Facing death, we often slip into denial.
Sometimes such denial is tragic. I remember a friend who had terminal lung disease. Over time the disease left him constantly out of breath. He was confined to his home, then to his living room chair, and finally to bed. No doctor offered any hope for healing.
Remarkably, my friend refused to face his impending death. When I tried to talk about it, he claimed that he wasn’t worried because he was waiting for a miracle. When I brought up some issues related to his will, he said, “later." When I said he needed to check into a hospice, he claimed my lack of faith was going to be the death of him. A few friends dropped by to pray for his healing and anoint him.
And then, one day, he died.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that my friend was an idiot. Death is the last enemy, says the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 13:26). It is an especially difficult one to face in your forties. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross told us long ago that in such circumstances denial is a natural emotional response.
Still, right to the end, my friend remained in denial about his impending death. And that was sad on a number of levels. His affairs were not in order. He didn’t say goodbye to all his friends and family. He wouldn’t go out in public because he didn’t want to be embarrassed by the paraphernalia of dying he had to drag along. For months, he isolated himself from the world.
My friend was an extreme case. The truth, however, is that most of us also deny death, often in mundane and thoughtless ways. Euphemisms such as “passing” and “no longer with us,” are used to get around mentioning death. Many of us stubbornly refuse to make wills, take out life insurance, prepare Advance Health Care Directives, or name someone to have power of attorney. We don’t have conversations with loved ones about end-of-life health care or financial issues. We don’t take children to funerals for fear of upsetting them. And, denial of death sometimes means putting more emphasis on praying for a miracle than on praying for courage or comfort.
I’ve also noticed that people have begun speaking of funerals as “celebrations of life.” Family members will sometimes say that, “You know, Joe wouldn’t want us to be sad. He wants us to be happy.”
Of course, when an elderly person who has suffered finally dies, it is natural that we are relieved that the suffering is over. At the same time, even the death of elderly people robs us of their company, their wisdom, and often, their love. To celebrate a life-well-lived at a funeral is fine; but this celebration should not come at the cost of giving ample opportunity for those who mourn to weep.
Of course, denial shields us from the inevitable. Denial means never having to think about the pain or circumstances that might accompany our own end. But denial does so in the manner of a narcotic that sends us on a trip to Never Never Land.
Denial also robs us of our ability to finish well, to care properly for our loved ones, and to deal with our own hopes and fears. Denial robs us, in other words, of the ability to fully live the time we have left by leaving a good part of that time in shadows we are too afraid to explore.
Finally, denial even robs us of solace, of what Canadian composer Bruce Cockburn, in his song, “Wondering Where the Lions Are” describes as, “thinking about eternity.” A time, hopes Cockburn, when perhaps even “some kind of ecstasy” will get ahold of us.
(Do you have an example of denying death? What do you think? Leave a response!)