I have been asking myself this question after having lost several relatives in the past year. My paternal grandmother died last January at the age of 91; my maternal grandfather, 89, just died the Friday after Easter; two uncles died in the last month and a half; a young man of 19, a graduate of the school where I teach, also passed away this month. All this loss has gotten me thinking about death more and more. As a person of faith, I have understood fear to be debilitating; it keeps us from experiencing life and it prohibits us from moving forward. Blessed John Paul II said, “Have no fear of moving into the unknown. Simply step out fearlessly knowing that God is with you, therefore no harm can befall you; all is very, very well. Do this in complete faith and confidence.” So, if fear keeps us from living, it most certainly keeps us from dying—ironic, is it not?
Why is it that we are afraid to die and afraid for others in our lives to die? Fear of the unknown is a natural human condition, but as people of faith, we need to move beyond that fear and place our confidence in Christ. When my grandfather passed, I found myself saying over and over again: If I claim to believe what I believe, if I honestly hold credence in an existence after this one, I must deep down in my heart be okay with earthly death. Are we so uncertain of the state of our own souls that this proposition is so frightening? I am not sure how much I trust that at any moment in my life I am ready for death, not death as an end, but death as a beginning. The existential reality of the demise of all humans is what makes us uncomfortable. I will deserve whatever comes after this life and that is frightening.
When others die, we comfort ourselves and others by saying the deceased is in a better place. The fear, however, comes from that uncertainty within us. We question whether or not we really are worthy to gain Heaven. It would be so much easier to accept this as a given if we are believers, but the reality is we are not too sure. It cannot be that easy to gain Heaven and it should not be, if Heaven really is what we perceive it to be with our small minds. Maybe the reason we live as long as we do is because we have a lot of work to do. We must work for Heaven and strive to become people who deserve Heaven. We do this by following Christ, working and suffering just as He did. I often wonder why the most saintly living people I know, my mother and grandmother, suffer so much. I figure it is because they are the closest to Christ and Christ indeed did suffer.
So how does suffering figure into fear? What it comes down to is that we fear suffering. We fear life because of the uncertainty of failure or loss and, therefore, the suffering that comes with that failure or loss. We fear death because of the uncertainty of the suffering that may ensue, either in Purgatory or hell. The point of Blessed John Paul II’s statement is that Christ empowers us and if we really believe that He is the “way, truth, and the life,” we cannot fear these things because it is only through Him that we can survive suffering on earth and deserve the avoidance of suffering in the hereafter.