The Fear of Dying

The Fear of Dying: In the Breath Between the Words

An Exploration of Death and the Afterlife

“You are asking yourself, as all of us must: ‘Who am I?’ … ‘Where am I?’ … ‘Whence do I go?’  The process of enlightenment is usually slow. But, in the end, our seeking always brings a finding.  These great mysteries are, after all, enshrined in complete simplicity.” Bill W.

The fear of death remains vivid and ever-present within me. There is no use in denying its existence, as thoughts of mortality frequently infiltrate my mind nowadays. It creeps in deceptively, assuming different forms—manifesting as worry and anxiety, weighing me down with a sense of heaviness, or even disguising itself as aimlessly browsing through news and social media. It persists continuously, a constant presence in my life.

Throughout history, countless words have been poured and mixed in an endeavor to comprehend or alleviate the fear of death. I recognize that additional words are often necessary to provide context for this profound and unknowable realm. Yet, for me, the most profound understanding lies in the pauses between the words, the empty spaces they create. If you gather all those intervals, they merge into a vast silence—an encompassing stillness that traverses great distances, echoing across faded mountain landscapes.

In 1982, I had the opportunity to visit Varanasi, often referred to as the city of dying. According to Hindu tradition, it holds significance as the ideal place to transition from one phase of existence to another. In the continuous cycle of reincarnation, one achieves spiritual liberation when the body is cremated and its ashes scattered into Varanasi’s sacred Ganges river. I was young, strong, curious, and wounded during that time, yet far from being spiritually awakened.

As we wandered through the narrow, bustling streets, particularly those near the riverbank, we encountered numerous individuals in dire conditions—sick, emaciated, afflicted by cancer, leprosy, or simply old and awaiting the end of their days. Many wore loincloths, carrying only a begging bowl and nothing else. Surprisingly, there was no fear in their eyes, no sign of despair. What I witnessed was a serene acceptance—their unwavering faith imbued them with extraordinary strength.

In contrast, I felt an overwhelming discomfort, finding it challenging to maintain direct eye contact with these individuals. A sense of horror gripped me. During those nomadic days of travel, I captured very few photographs, as each exposure on the film was precious and costly, and my thrifty nature prevailed. The limited pictures I took distinctly convey a profound presence of darkness and shadows, which now appear fittingly evocative.

I have a vivid recollection of a conversation, although I cannot recall the exact words exchanged. It was the essence of that encounter that left a lasting impression on me. We sat upon the steps by the river, observing the profound ritual of cremation and the nearby bathing of individuals. The Indian gentleman with whom we conversed displayed remarkable kindness and patience.

What struck me most were my feelings of puzzlement and awe in the aftermath of our discussion. He expressed that Indians possessed something far more fulfilling than the materialistic pursuits prevalent in the Western world. According to him, a profound understanding, a knowing, eluded our comprehension as wanderers from the West. It left me contemplating the depth and richness of their perspective, and I couldn’t help but recognize the stark contrast between their values and our own.

Approximately 15 years ago, my ex-wife’s best friend was grappling with a devastating form of cancer, one that offered little hope for recovery. She resided in a hospital in Israel, and each day, she would call my ex-wife, engaging in hours-long conversations. By chance, I found myself picking up the phone on one occasion, and I distinctly remember how the fear of mortality gripped me, preventing me from being fully present at that moment. I stumbled upon my words, uttering phrases that were entirely inadequate. Among them, the worst was, “Oh, you’re going to get better.”

Regret lingers within me to this very day, but the experience also served as a valuable lesson. Looking back, I realize what I should have expressed instead: “Thank you, thank you for your friendship—I cherish it deeply. Thank you for all the joyous moments we’ve shared, and thank you for the laughter that has enriched our lives.” I believe she would have appreciated those sentiments, and I know it would have left me with fewer regrets and self-criticism.

Reflecting on my experience in Varanasi after all these years, I no longer possess the audacity to claim that I know or hold all the answers. In fact, as time goes by, I find that my knowledge diminishes. However, I do grasp the essence of the Hindu belief, where energy perpetually transforms. As for myself, I find solace in dwelling within the realm of questions rather than seeking definitive answers.

I resonate more with Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who mused, “You are asking yourself, as all of us must: “You are asking yourself, as all of us must: ‘Who am I?’ … ‘Where am I?’ … ‘Whence do I go?’  The process of enlightenment is usually slow. But, in the end, our seeking always brings a finding. These great mysteries are, after all, enshrined in complete simplicity.”

April 2020