When the Fog Lifts

Patty knew she was dying. When she and Fred met us in Palm Springs, Patty talked openly and with good humor about living with cancer, facing death, losing hair, and the weirdness of well-meaning friends.

         I can still hear her North Carolina drawl and laughter as she told us, “Look, I love our church friends, but they have worn us out, praying for me. So, most evenings we kill the lights in the front part of the house so they won’t drop in to pray some more.”

         Have you noticed that people caught in the grip of death often radiate a deeper serenity and confidence? It seems the further they walk across that bridge, the more their eyes adjust to the new light. Then they relax, breathe deeper, and settle into a profound measure of trust.  

         My father-in-law was certainly not a religious man. But when he suffered a massive stroke, he suddenly became confident and peaceful about death. He asked me to pray that he could go on. His new vantage point banished all fear.

Through the Fog

Some eyewitnesses of the great London smog in December 1952 said it was so dense they could not see their own shoes. So, think of death as a heavy fog or smog bank settling over a town. The sheer thickness of that gray floating mountain frightens many in its path; they don’t know what it brings.

         But those already swallowed by the fog know a secret—it’s harmless. And, although they may not see more than three feet in its darkness, they know they can walk all the way through it, three feet at a time. Death is probably like any other journey; you don’t complete it at once. Rather, just one step at a time.

         Our fearful imagination presents death as an overwhelming terrorist. But, that may be a simple fear of the unknown or of losing control. My own studies and meditation have convinced me that death arrives with the kind and gentle graces of an old friend.

         I think that’s true, even if death comes through great trauma. In his landmark book, How We Die, Dr. Sherwin Nuland described the violent murder of 9-year-old Katie Mason by an insane man. Her mother, who held Katie as she died from multiple knife wounds, spoke of the sweet release, warmth, and peace that flowed through daughter and mother as death carried Katie away.

         Dr. Nuland explained that the body’s endorphins “alter normal sensory awareness.” In fact, according to Nuland, “Endorphin elevation appears to be an innate physiological mechanism to protect mammals and perhaps other animals against the emotional and physical dangers of terror and pain.”[1]

         Could that “mechanism” be a gift from our Creator? That may be why those who are dying often seem to have more peace and poise than those who gather around them. I suspect the dying find themselves enclosed in a protective bubble, completely safe and peaceful as they pass through the fog of death. That certainly reflects what Katie Mason’s mom wrote.

Beyond Fear

The fear of death is worse than death. That fear, like fog, causes people to injure themselves. So much of human misery is self-inflicted. The worst traffic accidents in history—up to 300 vehicles—were caused by fog. Everyone could have remained safe had they just stopped and waited for it to clear.

         When I once mentioned a friend’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Pastor Glen Roachelle gently reminded me, “He doesn’t have dementia; his body does.” Those seven words threw a floodlight on the great lie behind the fear of death. We assume death means THE END of everything. But, that’s a little like thinking the moment we cross a national border, say from the US to Canada, we cease to exist.

         When the renowned professor and author Dallas Willard learned he faced imminent death from prostate cancer, he said, “I think that when I die, it might be some time before I know it.”[2] What a brilliant observation. The border we cross from this life to the next will probably hold no drama, no pain, no regret, and no shocking changes. Just the next step in a long and continually unfurling life.

         And we will probably look back in total amazement, wondering, “Why was I ever afraid of death?” Seeing so very clearly, perhaps we will, for the first time, understand 1 Corinthians 15:55:

         “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”


[1] Sherwin Nuland, How We Die (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)

[2] John Ortberg, Dallas Willard, a Man from Another Time Zone, Christianity Today, May 8, 2013  https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/may-web-only/man-from-another-time-zone.html