Fear of death is natural. It is one of the main reasons we distrust our bodies: we know they are destined to fail. We hear stories of young people dying in accidents or dropping dead from unsuspected disease; loved ones get diagnosed with cancer and waste away before our eyes; each year the face in the mirror looks a little older, and we shiver at this portend of our end.
Death stalks us all. Few of us remember when we first learned this fact, but many of us can think of times it felt suddenly real. For me, in the year after my sixth birthday, I lost a grandfather, a pet dog, and my mother. The first two losses shocked me, and the last one crushed me. From then on, I felt insecure on this planet, too aware of how life can quickly take a tragic turn. Some five decades later, after an internal hemorrhage brought my own mortality into clear focus, I reached a new level of understanding: death didn’t just claim those I love; it laid claim to me, too. Those weeks were bittersweet. Glimpses of things as simple as maple leaves filled me with awe, as in the same moment I deeply felt the world—in all its loveliness—and the looseness of my grip upon it. Ever since I’ve tried to nurture that sense of immediacy, but it’s all-too-easy to backslide and take bodily existence for granted.
Living means dying, but dying makes life possible. If we lived forever, there’d be no room for new generations. Babies would be unnecessary. So, too, would sexuality. Gone would be that great driver of passion, gone the flames that fuel so much art and literature.
Without death, we’d never find ourselves wondering: “will I ever again see this that I love?” Leaving for my second trip to the hospital during the time of internal bleeding, after hours of vomiting and pain, it seemed quite possible that I might never return to my home and my dogs. That thought filled me with grief, but when I did make it back after twelve days in the hospital, it felt much easier (in fact, essential) to feel gratitude for this modest but comfortable house and my two wagging companions gazing up at me happily.
Death is so central to the human condition that without it, we wouldn’t be human. We’d be like the gods of Mount Olympus, eternally bored and forever making mischief. Granted, we stir plenty of turmoil, but death forces us—sooner or later—to realize that each moment spent neglecting or hurting those nearby is exactly that: a moment spent out of a finite account. As death nears, we recognize time as a limited resource, and we feel motivated to use it wisely. We mature. The Greek gods never grow up because they never grow old…and never die.
Fear of dying is nothing less than fear of living. And by causing us to distrust our bodies, it alienates from our only source of life. Yes, fear of death is natural, but so is learning from it. As we pay more attention to death, we pay more attention to this stunning globe we inhabit, in all its passion, beauty, and transience. We notice the powers and gifts of life: the growing up, the growing old, and the dying.