Conquering Our Fear of Death

Conquering Our Fear of Death

One of our greatest fears is the fear of death.

Scholars from Freud to Thich Nhat Hahn actually propose that our fear of death is the root of all our fear. Whether we fear our own death or the death of people we love, this primordial fear can be a powerful force.

Just ask any person who has ever suffered a panic attack.  When your heart races crazily, you feel like you cannot for the life of you breathe, and those familiar life ending fears rage in, you become like a wild eyed animal willing to do anything to save your life on this earth.

I will not claim that death will ever be a subject that does not engender some fear or sadness on our part.

But I do know that fear of death does not have to have such great hold over us.

Thich Hnat Hnah in his book No Death, No Fear talks about how death is not so much an ending, but a transformation of life. If we can trust in the continued presence of ourselves and our loved ones in the universe, the physical loss of them in this earthly life loses some of its sting.

Similarly, the Christian faith upholds the belief that death does not have the final say. Through Christ, Love conquered death. Therefore our future is one of resurrection and a heavenly afterlife. None of us cease to be, we just pass into another and better realm.

And this other realm is not even one that is entirely separate from the one we inhabit on earth. Most of us who have lost loved ones have had those moments when we feel the veil is lifted. We may mysteriously sense our loved one’s presence with us or connect with them in a dream. At the very least, we can sense reverberations of their spirit among us and their love remaining in our hearts.

Tonight, All Hallow’s or All Saint’s Eve, is actually a night when we remember death, the constancy of souls, and the transparency of the veil.

Ancient cultures celebrated October 31 as a night when the departed souls came back to their earthly homes to visit their loved ones. Other cultures marked this day with remembrance of and praying for the dead.

Our contemporary Halloween has evolved from this a bit, but vestiges of the old traditions remain. At worst, people get a little spooked out that ghosts and gouls are out and about in the world that night.

But at its best, Halloween puts fear in its proper place.

I’ll never forget the night several years ago when during our church’s All Hallow’s Eve service (yes, we are Episcopalian so we have a service for everything), the priest asked the kids why we celebrate Halloween.

One of the boys gave an answer I’ll never forget:

We celebrate Halloween so we can laugh at fear.

This is so spot on. We can dress up in our scariest costumes and run around laughing because we know that death has no hold over us. There is a power much greater than this force that we can trust in and hold onto in our darkest days.

Because of this knowledge, we are free to laugh at fear in all its faces.

For our ultimate place in this universe now and in eternity is resting in the arms of Love.

What that looks like will change and transform over time, but it will always, always be true.

So whatever your tradition is for All Hallows Eve, may you have the grace tonight to laugh at fear. And know that today and in all your days Love is reigning over you. Winning you over death and darkness and difficulty.

And that is good news indeed.

 

 

What is anxiety?

 

I guess the best way to start off the month on anxiety is to lay out exactly what we mean by anxiety. What is it? Why does it happen? How do you know if you have it?

What is anxiety?

 

Anxiety in its basic form is an overabundance of fear. We all have some level of anxiety in this day and age because frankly, the world is a little scary. We hear about the spread of Ebola, terrorism, violence, and poverty and our collective blood pressure rises a few points.

In theory this fear response is a healthy thing. It is what kept cavemen from getting eaten by saber tooth tigers back in the day. When a threat of danger appears, our bodies respond. We get shots of adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream that speed up our hearts and tighten our muscles. The blood moves in from our outer limbs and our digestive system empties us of extra weight.  All this was an ingenious design to enable us to be able to run like the wind from the wooly mammoth or tiger or whatever else might be chasing us. And if we couldn’t outrun a threat, then our body was a least prepared to fight for our lives. (We will talk much more about fight or flight response another day).

But we don’t live in the Paleolithic era anymore and most of our threats cannot be outrun. You cannot outrun terrorism or cancer or crushing debt or difficult relationships. So our modern brains can get confused and keep producing short term fear responses to long term threats. And our minds that once moved on when we escaped the wooly mammoth (caveman fist bump) now tend to run over and over the problems in our lives until everything we see around us seems threatening.

So for those who suffer from an anxiety disorder, this overabundance of fear becomes pervasive. It creeps into our lives and wraps over us like a too tight jacket so that our movement through life is limited and slowly we begin to lose the joy and freedom we once knew in life.

Anxiety is a body event.

My husband is fond of saying that anxiety is a body event. Long term stress can affect the body is numerous and surprising ways. Just a few of the most common physical effects of anxiety are:

 

Shortness of breath

Racing heart and/or heart palpitations

Dizziness

Numbness or tingling in hands or feet

Muscle tension

Problems sleeping

Gastrointestinal distress (nausea, diarrhea, acid reflux aka GERD, irritable bowel syndrome)

I know. All very sexy, right? Oh yeah, add loss of sex drive to the list.

Over the years I have been surprised by the power of anxiety to make me downright sick. From the EKG and echo cardiogram I got during my first real panic attack, to an endoscopy ten years later to diagnose GERD, to the recent MRI on my spasmy neck, I continue to be amazed at what powerful and diverse damage anxiety can do to my body (not to mention how expensive it is to diagnose and treat all these stress related maladies).

If anyone tells you anxiety is all in your head, knock them upside their head for me, will you? For anxiety gets in your bloodstream, your muscles, your heart, your bowels, when it is bad enough, it simply seems to go everywhere.

 

For more info on the physical effects of anxiety and a nice overview on types of anxiety, click here to read Heathline’s article on anxiety.

 

But anxiety is in your head.

I wish I could say that anxiety is some condition you inherit in your DNA and that you simply take a little pill to fix it and then all is sunshine and roses.

But the honest truth is that a good amount of anxiety does start in your head.

Don’t get me wrong, I think some of us are just hard wired in a way that we are more prone to anxiety.

But I also know there are certain patterns of thinking among the anxious that keep the fear responses going and going. It is like a vicious loop. Brain thinks thought that triggers fear. Body responds. Brain notices weird reaction of body and gets even more scared. And on and on until true panic sets in.

But even if we are not anxious to the point of panic, we may have thoughts that perpetuate low grade anxiety day after day. Here are some of the most common patterns of anxious thinking:

 

What if? (What if x, y, or z bad thing happens in the future?)

All or nothing. (If I messed up one part of dinner it was all a total failure and everyone hates me because I am a terrible cook).

Critical thinking (That was so stupid of me. I look fat and ugly today, etc.).

Perfectionism (Having high, unrealistic expectations of yourself and others).

 

If some or all of these things describe you, Fear Not!  (Yeah, I really just wrote that ;-)). Seriously, there is HOPE.  

All kinds of hope. So much hope it will take the next 29 days to talk about it all.

But for now just know that you are not alone, you are not crazy, and it can get better.

For now my anxiety still comes and goes in seasons, sometimes in small waves and some bigger, but there is definitely better and for that I am so grateful. (Gratitude, we’ll come back to that as well).

And if you happen to be a person who is blessed with equanimity and not anxiety but you recognize a friend or love one in these descriptions, can you do me a favor?

Love on that scared one. For fear is not a kind or gentle companion. Therefore to have you to as a kind and gentle companion would be a precious gift.

Come back for more ways to get help tomorrow!

 

 

 

31 Days on Anxiety

 

 

 

 

Life’s Little Gifts: A tribute to Sheba

Have you ever had a gift drop into your life just when you needed it most?

Three years ago my Father-in-law, Bobby, passed away leaving a hole in our family’s life. This hole was most deeply felt by my dear mother-in-law who had married Bobby at age 18 and spent the next 59 years of her life by his side. Losing a loved one is never easy, but I cannot imagine the loneliness and just plain strangeness that she must have experienced as she learned to go on without him.

Needless to say we all worried about her quite a bit that first year. Grieving a long beloved spouse is a tricky business. We prayed for God to give her the grace to pull through and move on in this new way. As we all moved through the sadness, we looked for any way to help that we could. But as many weekends we spent together, trips we took, and phone calls we made, we realized we still could not be there to encourage her day after day.

As we prayed and groped for relief to the grieving, a little gift was dropped into our collective laps.

a lap dog if there ever was one

a lap dog if there ever was one

 

 

Being the dog lovers we are, we had batted around the idea of a dog for Grammy a time or three. We scanned the papers for pups and offered to visit shelters with her. Then one day, she surprised us with the news that she had taken a trip to a local shelter, was introduced to Sheba and found love at first sight.

At first we thought the dog was an unlikely choice. She was an eight year old Boston terrier/ Chihuahua mix that was still recovering from having her latest litter of puppies. She had one bulgey Boston terrier eye that seemed to work and one Chihuahua eye that was clouded and weepy.

But even though the dog required some TLC and healing time, it turned out she was the perfect choice. Her small frame and gentle demeanor allowed my mother-in-law to be able to care for her even with a bad back. She never ran off or got under Grammy’s feet. In fact, she spent most of her time cuddled next to Grammy wherever she was. She greeted her happily at the door, kept her company while she watched TV, took walks with her, checked e-mail with her. Wherever Grammy was, Sheba was sure to go.

If I’ve seen love anywhere, I witnessed it flowing from this dog toward her rescuer.

I think Sheba must have known she hit the jackpot when she got rescued by my mother-in-law. I don’t know all the details about the early years of her life, but I would bet good money she had never been pampered and cared for like she was these past few years. But the way that my mother-in-law rescued Sheba is only half the story.

For the beauty of Love is that is blesses both the giver and the receiver.

The love and devotion of this dog became a surprisingly powerful source of comfort and joy for my mother-in-law. Indeed we all delighted in her sweet presence as she became such a part of our life it was hard to imagine a time before we had her with us.

In our time of sadness and struggle this little furball came into our lives like a pint-size gift. As Isaiah writes, where there once was weeping there was now laughter. Where there was once was heartache that was now joy.

Of course a dog could never replace my father-in-law. But her sweet presence reminded us that there is still much good left in life. That there are new joys and surprises still to be had.

I am sad to say that our time with sweet Sheba has come to an end. As happened with my father-in-law three years ago, she lost her great battle with cancer. Even though we lost her physical presence with us last week, the gift of her love for us lives on.

Sweet Sheba, even as we grieve, we are forever grateful for the joy that you brought to us in a time when it was sorely needed. Though we miss you sorely, we will carry the memories of the comfort and hope that you shared.

It is ironic that once again we find ourselves in need of a gift of comfort as we grieve the one who once helped ease our grief. As my years on this earth increase, I am more and more aware of the sadness and hardship that accompanies life. At the same time, I trust that even (and especially) in the hardest of circumstances Life brings little gifts of comfort to us to help us make it through.

Have you ever received a little gift from Life just when you needed it most? What was it and how did it help you through?

 

 

The week after Christmas: The best is yet to come

I’ve read a few other blogs out there talking about the unique time that is the week after Christmas.  We’re not quite back on normal time yet, but the pre-Christmas hype is definitely over.  Jeff Goins in particular addressed the week after Christmas blues.

I guess the time after Christmas can be a real let-down, especially if we are operating under a mindset where Christmas morning is the end of the story.

I’ve been grateful these past several years to attend a church that celebrates the Sunday after Christmas with a lessons and carols service.  It is a day where we basically read several sacred stories and sing Christmas carols in between the Scriptures.  It is usually a good day for me as I can enjoy the carols and soak in the stories during a quieter moment than I did on Christmas eve (read: without breaking up stick battles between the shepherds).

This morning after hearing the story of John the Baptist pointing the way to Jesus, we sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”  At first I wondered about the hymn choice.  Wasn’t this an advent hymn?  A hymn of waiting and preparation?  Were we not already in Christmas now?  Wasn’t the wait over?

And then it hit me.  Of course the wait isn’t over, for the story isn’t finished yet.

Yes, the baby was born in the manger and Jesus comes to us in this world even now.  But there is another coming that hasn’t happened yet.  There is more advent to be had.

Maybe that’s why the day after Christmas can feel a little hollow and we bristle when people ask us if we got everything we wanted.  How can we possibly have everything we want when people still go to bed hungry tonight?  How can it be the most wonderful day of the year when so many still suffer in different ways?

But yet we can Rejoice.  For not only did one come to be with us so that we would not suffer alone.  But this One is also still coming and will come again until there is no more weeping, no more sickness, no more hunger.  We look for a day when either our advent comes and we return to the bosom of the one who formed us or the Great Advent comes and the whole earth will be restored and redeemed.

best is yet to come

In the meantime we will get homesick from time to time, not for the place we were born and raised, but for the land from which we were created.  When we do we can remember the baby that came down in love.  How the mother smelled heaven on his soft infant hair, how the shepherd felt the hands of healing grasp their pinky tight, how the wise men glimpsed glory in his eyes.

Like them maybe we will be lucky enough to glimpse a bit of  heaven on earth from time to time.  When our own child is born or tears against all odds turn to gleaming smiles.  And until then we wait.  We watch with hope.  For the story isn’t nearly over yet.  And the best is yet to come.

week after Christmas

Fighting the Darkness

Although I love the coolness and color of fall, I’ve got to admit that the end of Daylight Savings time is a struggle for me. I remember my dad complaining about this when I was a kid and thinking, “What’s the big deal? You get another hour of sleep.” That was probably when I was a teenager and had no regular sleep schedule and thereby no internal clock that could be messed with.

But now, oh my. The kids are cranky and I’m dragging. Even the dog seems disoriented. And there just seems to be something worse about all the darkness being at the end of the day.

When its dark in the morning, you at least know that light is coming soon.  Now however, when the sun goes down in the evening there is the sinking knowledge that all that lies before us is hours and hours of dark night.  It is enough to get you down.

Add to that the forces of darkness that are swirling in my midst. So many of the people I love and care for are struggling with sickness and sadness.  My heart aches for them. Just when I think we can’t hold any more, another diagnosis comes in or another crisis hits. The waves of darkness just keep rolling in.

At some point I got tired of feeling defeated by the darkness and decided to take action.  I decided to fight back with these.

fighting darkness

I refuse to call them Christmas lights as I’m Episcopalian and we definitely don’t start decorating for Christmas this early. But now I understand why people do.

For when the darkness threatens, sometimes what you have to do is fight back with shafts of light.

 For night does not have the last the word here.  We must remember that though darkness grows for a time, a day will come when the light will return overtake it.

So today we wreathed our home in what I’m affectionately calling solstice lights. I’m wrapping them around the room where we eat and work and pray. Right there with the backpacks and penguin mug. Because I want to remember the truth that darkness grows but never wins. That even in dark times, I remain a child of the light.

If you too are struggling with the darkness, I pray you will find some light of your own to cling to and wield through the long nights.

Advent devotional

For more readings on light in the darkness and finding hope in difficult times, I offer you my advent devotional.  May it bring you comfort in the upcoming season.