Coping with Fear and Death
Death as a stark reality now threatens us and our loved ones, in particular the elderly. An unknown deadly virus, a force outside our control, which has suddenly come upon us, is creating fear. How should we respond?
Coping with fear
The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is fear.
One night, as the disciples were rowing across the Sea of Galilee, a sudden storm blew up, most likely caused by an underwater earthquake, which unleashed the powerful wind, which generated the churning waves. The disciples were frightened. They were vulnerable – powerless in the face of impending death. Jesus, sleeping on a cushion at the back, did not stir, even when the waves breaking over the small boat began filling it with water. He seemed not to care (Mark 4:35-41).
Many things can contribute to our fears: a sudden and overwhelming event, uncertainty about the future, a sense of powerlessness and inability to control what will happen. Death as a stark reality now threatens us and our loved ones, in particular the elderly. An unknown deadly virus, a force outside our control which has suddenly come upon us, is creating fear. How should we respond?
The Bible has much to say about fear, mainly urging us to trust in God and not to be afraid. It also speaks of another kind of “fear”, the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). This fear is the reverent awe that should rightly fill us as we contemplate the majesty of the Lord Almighty. After Jesus had calmed the wind and waves, the frightened disciples became terrified with the fear of the Lord, as there dawned on them a new understanding of Jesus’ divine power over nature.
Jesus asked the disciples in the boat, why they were so afraid of the storm, why they had no faith? As followers of Christ, we are not meant to live in the grip of destructive fear. "For perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
What is this faith that Jesus speaks of – the faith that would have kept the disciples from fear? It is a fundamental trust in the Divine and in His purposes, knowing that we are in His hands and that God is in perfect control of every aspect of life, from earthquakes to minuscule organisms.
This trust is founded on Jesus. “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who relies on it will never be stricken with panic.” (Isaiah 28:16)
As He prepared them for the greatest period of uncertainty they would ever face, Jesus said to His disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” (John 14:1)
This is a command. But how do we obey it? How do we obey the command “Do not fear” that occurs so often in the Bible? How do we learn to rest in His perfect love so that our hearts are untroubled? Seven suggestions are below.
1. Discipline our minds not to give way to emotions of fear. Fill our minds instead with the Word of God and His promises and apply them to our own situation. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7, NKJV).
2. Deliberately put our trust in God. Tell Him in prayer. Speak it aloud. Sing it. “Those who know your name trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you.” (Psalm 9:10)
3. Acknowledge that God is in control of our lives and nothing happens by accident. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matthew 10:29)
4. Remember that God cares for us. “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7, NKJV).
5. Embrace the Divine will, whatever comes. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
6. Know the End – an eternal glory, which far outweighs “our light and momentary troubles” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
7. Care for others – “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:10).
In an age where the secular seems to control all, where humanism dominates and the fear of God is not acknowledged, we can, by God’s grace, train ourselves to trust Him, to rely on His love and His power, and banish our fears.
In the darkness of the night and at the center of the roaring winds and crashing waves, Jesus, the Son of God, was present. For God is always in the darkness. He is never absent, and He does not cease to care and to intervene as He wills.
Whilst Jesus was asleep at the stern of the boat, His Father neither slumbered nor slept (Psalm 121:4). His watchful, caring eye was over them.
The writings of Christians in times past, when there were few cures for illnesses and sudden or early death was commonplace, can help us now in the time of the coronavirus. We can look out for examples and note them down, creating a resource of faith-building encouragements.
“Fear him, ye saints, and ye will then have nothing else to fear” (1)
(1) Through all the changing scenes of life, Tate and Brady
Coping with death
It appears that no health service in the world is going to be able to cope adequately with Covid-19.
In the UK, most deaths have been among those already frail from old age or chronic illness. A few were young and in apparently good health. They died in hospital alone, apart from medical staff, because no visitors are allowed. After death the body is sealed, no one can view the body. At one point no funerals were allowed, just a cremation or burial.
In the face of any illness some will say “I’m going to beat this”. Some think they will not get coronavirus at all, not show symptoms or fight off the infection easily. We cannot know how it will affect us. Occasionally, even young people have died in this outbreak. Everyone is at risk and has to live with uncertainty. Just praying or going to church will not protect us.
But remember that those with a Christian faith can be sure that we are in the hands of something more powerful than medicine. The Lord Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). In Talking About Dying, chapter 11 explores prayer for healing (available free at: talkingaboutdying.org).
Patients are helped by the honesty of truthful information. Many medical staff find it exceedingly difficult to tell patients and their families when death is approaching. Chapters 2, 4 and 10 of Talking About Dying talk about the fear which stops us talking about death.
Whilst physical pain and other symptoms are addressed by the medical staff, mental pain in the face of dying is more difficult. It can involve anxieties about loss of control of our lives, separation from loved ones – both for them and for us – frustration at loss of hopes for the future, things left undone, family estrangements and, for many, the unknown of what happens after death. Don’t put off questions of faith, do it now.
Although the evidence strongly suggests that for the under 40s only those with serious underlying health conditions risk life-threatening disease, nobody’s risk of developing this disease in a serious form is zero. So now is the time to talk about dying.
How you would want to be treated and what do you want to happen after your death? Have you written a will? Have you considered an “advanced decision”? Have you told your family you love them – sometimes it is important to say the words, not just assume that they know.
Contact and saying goodbye
Most in hospital have access to phones and “screens”. A previously healthy journalist aged 38 wrote, “My difficulty in breathing made it impossible to hold a conversation for more than a minute or two.
Were it not for the messages of love and support from friends and colleagues, I would have felt very alone. I felt too unwell to reply but they gave me great strength in the darkness.” Sometimes it is necessary to use these facilities to “say goodbye”.
Quality of death
More elderly people are looking for ways to indicate to their families that they do not wish to go to hospital and overwhelm the health service. They know their chances of surviving a move to intensive care are low – 50% of those in intensive care are not surviving. They would prefer to stay at home, preferably with someone they love. They are asking for home palliative care provision with necessary symptom and infection control for carers. We do not know how this could work but something needs to be done.
Dr Ronald J Sider has written, “As disciples of the Resurrected One, we labour now, even in the worst of times, knowing that finally our efforts will not be in vain. Those who understand the empty tomb can afford to face danger now. Why?
Because we know that in a day, or two, or a million, the Galilean champion of the sick, weak and marginalized will return. In the twinkling of an eye, he will trump Satan's last card. The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our risen Lord.
“The final word is not coronavirus, death, injustice, oppression, or a dead planet. The Almighty One who raised the Lord Jesus will have the last word. That is what can keep us going ...
We work now knowing that Good Friday is not the last word. As disciples of the Resurrected One, we labour now, even in the worst of times, knowing that finally, our efforts will not be in vain.”
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo is the International Director of Barnabas Fund and the Executive Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.
This article was co-authored by - Dr Elaine Sugden. She is a retired cancer consultant and author, with others, of: Talking about Dying.
Photo by Photoholgic on Unsplash