people in general in a kind of abstract way now,” she wrote after the accident; “it’s also about my husband, Brooke. I still love him, that’s a simple fact. What if he wanted to die? Can I imagine standing by while his ventilator was switched off?”

Perhaps what makes Henig’s piece so powerful, however, is a revelation that life isn’t always so bad after its definiteness becomes real. It may even end up better. Embracing the remaining mangled, messy and often frustrating minutes brings a comfort that is impossible to experience without the signposts in sight, or, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “It is worth dying to find out what life is.” Hopkins, and his wife and chief caretaker Peggy, found this richness:

When friends are around playing blues harmonica or reading aloud to him, when his mind is clear and his body is not in pain — that’s a good day. On a good day, he said, he feels even more creative than he was in his able-bodied life, and his relationships with Peggy, his two stepchildren and his many friends are richer and more intimate than before; he has no time or patience for small talk, and neither do they. Every so often he’ll turn to Peggy and announce, “I love my life.”

A similar love radiates from a “house glowing on the hill,” a little north of Hopkins and the students in his next class on Moby Dick. Among the mountain streams of Montana, Kierkegaard’s anxiety-inducing “smallest fly” is a real-life antithesis to the hand-tied artificial flies that soar from Tom Morgan’s palliative rods. “Around Tom, time seems to slow and bend,” notes Wright Thompson in his most recent long-form profile of custom fly rod legend Morgan. “His focus and calm rub off, a contact high, and a visitor’s anxiety and stress recede, then disappear.”

Morgan crafts the holy grail of fly fishing rods, even though he’s paralyzed from the neck down. “He doesn’t build the best rods in the world in spite of multiple sclerosis,” writes Thompson. “He builds them because of it. He builds them because, when he stops, a part of him will be lost forever.” And like Hopkins in Utah, Morgan’s family and friends often see him, and his work, inhabiting an elevated, graced condition after his trauma:

[H]is new rods are considered better than the best he ever made for Winston. It shouldn’t make sense, that the best rod designer in the world could become paralyzed and make better rods, but somehow it does. It makes perfect sense.

Tom demands control over his world. If he stays disciplined and accepts no shortcuts, from himself or anyone else around him, he can defeat the thing that has tried to take over his life. He controls his disease, and even his thoughts, never giving in to all that might undo him.

An elementary life function that Morgan can’t control, however, is his expression of joy or sorrow. “He’s either crying or laughing. One of the lesions on his brain affects his emotional control, so both happiness and sadness come out as a kind of guttural sob,” writes Thompson.

When our days become numbered, not with the exactness of a rod taper ratio but perhaps with the closeness of guessing a trout’s weight in our hands, is the marriage of happiness and sadness a bad thing? Don’t life’s glories and glooms, in light of the end, evoke both emotions anyway? We’re happy the pleasures exist, and we’re happy for the displeasures to end; we’re sad the displeasures exist, and we’re sad for the pleasures to end.

Both Henig’s and Thompson’s narratives give us raw, unobstructed glimpses into the bittersweet beauty of dying that scares us to death. It’s, unfortunately, a bliss acknowledged only once we realize we don’t have enough time to enjoy it. Perhaps telling these stories will send us closer to believing what John Updike wrote, according to O’Rourke’s Times essay, in one of his last poems:

To live is good / but not to live . . . still stretching toward the sun — is good also.

photo by: kasperbs
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