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How To Overcome the Fear of Death.

This excerpt is taken from an exceptional and timely book authored by Physician and Orthodox Christian Dr. Daniel B. Hinshaw "Suffering and the Nature of Healing". It explores the relationship of modern health care practice to traditional Christianity and the Church's understanding of health, disease, and healing in order to give a better sense of how traditional (Orthodox) Christianity can more effectively interface with secular health care.

Dr. Daniel B. Hinshaw

"Ah, how afraid I am of death, and how sinful that is!" F. Dostoyevsky "The Adolescent" This unholy fear of death has many adverse consequences. For the patient with a terminal illness to know the diagnosis is critical. Although the diagnosis may be devastating (e.g. metastatic cancer), not knowing it robs patients of the ability to confront directly the evil facing them and to respond to this last opportunity for repentance. It may ultimately add to their suffering particularly as unresolved spiritual distress accumulates and is not addressed. The early church fathers of the Church made no real distinction between the importance of recognizing physical and spiritual illness, in their ultimate healing. Thus, the same is true for spiritual evil (sin) - half the battle is being able to clearly see and acknowledge our sin before we can be healed of it.

The sick one who is familiar with his illness is easily cured, and the one who acknowledges his pain is close to healing. St. Isaac the Syrian

But unfortunately there is the great temptation to lie to patients and loved ones about bad news so as not to rob them of hope. "Even in our most decent society, you meet with the wish to lie with the purpose of making your neighbor happy, for we all suffer from this unrestraint of the heart." F. Dostoyevsky The Adolescent This unrestraint of the heart effectively robs dying patients of the true source of their hope, their death. To know the truth of one's condition can be the only true foundation for healing. "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." John 8:32

How can the Christian overcome the fear of death? Or better yet, how can all of us overcome it? The faith that is central to the hope of Christians is the recognition of Christ's conquest of death and that His resurrection is the first fruits, the guarantee, of the universal resurrection of all human beings at the end of time. "In order to be able to face death one must be anchored in the certainty, an experiential and not only theoretical certainty, of eternal life...

- there is in this possession of eternal life a certainty that reduces to nothing the fear of death - not the pain of separation, not the regret that death exists, but the fear." Metropolitan Anthony, Death and Bereavement

There is another aspect to becoming acquainted with one's death. Just as suffering is experienced by persons in community, so also death, the full ripening and culmination of suffering in a person's life, can be and opportunity for learning for those who witness the process as they accompany the dying person on the journey. Each death we experience in this life is a preparation, a dress rehearsal for our own death. Grief can educate. The key is the lens through which we observe and reflect upon our experience of grief. Witnessing the deaths of loved ones whose hope and trust have been placed in the Crucified One is our apprenticeship in dying. Metropolitan Anthony has some very comforting words for bereaved Christians:

If we can truly, sincerely say that the person who has departed this life was a treasure to us, then where our treasure is there our heart should be, and we should, together with this person who has entered into eternity, live as completely, as deeply as possible in eternity... as more and more beloved ones leave this earthly pilgrimage and enter into the stability and peace of life-eternal, we should feel that we belong more and more to that world, ever more completely, ever more perfectly, that its values increasingly become ours.

+ Glory to God for All Things +

Dr. Daniel B. Hinshaw, Professor Emeritus - Surgery - University of Michigan Health
Visiting Professor of Palliative Care St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, Crestwood NY


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