On All Souls Day, I attended a Mass celebrated by my bishop in a local cemetery. As always, this was a powerful reminder of the intimate connection we have with the dead. As we were processing through the cemetery singing the Litany of the Saints, this encounter with the reality of death was beautiful and uplifting. However, at this moment, I recalled how there was a time in my life when just the thought of death aroused only anxiety and terror. But, fortunately, my unhealthy fear of death was overcome through conversion, catechesis and a deeper relationship with Christ.
My Unhealthy Fear
I do not recall any specific trigger but I can remember being intensely afraid of death beginning sometime in middle school. I would have to distract myself from my own imagination – not because I invented horrific scenarios but because even a simple thought of my own death or the death of a loved one caused such inner turmoil and anxiety. My solution for these fears was avoidance of the subject and suppression of my worries; this continued until I was in my thirties.
I never spoke to anyone about this topic because I assumed it was natural to be afraid. And growing up, I rarely had to confront my fears as very few people close to me died. I remember being unsettled by “creepy” cemeteries and having great angst of “getting old” because these were terrifying reminders of my mortality. I learned how to detach myself from images of death such as seeing a crucifix or watching people die in a movie. And while I always had a desire for heaven, as sad as this is, I rarely contemplated death or the afterlife because the “joys of heaven” did not bring much peace because the act of dying remained far too unsettling. I realize now this was an unhealthy fear of death but what I have discovered in retrospect is that this was merely a symptom. The root issue was that I had a very superficial understanding of the faith and, unfortunately, this ignorance also prevented me from knowing – and experiencing – the hope we have been given by Christ who has transformed death.
Conversion Brings Understanding and Hope
It was only recently that my unhealthy fear of death was overcome. I did not notice the change instantly but, after having experienced a deep conversion in the faith ten years ago, I gradually became aware of my enriched understanding of death. Having a Christocentric view of life, I no longer saw death as a source of trepidation but of hope.
The Church teaches that it was never God’s intention for humanity to experience death as we now know it; rather, it is one of the tragic consequences of sin and disobedience (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1008, 1018). But after the Fall, God did not abandon us. In love, Christ became incarnate and offered himself as a sacrifice on the cross for our sins and, by dying and rising, he transformed death (CCC 1009).
If we unite ourselves to Christ, we will still experience physical death but we can then contemplate the end of this earthly life with an eager anticipation for the glory we will receive in heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that in death, for all the faithful departed, life is not ended but changed (CCC 1012), and God has revealed that the joys of heaven are inconceivably more marvelous than anything we could fathom (1 Corinthians 2:9)! The Church tells us that rather than be a source of terror, the reality of death should be an urgent reminder that this life has eternal consequences (CCC 1007). Christ has merited for all of us the possibility of everlasting life and offers us sufficient grace to enter our heavenly home (CCC 1019) but God will not coerce us. Jesus warns us repeatedly in the Gospels that eternal misery awaits all those who freely choose to remain separated from God. It is during our brief time on earth that God offers us his grace and mercy, and we must open our hearts to him now (CCC 1013). And though pondering these truths about death may enkindle fear, it should not be of death. Rather it should be a fear of sin and the loss of God for all eternity.
Christ Brings A Positive Meaning to Death
St. Paul writes that because of Christ’s death and resurrection, Christians can joyfully proclaim, “Death where is your victory? O death where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). This is because if we are united to Christ, death is no longer an enemy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). “The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Timothy 2:11). Death is this: through Baptism, the Christian has already “died with Christ” sacramentally, in order to live a new life; and if we die in Christ’s grace, physical death completes this “dying with Christ” and so completes our incorporation into him in his redeeming act…
In death, God calls man to himself. Therefore, the Christian can experience a desire for death like St. Paul’s: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). He can transform his own death into an act of obedience and love towards the Father, after the example of Christ… (CCC 1010-1011)
Reflecting on Death
It is not a sign of unfaithfulness if you have some fears of death. I recall reading St. Therese of Lisieux had moments where she feared it. Death is a mystery and often we become anxious about the unknown. But as Christians, we should see death in a new light. It should not be something morbid or depressing. We must avoid having an unhealthy fear that preoccupies us so much that we neglect our vocations to be holy and authentic witnesses of the faith. We also cannot allow fear to cause us to avoid contemplating death and the next life altogether because then we risk losing sight of our goal – heaven!
The Church calls us to reflect on the reality of death because she wants us to always be prepared since we never know when our life on earth will end. Thomas Kempis in The Imitation of Christ speaks of this powerfully:
Therefore, in every deed and every thought, act as though you were to die this very day. If you had a good conscience you would not fear death very much. It is better to avoid sin than to fear death. If you are not prepared today, how will you be prepared tomorrow? Tomorrow is an uncertain day; how do you know you will have a tomorrow?…
Blessed is he who keeps the moment of death ever before his eyes and prepares for it every day…Be always ready, therefore, and so live that death will never take you unprepared. Many die suddenly and unexpectedly, for in the unexpected hour the Son of God will come. When that last moment arrives you will begin to have a quite different opinion of the life that is now entirely past and you will regret very much that you were so careless and remiss.
How happy and prudent is he who tries now in life to be what he wants to be found in death. Perfect contempt of the world, a lively desire to advance in virtue, a love for discipline, the works of penance, readiness to obey, self-denial, and the endurance of every hardship for the love of Christ, these will give a man great expectations of a happy death…
See, then, dearly beloved, the great danger from which you can free yourself and the great fear from which you can be saved, if only you will always be wary and mindful of death. Try to love now in such a manner that at the moment of death you may be glad rather than fearful. Learn to die to the world now, that then you may begin to live with Christ… (Book 1, chapter 23)
It is important to recognize what I have discovered in my own life: having an unhealthy fear of death is dangerous. For me, my fears were related to the fact I was lukewarm in the faith, and, by succumbing to them, I did not contemplate death or my heavenly goal. I focused on the present failing to prepare for the inevitable future – death and the moment I would find myself standing before the judgment seat of Christ. Thanks be to God things have changed for me as I have discovered Christ and the abounding hope he brings. I remain aware I may not be given another day on this earth, so in every moment, by God’s grace, I strive for holiness. And rather than fear death, I now eagerly await the joys of heaven. I try to always be prepared so that when that day does come, I can say along with St. Therese of Lisieux: “I am not dying; I am entering life” (CCC 1011).