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

11 thoughts on “When the Fog Lifts”

  1. Dallas Willards quote: “I think that when I die, it might be some time before I know it.” reminds me of Paul’s words in Philippians 1:21-24 : “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain. if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in this body.”

    Paul’s use of the words “in the body” and “in this body” in these verses are reflected in what Glen Roachelle told you: “He doesn’t have dementia; his body does.” As you are aware, I have a benign brain tumor which provides me a constant friend of a 24/7, 365 days a year headache which resides at the 7th to 8th position in the 1-10 point scale for communicating pain. Your words: “death arrives with the kind and gentle graces of an old friend”, reminded me of my own “friend”, Paul’s friend as he considered death in the Philippians passage, and our own death awaiting just beyond the reach of our fingertips “three feet away”.

    1. Chris, this is a brilliant and helpful view. Yes, I knew about your tumor, but your view of it as a “constant friend” really nails what I’m trying to say. Thank you so much for this.

  2. That’s beautiful. Mother always advised me to “Not to cross bridges till I have to—worry and fear are useless feelings”.

  3. “Three feet” … I can commit to walking 3 feet. After that, probably another 3 feet. I find myself looking more expectantly to the dense fog ahead with no fear because my Soul Companion walks beside me.

    Thanks, Ed, for reminding us that the grave holds no drama, pain, or sting for us.

  4. Thank you, Ed, for your thoughts and contemplation on the topic. I’m still thinking about Glen’s comment about dementia since we are engaged with my mom’s own full-fledged dementia. Yes, it is her body, but it seems to me that the affliction transcends the confused brain functions with an intentional assault on the mind…on the soul, as well. I have found it to be a brutal disease in which I struggle to see through its thickness. The fog of my mom’s fear of death and HER fear to go to bed at night “alone” is beyond my own understanding because this fear seems relatively new to her with this onset disability. Perhaps you are correct that fear is a terrorist, but I have found no words of solace, scripture or prayer that secures her from that terror beyond a brief moment. While I can process the concept that death has lost it’s sting, even on her behalf as she is a life-long follower of Jesus; but, she can no longer rationalize that truth for herself. The anxiety is unreasonable – yet very real to her. Maybe you are right that death “arrives with the kind and gentle graces of an old friend” but his front-man is no John the Baptist. It may be possible that I, someday, will see the same floodlight that so dramatically enlightened your walk. I hope so.

    1. Thanks, Mike. Your comments remind me we cannot dive into this subject easily. Yes, our view of death on our side of the tapestry tends to be disturbing. And, that is part of the reality of it. Jesus took the death of His friends (John the Baptist, Lazareth) seriously and personally. We should too, and that will always take us deeper.

  5. We often hear of the “bright light seen as one enters into death.” I have come to understand the light to be our own soul illuminated at the threshold of heaven. Since high school when I did a paper on heaven, I am always drawn to 1 Corinthians 2:9 “Eye has not seen, ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love him.” Just imagine. How can we fear death. The expectation of love and beauty is truly unimaginable. There are no words in our limited language. I expect my soul will continue on perhaps even to another constellation or planet. I feel the fear we have as we anticipate death, is not a fear of death itself, but a fear of how we will die. As I age, I try to look forward to being with my loved ones, those I knew and those I never knew in this lifetime, for example my four grandparents.
    Thank you, Ed for prompting reflection on this venture through the fog.

    1. Mary Ann, I so appreciate your comments. You have lived into that reality more than most. You’ve earned the right to speak into that subject.

      I suspect you may be right about the nature of our fear, it being more about how we will die rather than a fear of death itself. As Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I think that actually qualifies as a theological statement. 🙂

  6. Thanks, Mike. Your reply really takes this whole idea deeper. Thank you for the reminder that we/I cannot be superficial in our examination of death. Jesus certainly took the death of friends (like John the Baptist and Lazareth) seriously and deeply. Yes, on our side of the tapestry, death can appear as a terrorist, as invincible. We have to press deeper.

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