“Ask a Priest: Why Be Afraid of Death?”

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Q: If our goal is heaven, why are we so afraid of death? I was raised in a good Catholic family. My older sister just had her firstborn son last year. It was a premature birth, but my first nephew was really active and healthy. However, God decided to take him back six days later, when my little nephew died from a blood infection. I still remember my sister and parents crying. I have never cried so much in my life. I always think that my nephew is now living a very happy life in heaven, lying close to Jesus. And he probably met my cousin who died a week later due to COVID-19. I do not know what heaven looks like, but that is what I choose to believe. Why are we so afraid of death if we believe there is heaven waiting? Why does God put us in this world and make us experience death in order to enter his everlasting Kingdom? – R.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Please accept my condolences for your family on the death of the baby and the cousin. It must have been especially heartbreaking to lose the little one.

As for your questions, it might be good to unpack them a bit.

First, death is not natural. It wasn’t part of God’s original plan for the world. Death and suffering entered because of the sin of our first parents.

We are body and soul together, and we instinctively chafe at the idea of death. Even Jesus sweated blood in the Gethsemane, thinking of his impending death. So, it’s normal that we should fear death. In and of itself death isn’t appealing. It’s a kind of defeat of our bodily dimension.

Now, it is useful to distinguish between the fear of death and the fear of dying.

In a moment of calm, we can intellectually and morally accept that death is simply a door that can lead to the afterlife. Our faith teaches us as much.

It’s a different case, however, when a loved one actually dies. That can hit us hard, and understandably so. We feel a deep loss. Even Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35). So, it’s not incongruous that your “good Catholic family” would weep at the death of the little one, even as they had the hope he was with Our Lord.

Or take the case of our own declining health, with its struggles and agonies — the process of dying can be frightening.

This is one reason why the sacrament of the anointing of the sick can be so helpful. The Catechism in No. 1520 says, “The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age.”

A separate issue is heaven. As Christians we can have the hope of heaven, and this is why we can still be optimistic even as we fear death itself.

Our hope in heaven, however, should be balanced. We should be careful not to presume that all of us will get to heaven automatically.

We can be sure that a baptized baby is in heaven. But we who reach the age of reason need to cooperate with God’s grace through our prayers and reception of the sacraments and our almsgiving, etc.

If we try to lead a good life and stay humble, we can have a reasonable certainty that we are on the right path. But again, we want to avoid presumption.

On the other hand, someone who isn’t leading a good life might by motivated by the fear of death to repent and make peace with God.

Returning to the first point above, it’s good to remember that death was not part of God’s original plan. Sin mysteriously brought death into the world.

Nevertheless, God allowed this to happen since he is able to bring something good out of it.

What could that “good” be?

Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe Salvi quoted from Saint Ambrose in the funeral discourse for his deceased brother Satyrus:

“‘Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin … began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.’ A little earlier, Ambrose had said: ‘Death is, then, no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind’s salvation’” (No. 10).

Death can also teach us to appreciate the gift of life more, and prompt us to use our time in this world wisely and well.

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