I understand the fear of death. As a child, I was afraid to sleep. I was terrified that I would die each night. The plaque hanging above my bed held the inscription: “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Whaaaaat? When I viewed my dead grandmother in her open casket, I heard, “She just looks like she is sleeping.” Not comforting. Family lore had it that if I didn’t hold my breath whenever we drove past a cemetery, I would lose ten minutes of my life. I was also afraid of the undead in the form of Dracula who could take possession of my body and my will. As a teen and young adult, I was fearful of being buried alive. My coping plan was to insist on being buried with an oxygen tank and a phone.
The idea that dying would take me to some place called “heaven”––if I was very good––provided me with absolutely no comfort at all. My mother had decorative angels everywhere––angel door knockers, angel welcome rugs, angel curtains, angel wall plaques, angel nightlights and vases and china. Instead of feeling assured or protected, I thought WOW I really have something to worry about. We must be really bad! Death would be punishing. I was terrified.
The deaths of a boyfriend, an infant niece, my grandparents, my husband, my father, and a dear friend, along with facing my own personal health crisis, brought me up close and personal with dying and death. Uniquely personal to each, death took many forms: the slow and fast, the fits and starts, of natural death from old age or through choice, ravaging death from disease: sharp peaks and valleys of cancer––the slow steady decline until you fall off a cliff with congestive heart failure and cardiopulmonary disease––the shocking tragedy of death from accidents, overdoses, suicides, infant deaths, wars, and medical interventions. Through these exposures, I acquired a deep curiosity and reverence for the power of this particular great mystery.
Leaning in / Facing fear
A sacred calling to understand more about this inevitable aspect of life eclipsed my fears. I eagerly inquired about life, death, and how we create meaning from many perspectives. I plunged into the interfaith/inter-spiritual study of world religions and idiosyncratic spirituality, mystic and nature-based wisdom traditions, the practice and teaching of meditation, yoga, healing touch energy medicine and other healing arts including shamanism, plant medicines, and breathwork. I studied the history and practices of how the dying have been cared for in many cultures and throughout time. I trained as a death midwife, home funeral guide, and ritualist. After graduating from an interfaith seminary and becoming ordained as a professional chaplain with an end-of-life specialization, I served as the palliative care and hospice chaplain in a major hospital, and volunteered for community hospice.
Over time–––with exposure through hundreds of experiences, education, therapy, and training–––I have been able to mature through my paralyzing fear of death into a sense of wonder and gratitude. I find that the process of dying can reveal true creativity of the human spirit as at no other time in life. Well supported, the dying process can give rise to meaning, grace, and gratitude for the meaning of life. My experience and demeanor have a calming effect that helps guide the dying and models for family and friends how to be with the dying.
And, that is who you want as a companion when you are dying. Someone who fully understands being fearful and filled with anxiety and offers spiritual care and healing arts that educate, calm, and fully support an individual’s dying in ways that matter most to them.
Overwhelming fears common for those dying relate to personal beliefs about what happens after death, along with the absence of knowledge or guidance about the natural dying process. Debilitating uncertainty surfaces because some religions promise an afterlife but don’t provide practical tools for getting through the dying part. Some religious beliefs can cause alarm from fear of punishment from not living according to doctrine, or from not having suffered enough pain to warrant salvation. For some, what was once accepted on faith as a trusted assurance can collapse into a personal spiritual abyss and existential crisis. This is where I can help.
What if There is Nothing?
The hospice nurse and one of her two adult sons reached out to me about Barbara. Although medically stabilized and with no indication of physical pain, this lovely 82 year-old woman, dying of congestive heart failure, was shifting between inconsolable crying and despondency.
She was alone when I entered her darkened room. Her eyes were swollen red with tears. Her face was warped in anguish. Her body was swathed in twisted sheets. Barbara extended her fragile hand to me in welcome and offered the chair beside her. After a few minutes, she looked searchingly into my eyes before ever so cautiously surveying the room, scanning as if to make sure no spies were listening in. She drew me close and whispered, “What if there is nothing?” Then she gasped. It was if she had just spoken something blasphemous.
“What if there is no heaven? What if there is no afterlife?” She identified herself as a “good person,” a “dedicated follower,” a “faithful believer.” She cautiously spoke of her unquestioning devotion to the teachings and beliefs of her religion––a faith that had provided her with definitive guidance and the right way to live life in order to gain entrance into a kingdom of heaven. Yet, she was afraid—not afraid of dying because she had been with others as they died, but she was panicked that maybe all of her belief and devotion were for naught. She didn’t know who to trust or what to believe. What if the stories and promises were not true?
probing inquiry revealed what alarmed her the most. “What if there was nothing?”
Her nothing was far from benign. To Barbara, it was a fearsome nothing, erupting with the primal despair of abandonment, betrayal, extinction. Barbara was experiencing a significant spiritual and existential crisis that we integrated through several subsequent sessions, but I could immediately help her on her way to her own innate wisdom.
“If you are willing, we can explore that.”I assured her that I would be right beside her as she explored what it might be––where there is “nothing.” I guided her to rest in the bed and close her eyes. I talked her through a meditative body scan from head to toe. Then she focused on her breath and the spaciousness around her breath. The spaciousness that the breath arises from and returns to. She fell into deep relaxation. All the worry wrinkles ironed smooth from her tear-stained face, her hands released their grip from her crumpled sheets. A quiet fullness began filling the room. At about 30 minutes I noticed a shift in her breathing and a little stirring. Eventually, her eyes opened just a sliver as she looked sideways at me with the smallest little hint of a smile. She looked like someone with a sweet secret. She told me, “It’s going to be ok. I am going to be ok–––even if there is nothing. Nothing isn’t nothing, and it isn’t frightening. In fact, I feel good; I am filled with such love right now.”
We met several times during her journey toward death. I supported Barbara and her family with compassionate presence, guided relaxation, spiritual conversation, inspirational readings, and prayer, essential oils, sacred sound, and soft light––all approaches that help the dying release into expansion. I facilitated Barbara’s requests for connecting with her priest for confession and to receive the last rites sacrament with holy oil of “Anointing of the Sick,” preparing her according to her faith for her return to God in heaven. As she drew closer to death, Barbara shared that her younger sister–––who had died many years before at the age of 42–––was preparing for her arrival. She found great comfort in this. Messages and visitations from those who have died before can be expected in almost every death. This comforted her and her family. Her sons talked of the hope it brought them––for their mother and for the potential that they may all be reunited at some future time.
In the mystery of dying, maybe we are greeted and guided by loved ones or angels, perhaps there are pearly gates that open into a heaven where a banquet feast awaits, or possibly our eternal consciousness is reclaimed by the loving fullness of nothing that is all of creation. Ancient to Modern Wisdom teachings, research results from near death experiences, and experiences from expanded states of consciousness are consistent in their messages that death is not to be feared, but to be moved through as part of life.
Prepare for this dying part of life. Gain knowledge, prepare, and get ready for your own inevitable journey accompanied by people with compassion and experience. I used to be terrified of dying. Now I’m not. Are you?
Lynda Elaine Carré is an ordained interfaith chaplain and end-of-life educator. Through her private practice, Wellspring Passages, Carré serves those living––with advanced illness, the dying, and their families––throughout the Hudson Valley in person and across the nation via video conference. She provides spiritual care and healing arts expertise as a patient advocate, death midwife, home funeral guide, celebrant, and ritualist. She offers experiential “Wisdom Arts for Dying” presentations and workshops that educate and inspire death preparedness. She has been active in the community with Circle of Friends for the Dying (501c3), CFD Death Cafés, and Nightingale Medical. She is Coordinator of Hospice Volunteers for The Community Hospice of Columbia/Greene.