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“Ask a Priest: What If I’m Terrified of Death?”
Q: I am in desperate search of guidance on the topics of death and dying. I am a practicing Catholic and I believe in the Bible, I believe in Jesus and the resurrection, but I am terrified of dying. So terrified that I have panic attacks and have lost many nights of sleep. I have a lot of issues with dying. I can’t seem to wrap my head around what it could possibly be like — and what I can understand, I don’t want it to happen. I know that Scripture teaches us that we “fall asleep” when we die, and that when Jesus comes again, we will ascend to heaven. I believe it was St. Paul who compared the time we fall asleep to the time Jesus comes again to “the blink of an eye,” but falling asleep from the beginning frightens me. I really like living and being alive. I don’t want to die. I want to be with Jesus in the end, but that leap of faith petrifies me. I end up going in circles of doubt where I begin to convince myself that there is nothing after death and that it’s just nothing. I am only 22, so I have no reason to really suspect my end anytime soon. I just can’t seem to calm myself about dying, it’s by far my biggest fear. I’m hoping that by emailing you, I can help alleviate my fears and doubts. Thanks for your time, and please, I desperately am in search of answers. – C.R.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: While it’s understandable that we have a fear of dying — it is kind of unnatural, after all, and not part of God’s original plan for us — we shouldn’t fear death, per se, unless we are in a state of mortal sin.
Death is a veil that separates this world from the next. In some ways, death can be a relief, for the alternative would be to remain in this world forever. That wouldn’t be very appealing, when you think of it.
You say you are a practicing Catholic and believe in the Bible. That’s good. Being Catholic implies that we should be people of hope and that we recognize that death isn’t the last word.
Without knowing much about your situation, I wonder whether part of the problem is that you are too focused on dying and not enough on living.
The time we have in this world is the time we have to become saints. And to become a saint means that we learn to love.
So, a question worth raising is, whom do you love? To whom do you dedicate yourself? What do you do for others on any given day? Do you have a wife and children? Do you have a sweetheart? Do you have parents or siblings or neighbors who could use your help?
We are relational by nature. We need other people to complement us.
“Man cannot live without love,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. “He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love.”
If you are lacking in people for whom you can sacrifice, you might try getting involved in volunteer Church work. Get involved in urban missions, soup kitchens, door-to-door missions.
And try to network with other young Catholics who are serious about their faith. You can find them in pro-life groups and Bible studies. Attend Catholic lectures in your area. You might meet people with whom you can connect.
In short, if you focus on living life well and embracing belief in the resurrection of the dead, the excessive fear of death could recede.
A book that might help you is From Worry to Wonder.
If a resource like this book doesn’t help, and if you are struggling with major, ongoing anxiety, you might want to seek out a counselor. To find one you could check out Catholic Therapists.
It also might help to find a solid, regular confessor to guide you.
For more reading you might look at Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi.
I hope that some of this helps. Count on my prayers, OK?
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Seems some lengthy additional thoughts to this question (in support of the words of Father M) were deleted. Sorry if I went to too much detail. To C.R. I say, do as Father M. says:
Focus on living life well and embracing BELIEF in the resurrection of the dead, the excessive fear of death could recede.
And keep the biblical verse: Matthew 6 verse 34 uppermost in mind: Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.
I went into too much detail… sorry. HAVE FAITH IN GOD, not ‘the ways of the world’ . . . stay close to the Sacramental life of God, Father, Son, Holy SpirIt and ‘let God lead’ on the dance floor of life on earth. Baptism brought all under this Heavenly realm… trust GOD and the Lord’s Words: ‘not a hair on the head will be harmed.” LIFE WITH GOD is ETERNAL! Enjoy every day with Jesus your redeemer!
Avoid mortal sin… and you will, if you stay close to REAL PRESENCE of Christ in the Eucharist.
I’m not afraid to die, however, I AM terrified that I will die in Mortal Sin & go to Hell! If I went to Mass most Sundays (in my life) but missed Mass 2-3 times before my death I go to Hell! I’m sorry, but as a Catholic I feel “Doomed”. Perhaps I should join the Episcopalian Faith (still hold all my Catholic faith, and not feel doomed? As I understand? The Episcopalian Faith is the closest to Roman Catholicism!! Your thoughts? Thank you!
Thanks for your note.
If you miss Mass because of sickness, that isn’t a problem.
If you miss Mass out of negligence, the answer is to get to confession.
The answer is not to leave the Catholic Church — that would objectively be a grave sin and would scandalize others.
The Episcopalians have some elements of Christianity but not others. They certainly don’t have the Eucharist, and some of their teachings are radically opposed to Catholicism.
Leaving the Catholic Church so that you don’t feel “doomed” is like abandoning your doctor who warns that you might have cancer because an X-ray shows dark spots on your lungs. The answer is not to find a doctor who will tell you, “Don’t worry about it.” The answer is to treat the cancer.
Consider if you need to do some serious reflection about decisions you have made.
It would be good to speak with your pastor as soon as possible.
Father Edward McIlmail, LC