(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved

As many of you know, this congregation lost a beloved member this past week, and husband of a beloved member.  John Spiess was a long time member and servant to this congregation and, while he’s been mostly away these last few years battling his illness, he continued his support of GNH by encouraging Marti and by participating in our auctions.

And my message topic today expresses something I believe John exemplified.  Only he and his family may know his innermost thoughts but outwardly, John was courageous these last years as he faced dying.  He was originally told he had months to live, and yet he lived and fought for four years.  His friends tell me he never lost his famous sense of humor.  I was a witness to that a few times.  Last September at a Labor Day fireworks dinner I had put in last year’s auction, I greeted John by saying it was good to see him.  He quickly joked, with a smile, that he was glad to be seen and not viewed.  But John was seen in a figurative sense many times – and he still will be.  Three weeks ago he held his newborn grandchild for the first time – an infant he had pledged to hold on and live in order to meet.  And so I honor him this morning as an exemplar of someone who did his best to live fully as long as possible…

Thanataphobia is the clinical term for a fear of dying.  Just over 20% of people suffer from it to a significant extent.  That is slightly lower than the percent of people who have a strong fear of public speaking.  The comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked about this once by saying that at any given funeral, it’s perhaps better for a person to be in the casket than delivering the eulogy!

80% of people confess to being uncomfortable talking about death.  And that figure translates to the 80% of Americans who die without their affairs in order.  Some people may have executed a basic will, but they have not organized their lives, finances and end of life plans such that loved ones clearly know how they would like to die, how they want to be remembered, and how their property should be efficiently distributed.

A large majority of doctors do not adequately talk about dying with their seriously ill patients.  Many doctors consider a patient’s death a failure so they do all they can to prevent it – even when they know there is little chance of improvement.  The average time in Hospice Care is therefore two weeks, when it could be much longer to allow for greater comfort and emotional support to the patient and his or her families.  Unneeded medical care results in a financial windfall for doctors, hospitals, and the pharmaceutical industry.  Almost $100 billion dollars are spent each year in medical care for Americans during the final two months of life.

Virtually all Americans say they want to die in their homes.  But 75% of people die in hospitals, intensive care units or skilled nursing facilities.  If most of us want to die at home, why isn’t that happening?  While some have Living Wills that allow for death if one is artificially kept alive by machines, very few people execute what is called an Advance Care Plan – a document that specifically and legally outlines the kind and level of care one wants near the end, and cannot speak.  An Advance Care Plan can also specifically state where one wants to die.  It is possible in most cases to arrange to die at home with Hospice care providing comfort and pain management.

Very few people pre-plan and pre-pay for their funeral arrangements.  This results in many families overspending on funerals, burials or cremations because they do not know what their loved one wanted – and they don’t wish to seem cheap as a result.

What we have is a culture that fears death and avoids discussing it in honest and forthright ways.  Experts say this is true for people of every religion and every nation.  We intellectually know we will die, and most of us have formed beliefs about what happens to us after we die, but a large majority of us have not found peace with dying such that we plan for it, talk about it, and most importantly of all, approach it without fear.

Unfortunately, however, our fear or discomfort with death results in significant costs to us as individuals, and as a society.  We spend, as I’ve said, huge amounts of money trying to medically prolong life and not nearly enough to insure quality of life and a natural end of it.  Added to extra medical costs are what we spend on expensive funerals and on legal work to appropriately distribute the money and property of those who did not put their affairs in order.

But the real tragedy of our fear of dying is the intangible cost we pay emotionally and spiritually.  Families experience great anguish not knowing what to do when a loved one is near death.  They face the same after a loved one passes by not knowing what kind of funeral to plan.  All of that family anguish is caused by many people’s silent dread of dying.  Even worse, a refusal to emotionally and spiritually deal with death when one is alive and well denies a person the ability to embrace and celebrate life!  This results in a sad irony.  Fear of dying essentially causes one to die faster.   Every moment spent fearing death, every ounce of energy wasted worrying about it, is that much less time and strength spent fully living.

For me, I want to conquer my fear of dying such that when I am near the end, or when I face a life threatening illness or calamity, I’ll be as much at peace as possible.  A year ago I saw how my dad’s discomfort with talking about death caused great heartache for me and my siblings when he was dying.  We had no idea what he would want.  Last summer when I underwent surgery to remove two cancers, I was definitely not at peace.  The weeks and days leading up to it, I silently feared dying – either during surgery, or if doctors found the cancers to be more advanced.  With my mom now in a dementia care unit, I fear the possibility I could be her one day – my body alive but my mind essentially dead.  Because of these several ways I’ve confronted mortality, I want to take the road less traveled and ponder my eventual death – all in order to significantly reduce my fear of dying.  It is a fact of life I can’t ignore, and so I know it will benefit me, and my loved ones, if I can be at peace about it. 

Very few people eagerly approach death, but that does not mean we cannot face it much like we do other life events – with gratitude, a loving and positive demeanor, and with generosity – to offer our dying selves to family and friends with as much meaning and life affirmation as possible.

That hope of mine, and my encouragement to all of us, is the title of my message.  May we take the road less traveled and seek to die without fear.

Psychologists say that fear of dying is motivated by several related fears.  Many people fear dying because they fear the unknown, not existing, or eternal punishment.  Other people fear dying because of possible pain and suffering at the end.  Some fear dying alone.  Some fear the loss of control – and how that often comes near the end.  Many fear dying because they don’t feel their lives have meant much.  They fear being meaningless.  And still others fear dying out of concern for what will become of loved ones.   Ultimately, a fear of dying for most people is that they think it will be the absolute worst moment of their lives.  They fear dying alone, forgotten, in pain, helpless or frightened.

But psychologists, psychiatrists – and some ministers – also claim that when we challenge ourselves to think about and confront our fears, then we can lead our logical minds to question the validity of them.  That cognitive self-therapy is possible for our fear of dying.

If we are afraid that we will suffer at the end, most doctors report that while dying can sometimes be painful, it can usually be well managed and even eliminated.  Most reports of those who are dying indicate they are far more positive than their friends and loved ones.  Being near the end often focuses one’s mind on things that are affirming – like remembering the joys and blessings of one’s life.  Medical science has thankfully brought us to the point that most people can and do die pain free and with a generally positive attitude.  Knowing this, and making advance preparations, can help eliminate a fear of suffering at the end. 

And that makes it even more essential that we legally specify how we want to be treated at the end.  We can ask that palliative care, medical assistance that is focused not on treatment but on the elimination of pain and the fostering of comfort, be started early – long before doctors might otherwise recommend.  Telling a trusted Healthcare Power of Attorney person – a close relative or friend – of these wishes and also writing them down in an Advance Care Plan – can help.

And that speaks to the fear some have that they will lose control near the end.  This can mostly be eliminated by asserting control now – by stipulating what we want done for us when we are unable to verbalize choices.  We can legally demand, in an Advance Care Plan, that doctors clearly inform us, or our Healthcare Power of Attorney, of expected outcomes and the likelihood of success for every treatment.  We can forbid treatment or hospitalization unless such actions offer very likely success and recovery to a reasonable standard of living.  Executing an Advance Care Plan requires we confront dying before we die, but it thereby can help reduce fears we have about losing control of our destiny.

We can also eliminate concerns over what will happen to loved ones after we pass.  This involves executing a will and then doing the work to put our affairs in order – organizing assets, titling them in appropriate ways, arranging for and pre-paying funeral costs, and outlining how we wish to be remembered in a memorial service.  All of these are profound gifts to our families and a clear message to them, after we die, that we love them.  None of us want to see loved ones suffer because of our death.

Of greatest importance for all of us is to plunge into an examination of our souls, as I discussed last Sunday, to examine what defines us and our place in the universe.  We can do this perhaps by following the five practical steps I outlined last Sunday and you can find them on our website.  A journey into our souls will inevitably cause us to ponder our death and to hopefully affirm what we know intellectually.  Without death, we cannot have life.  And that’s the irony I spoke of earlier.  Finding peace about dying paradoxically enables us to really live – now and long after we die.

If we ponder what we want our legacy to be, we can find the meaning for our existence and thus help insure how we will be remembered.  As I say many times, it’s our selfless concern for family, friend and stranger, and not ourselves, that will ultimately write our epitaph.  How did we love?  How did we serve?  How did we forgive?  How humbly did we live?  How did we change the world for the better?  The answers to those questions give us our purpose for living, the solace we seek when we die, and the life after death that we crave.  How we treat others right now, how we make a tangible and good difference in the world  – such actions will be remembered, but they will also be paid forward by influencing the lives and actions of countless others far into the future.  That, I believe, is our resurrection and our life beyond the grave.

I also encourage you to ponder just what is the “self”?  Is it your body, mind, soul, personality, or what you do and have done?  How you define the self will determine what you think about life after death.  If the self is one’s body and mind, then an afterlife is not possible.  But if it is what one has done and how one treats others in this life, then you will have an afterlife – and one I pray will be good.       

I offered five practical ways to journey into our souls last Sunday.  Today, I offer four ways I believe we can take the road less traveled to live fully right now, help us reduce a fear of dying, shape our legacies, and live onward after dying.

First, spend as much time as you can with others – especially loved ones – to share, talk, laugh, and create meaning filled memories that will last.

Second, serve others.  Be someone known for serving – and thereby build a lasting legacy of kindness and helpfulness.

Third, summon the courage to spend time visualizing, discussing, planning, and preparing for dying.  Doing so will be a gift you give yourself, and will bless your families and friends as well.

Finally, I encourage the kind of soul deep meditation that I talked about last week.  Refusing to think about dying does not and will not help us when the inevitable time comes.  Reflection on dying can help us employ reasoning abilities to confront and take control of fear.  As I said earlier, many of our fears about death are inaccurate.  We have the cognitive power, challenging as that may be, to change the way we think about dying and thereby find some peace.

I now end my four part message series on taking the road less traveled.  These messages may not have been the best you’ve ever heard, but I trust you got, or can get by reading them online, the overall point I’ve tried to make.  Our lives will always be challenging and present us with choices.  When we choose the way that seems more difficult, the road generally less taken, then THAT road is precisely the one we should take.  As Robert Frost ended his famous poem, it is that road that will make all the difference.

I wish you peace and joy…