Fear of Dying

By Rick Fullerton | Bio

much of my life, I have had a private conversation about dying. It
began as a young child, probably triggered by overhearing my parents
talking about people fighting cancer or other scary diseases. When I
was 12 and our family doctor knocked on the schoolroom door, my first
thought was that he had figured out I was going to die. I was shocked
to discover he had come to tell me my father had died of a heart attack
at just 53. I was devastated!
Our family survived, mainly due
to the strength and resourcefulness of my mother, along with a
supportive extended family and local community. As for me, I learned to
deal with my fears mainly through my internal conversations. Never as I
child did I talk about this secret and only rarely in later life. Yet
looking back, it is possible to see how this fear of dying influenced
many of my life decisions and shaped the person I am today.

got married when I was 21—much too young according to my Aunt Laura!
But my wife and I were anxious to get on with raising a family. No time
to waste seeing the world or pursuing idle interests! In those days of
single incomes and stay-at-home moms, my role was clear and I was
determined to provide for my family. Duty called!

As life’s
milestones passed, my conversations about dying changed. At 30, I was
apparently in perfect health—no evidence of cancer, heart failure or
other dreaded illness. Still, I made sure we had as much life insurance
as we could afford while the family continued to grow. And I invested
in learning more about death, reading books like On Death and Dying
by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and participating in related courses. A
life-changing experience for me was an experiential workshop with Bob
Tannenbaum sponsored by NTL Institute. “Holding On, Letting Go” opened
my eyes to the power of my fear and the possibility of release—a lesson
I have gratefully had reinforced from time to time.

By the time
I reached 40, dying had faded to a future possibility and I became more
intentional about my commitment to physical fitness and, rather than
avoiding the doctor’s office, looked forward to regular medical
check-ups. Rather than seeing death as something to be feared, my focus
was on increasing the length of time I would have. Life continued to be

Before age 50, there were a couple of bumps in the road.
My wife’s unexpected open-heart surgery was a vivid reminder that our
bodies can surprise us. And while she recovered fully, this marked the
first time I ever considered the possibility of outliving her. Then a
few years later, my employer downsized, freeing me to pursue my career
elsewhere. What a great exercise in holding on and letting go! The
result was a new investment in learning and creating new work
possibilities. Dying was clearly in the background, except when faced
with the passing of aging family members and friends.

My most
recent and powerful experience with the death occurred with my mother
about 18 months ago, the year I turned 60. Until then, death for me had
always been about fear, denial, avoidance, or loss. I was all about
‘holding on for dear life’, in spite of what I might have learned to
the contrary. As I get older and have surpassed even my most optimistic
life expectancy, I am getting more comfortable with the end of
life—others’ and my own.

So, my little voice is not talking
much about dying these days, although logically it is closer than ever.
Instead, I am focusing on family, career, home, and community, as well
as what I might offer. Above all, I am still learning. To underline
this, at church last Sunday, the children’s choir sang, “Kids under
Construction”. It gave me great pleasure when Courtney, my
seven-year-old granddaughter said to me later, “Grampa, it’s OK… God
isn’t done with you yet!” 

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