Fear of Dying in Pain

Pauline is a 55-year-old, two-time cancer survivor who is terribly afraid of possible future suffering and a premature death. She also feels guilty about her fear because she believes that as a Christian she shouldn’t be afraid, and she should be able to completely trust in God. Pauline is wondering if I have any suggestions or comments.

Our strongest and most common fear is the fear of death. But if you suspect your life may be cut short by illness and end in pain, your fear will be that much more intense. On top of that, if you also feel guilty about being afraid, you will only increase your suffering. What should you do if you find yourself in such a position?

One of the mistakes we make is to believe that the way we feel today is the way we will feel in the future. But as an adult, you have already learned that many of your childhood fears were unjustified. You were afraid of things because of a wild imagination, lack of experience, and not enough knowledge. You no longer have the fears you had as a child. And in the future, you will no longer have the fears you have today because we are always growing, always gaining experience, and always learning new things.

Here are some interesting facts to consider. Research has shown that the older we get, the LESS we fear death and that the average person dies with little or no pain. For example, the famous British preacher who ministered to many at their moment of death, Leslie D. Weatherhead (1893~1976), had this to say, “Let me tell you as one who has witnessed many deaths, that in my experience I have never seen one that was unhappy.” Similarly, in his deathbed Dr. William Hunter (1718~1783) said, “If I had the strength to hold a pen, I would write down how easy and pleasant it is to die.”

Today, more and more research is being done on near death experiences (NDE’s), that is, the experiences of those who have died, but were resuscitated. Interestingly, those who were revived never speak of pain or suffering. Quite the contrary, they speak about wonderful feelings of tranquility.

Our fears can be broken down into two groups, rational and irrational. Or in more practical terms, we can call them helpful or harmful. For instance, being afraid to leave one’s house in a vicious hurricane is rational. Such a fear protects you from harm. But being unable to leave your house because you are unbearably afraid of open spaces (agoraphobia) is harmful. Such a fear is debilitating and prevents one from operating in society.

Now, let’s look at the irony of Pauline’s situation. She is not afraid of death as much as she is afraid of a painful death. In other words, she doesn’t want to experience pain. So, what does she do? She brings about the very thing she doesn’t want, which is pain. After all, being afraid of pain is painful. Isn’t the reason why she wrote because she is in pain?

Is her fear rational or irrational? It is both. First, it is irrational because she is afraid that cancer MAY recur, she MAY die early, and she MAY die in pain. Why is that irrational?

Because another way of saying the same thing is: she MAY live to an old age, she MAY remain free of cancer for the remainder of her life, and she MAY have a peaceful death, none of which is something to be afraid of.

But her fear is also rational and helpful. You see, Pauline had cancer twice. First breast cancer and later skin cancer. So, her fear is a helpful reminder to get yearly checkups and monitor her health. But once she gets into the habit of getting regular checkups, she needs to let go of her fear.

Worrying about death is fruitless. It is fruitless because the fear of death keeps us from living, not from dying. If we fear death, we fear life because the nature of life is to end. But if we are not afraid of death, we will not be afraid of life. Once we accept death, we become free to live. So, don’t be afraid your life will end. Rather, be afraid it will not begin.

Pauline is not afraid of death, but of dying in pain. Yet, both fears have the same consequences. They both prevent one from living. It is by facing death that we find life. Pauline also feels guilty about being afraid. After all, if she is afraid, doesn’t that mean she doesn’t trust God? No, it doesn’t. It just means that she has a human nature. Although she may trust God with her rational mind, her emotional mind (subconscious) is much more powerful. Our emotions can easily overwhelm our rational mind and take charge. But there is no need to despair. For with a little bit of work and practice, we can regain control over our lives. Here are ten steps that Pauline can take to improve her situation.


1. ELIMINATING OR REDUCING STRESS. I already wrote about the irony of the fear of pain. For in fearing pain, we create mental pain, or anguish. In a similar vein, when we worry about getting sick, we make ourselves sick. Worry or anxiety causes stress, and virtually all disease is caused by stress. If a particular disease is not directly caused by stress, most likely it is caused by a weakened immune system, which is a result of stress. So, the irony is, the more we worry about getting sick, the greater the likelihood that we will get sick!

I don’t want the above facts to frighten Pauline and make the matter worse. Rather, I want to empower her. For once we recognize the harm we do to ourselves by allowing fear to dominate us and worry to consume us, we can reverse the damage by learning how to relax. After all, relaxation is the opposite of stress. We can greatly reduce, if not completely eliminate, fear, worry, and stress by practicing relaxation techniques. Here are some things that you can do:

a) The Relaxation Response, a simple and powerful tool to help you relax. Learn how to do it here:

b) Practice diaphragmatic breathing. Learn how to at: http://www.cchs.net/health/health-info/docs/2400/2409.asp?index=9445

c) Practice meditation or mindfulness. For an excellent introduction to the subject, watch the “Mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn” video at: http://video.google.ca/videosearch?rlz=1C1CHMA_enCA316CA317&sourceid=chrome&q=mindfulness&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=p9W_Sr2jOY7i8QaR-cS9AQ&sa=X&oi=video_result_g roup&ct=title&resnum=4#

d) The value of physical exercise can not be overstressed. Three or four 30~40 minute workouts per week can go a long way in eliminating stress and improving one’s physical and mental health.

e) The beauty of nature and magnificent music sooth and fortify the human spirit, so take advantage of them. Inspirational reading also should not be neglected.

f) Also helpful are CD’s that mix binaural beats with sound tracks. Listening to one of these CD’s with a headset automatically lowers your brainwave frequency, resulting in deep relaxation. One of my favorites is Brain Sync’s “Sacred Ground,” available at: http://www.brainsync.com/product.asp?specific=159

2. Fear is the expectation of something bad and causes pain and stress. If we are troubled by frightening thoughts, we shouldn’t fight or resist them, for when we do, we remain focused on them. And we always get more of what we focus on. The secret of fighting fear (negative expectations) is to replace them with positive expectations.

Here’s how: several times a day focus on something you are looking forward to. It could be a visit with friends, a date with your spouse, an outing with the kids, a walk with the dog, eating out, or any number of other things. If you do this several times a day you will form a new habit, filling your life with joyous expectation instead of fearsome thoughts of impending doom.

To make this change you need to spend 15~20 seconds about ten times a day looking forward to future events (that’s less than 3 ½ minutes a day). Theoretically that’s very easy to do. But the trouble is, most of us become so involved in the numerous tasks we have to perform during the day that we forget to take the time to practice this or other exercises.

So, we need someone or something to remind us to do so. One solution is the MotivAider. (I use it.) You can learn about it here: http://habitchange.com/motivaider.php And to learn more about the instrument itself, you can open and save a free copy of the manual by visiting: http://habitchange.com/docn/completeguide.pdf

Albert Einstein (1879~1955) said. “Your imagination is your preview of life’s coming attractions.” That is, what we daydream about and the thoughts that run through our imagination reveal what will happen to us because knowingly or unwittingly we are programming our subconscious. You don’t have to think about fear, pain, and suffering. You can choose to think about the wonderful events you have planned. Change your thoughts and change your life.

3. Baby steps are easier than giant steps. If you find it too difficult to switch from negative thoughts to positive ones, you can work your way up in baby steps. Here’s an example:

a) I’m afraid I may suffer a painful death. b) Since I MAY suffer a painful death, that actually means I MAY NOT suffer a painful death. c) I choose to believe I may not suffer a painful death because it is consistent with the truth. d) Besides, even if I were to suffer pain, I can work through it. e) I will study stress management because reducing stress reduces fear. f) Throughout the day I will look forward to the events that I have planned, so my positive expectations will replace my negative ones (fear and anxiety).

4. The general fear of death is based on the fear of the unknown. Sometimes changing negative thoughts to positive ones is simply a matter of reframing or looking at things in a different way. For example, the unknown is nothing to fear if you see it as an invitation to adventure. Why do people cling to certainty and fear uncertainty? Isn’t uncertainty nothing more than surprise?
And doesn’t that make life a surprise party? Vladimir Nabokov (1899~1977) seems to agree, for he said, “Life is a great surprise, I do not see why death should not be a greater one.”

5. The more we appreciate what we have, the more we will enjoy life. And the more we enjoy life, the less we will think about death. And when death finally arrives, it will not be painful for we will have no regrets. Count your blessings daily and you can count on a happy life and easy death.

6. Therapeutic journaling. Keep a journal. If you are going through particularly troubling feelings, write about them. As you do so, you are transferring your negative thoughts from your mind to a sheet of paper. It can be cathartic, allowing you to purge yourself from negativity.  It also creates distance between your thoughts and yourself, making you more objective. And as you write, you may be surprised to see how your writing takes on a life of its own, revealing your deepest feelings and offering solutions to every problem. For more about the magic power of writing, be sure to read, “WRITE IT DOWN, MAKE IT HAPPEN: Knowing What You Want and Getting It” by Henriette Anne Klauser, Touchstone, 2001.

7. If you were holding a knife by the blade and it was cutting you, wouldn’t you drop it? If your negative thoughts are painful, why do you hold on to them? Why don’t you let them go? The short answer is because no one taught you how to release them. Pauline doesn’t have to hold on to her fears. She can let them go. To learn how to, she can study the Sedona Method. Here’s the book: THE SEDONA METHOD: Your Key to Lasting Happiness, Success, Peace and Emotional Well-being” by Hale Dwoskin, Consortium Book Sales, 2003.

8. Ask yourself series of empowering questions and act on them, questions such as, “Do I want my fears to dominate and consume me? Is it rational to forego the pleasures of today by brooding over something that may or may not happen in the future? Will I allow fear to stop my enjoyment of life? Isn’t giving in to fear the same as abrogating my responsibility to look after myself? Am I happy with the current situation? If not, what do I plan to do about it and when will I begin?”

9. Service to others. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884~1962) said, “When you cease to make a contribution you begin to die.” The reverse is also true. That is, when we contribute to life, we begin to live and experience the joy of making a difference. Happily, Pauline is already making a difference by working as a volunteer in her church. The problem is, in her job she hears members constantly talk about who is dying and suffering, which just feeds her fears. Well, Pauline, your life is shaped by what you choose to pay attention to. Stop paying attention to their tragic stories and focus like a laser on the good deeds they are doing and how you can be a part of it.

10.  The best way to destroy your enemy is to make him, her, or it your friend. Fear is your friend because you can transmute its power to do good. Here are five examples of what I mean.

a) Transmute your fear into compassion. Embrace your fear of death. Taste it and feel it so you will know how others feel. The awareness of death is the wellspring of compassion, for once you realize that you are dying, you realize that everyone you meet is also dying. Everyone is on their deathbed, so to speak. Knowing this, how can you be angry, unforgiving, or unloving? Put death to death by practicing acts of love.

b) Elisabeth Kubler Ross (1926~2004), renowned expert on death and dying and researcher on near death experiences, wrote, “It is those who have not really lived — who have left issues unsettled, dreams unfulfilled, hopes shattered, and have let the real things in life (loving and being loved by others, contributing in a positive way to other people’s happiness and welfare, finding out what things are really you) pass them by — who are most reluctant to die.”

In other words, many people die with regrets. Pauline, use your keen awareness of death to prevent that from happening to you. Accomplish what you wish, enjoy life to the fullest, and don’t wait until it’s too late to tell your companions, friends, and loved ones how you feel about them.

c) It is only in the face of death that we are forced to evaluate our life purpose and rethink how we can best contribute to the world and take advantage of the gift of life.

d) The greater our awareness of death, the less attachment we will have for possessions, and the more we will understand that it is our character that we will take with us to the grave. So you see, an awareness of death makes us a better person.

e) The fear of death is a golden invitation to live courageously. How else can we experience the sheer exhilaration at laughing in the face of fear and choosing to live as a hero, adventurer, and courageous explorer?

Charles C. Colton (1780~1832) wrote, “Death is the liberator of him whom freedom cannot release, the physician of him whom medicine cannot cure, and the comforter of him whom time cannot console.” To which I’ll add, …it is the final reward of him whom life has been an exciting and fulfilling adventure. When the final curtain falls, may we take our bow, give thanks, and exit cheerfully.