When I was 5 years old, I was present in the home of a family friend when he died from lung cancer. My mother and I used to stop at his house after school to check in on the family and offer help while he was on hospice. I’d watch a movie and my mom would cook, clean, or help in any way she could.
I’m sure this wasn’t my mom’s intention, but I happened to be there when he died. The experience changed me. I remember my mom ushering me outside to wait for her on the porch while our friend, the new widow, wailed in a way I haven’t heard since.
Shortly after this experience (although I didn’t make the connection until I was an adult), I began to be afraid. I was afraid of anything that might be dangerous or kill me. I was afraid to look at ads for cigarettes (this was the ’90s) because “cigarettes can kill,” and staring too long at the billboard across the street from the Wendy’s we frequented after church might cause this killing power of cigarettes to spread to me.
I was afraid to do the dangerous activities my siblings loved—like water skiing, riding scooters, or jumping off swings. Mostly I was afraid at night. I’d lie awake in my bed, afraid to close my eyes because then I’d feel the darkness close in on me.
I wasn’t afraid of the cold but of being desperately alone. No one would hear me. No one would come to help me.
I thought death meant being stuck in the dark, like being inside a vacuum. I wasn’t afraid of the cold but of being desperately alone. No one would hear me. No one would come to help me. And I’d be lying there forever.
As I grew, this fear of death and loneliness was replaced by a general anxiety mixed with the knowledge that my deep fear of dying revealed a lack of faith and trust in God.
Don’t Think About It
I recently read Anna Karenina, and there was my fear mirrored in the protagonist, Levin:
Death, the inevitable end of all, presented itself to him with irresistible force. . . . It was in himself too, he felt that. If not today, tomorrow, if not tomorrow, in thirty years, wasn’t it all the same! And what was this inevitable death—he did not know, had never thought about it, and what was more, had not the power, had not the courage to think about it.
Things didn’t get better. When I was 26 years old, I was a recent graduate from medical school and a second-year resident in pediatrics. I worked as the only resident in a small community hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). A previously healthy 2-week-old baby came into the emergency department and arrested in the waiting room. By the time the emergency room team had gotten her heart beating again and transferred her to the PICU, she was intubated and on numerous IV medications to maintain her tiny blood pressure. She had sepsis from a rare bacteria called Group B strep. She breathed for another few days before we withdrew care.
The parents stayed with her body for several hours after her heart stopped. In my naivete, I promised her mother I’d stay with her body until the coroner came. After her parents finally left, I was told there was no coroner coming and that someone else would come to take her tiny body to the morgue. In an effort to keep my promise to her mother, I volunteered to take her myself.
The nurses wrapped her up like a mummy in a blanket, and I carried her to the morgue (she was too small to wheel on a bed). I walked down the hall, with the nurse who had come to get the body, to an unmarked door I’d passed numerous times before. Inside the cold room, there were several covered bodies on steel tables. I was instructed to place her tiny body on a steel shelf on the wall—she was too small for a bed.
I remember asking the nurse if there was anything else we could do. That was it. Then I walked away. I tried to cry but nothing came. I tried to pray but felt completely numb. I couldn’t comprehend death and had learned to avoid thinking about it. I had to fight the urge to feel sorry for myself, to be bitter I was the one who had to work this 24-hour shift instead of one of my peers.
Again, Tolstoy had the words for me:
[Levin] could not even think of the problem of death itself, but with no will of his own, thoughts kept coming to him of what he had to do next; close the dead mans eyes, dressing him, ordering the coffin. And, strange to say, he felt utterly cold, and was not conscious of sorrow nor of loss, less still of pity for his brother. If he had any feeling for his brother at that moment, it was envy for the knowledge the dying man had now that he did not have.
My Dying Father
When I was 33 years old, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The life expectancy for someone with his type of cancer is less than 11 months after diagnosis, and he was no exception.
My father was a man of great and genuine faith. Through his illness, he continued to pray for and believe in healing. His faith never failed him, even when the healing didn’t come in the way he hoped. About two months into his treatment, before his mind became foggy, we were sitting on his back porch. He told me he was sad about having cancer but not afraid.
I responded that, in a strange way, I also felt less afraid of death knowing he was going before me. He then said the most profound and humble thing: he wished it didn’t have to be this way, but he could see how his diagnosis was the answer to many prayers he’d prayed for years. He had prayed his children would develop deep and real faith, and he was seeing evidence of that in conversations with me and my brother.
In the last fully lucid conversation we had a few months later, he asked me if I knew Proverbs 3:5–6 (NKJV), some of his favorite verses:
Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.
He reminded me to live by this verse and trust in the goodness of the Lord.
He wished it didn’t have to be this way, but he could see how his diagnosis was the answer to many prayers he’d prayed for years.
“Faith—or no faith—I don’t know what it is—but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken a firm root in my soul,” Levin wrote.
I’m now 37 and coming up on the third anniversary of my father’s death. When I think of him, I remember the thoughtful and joyful man he was in his life instead of the thin and physically weak man he was in his death.
For the first time, I can say with honesty and peace in my heart that I’m not afraid to die. I know I have two fathers in heaven. I know my heavenly Father answers prayers in his own way and time. Death touches us all—but there’s peace and life beyond its grasp.
Because Christ has gone before us into death, Paul was able to quote the prophet Hosea in 1 Corinthians 15:54–55: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Despite the inescapability of death, the good news of the gospel means we can feel as Levin did: “‘Can this be faith?’ He thought, afraid to believe in his happiness. ‘My God, I thank Thee!’”
The Gospel Coalition