How to Deal With the Fear of Dying

How to Deal With the Fear of Dying
Living each day to its fullest, as if it were the last, ensures no regrets. (Fei Meng)
Jeff Minick

“If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?”

That challenge from Stephen Levine, author of such books as “Who Dies?” and “One Year to Live,” brings many readers to a dead stop (pun intended). A few might crack a joke—“I would call a priest”—as people often use humor to deflect their fear of death.

Others might find Levine’s inquiry irritating. They avoid thoughts of death, especially their own. Like Scarlett O’Hara, they tell themselves, “I’ll think about that tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.” The trouble is that, eventually, we run out of tomorrows. “Soon one mornin’,” the old song goes, “death come creepin’ in the room,” and all the padlocks in the world won’t prevent that thief’s entrance.

But if we take Levine’s questions seriously, I suspect that most of us would call a parent, a child, or a friend to tell them one last time that we love them. Others might phone someone from whom they were estranged, such as a son who had years before severed all connections or a friend they had deeply wounded. Getting our final affairs in order means more than making out a will.

“And why are you waiting?” is a reasonable question, given that death can arrive as unexpectedly as a bolt of lightning. However unpleasant the prospect, maybe we should pick up the phone and try mending fences with our long-lost daughter rather than waiting for an oncologist to say, “I’ve got some bad news.”

But if we dive below the surface of Levine’s questions, we find ourselves faced with a more complex conundrum: Knowing that someday we'll die, how should we live?

Most of us have probably heard the expression, “Live each day as if it were your last.” That one doesn’t really work for me or, perhaps, for a lot of people. I understand its meaning—to do good and fulfill our nature—but to make these our sole focus would surely become burdensome—and perhaps more dismal—than death itself. If he knew that tomorrow he must die, the accountant who spends his Sunday afternoons watching football would probably turn off the television, but those hours on the sofa, which some might consider a waste of time, is a mini-vacation for him, rest and relief from the past week’s stress.

But a compromise is available. What if we lived some moments of each day as if they were our last? What if we put aside, even for a few seconds, that swarm of petty details and obligations always buzzing in our skulls, and instead absorbed, really absorbed, what we love and what we’re grateful for? These could be anything—the attentive frown on our daughter’s face as she colors a bouquet of flowers for a kindergarten classmate, the woman we love singing along with the radio as she prepares supper, or the way a November evening wraps itself like a shawl over the backyard.

Yeah, I know, I sound like some sentimental goofball. A “stop-and-smell-the-flowers” kind of guy. All right, then. Guilty as charged. But these are the moments, these tiny slices of time and perception, that add depth to our hearts and souls. They remind us of who we are and why we do what we do in the first place.

“Depend on it, sir,” Samuel Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” True, but we shouldn’t require noose and gallows or fretful anxieties to keep us on track. We can instead simply live, bolstered by those daily snapshots of our treasures.

Do that and maybe the last call we make will be an ode to joy rather than a dirge.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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