On Living While Dying

“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free from the anxiety of death; but it is life itself that awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.” — Ernest Becker

I have been struck recently by some people’s freedom to talk about death.

The number of recessed LED lights in our kitchen award it the spot in our home where my gray roots are the most visible. At the breakfast table on Holy Saturday, my husband shares about a podcast in which a theologian reflected on turning fifty and spoke about the realization that his wife’s hair turning gray was a sign that they were moving closer to their death. I shudder at my husband’s words as I take a bite of my over-easy egg with bagel seasoning. With compassionate eyes he looks over at me and says, “I think God has more healing for you around your fear of death.”

The next day our family participates in a beautiful outdoor Easter service. After a year of lockdown and memories of watching last year’s service on a computer screen, I feel deep gratitude as the warm sun soaks into my skin, offering an embrace and a measure of hope to my weary body. A few minutes later, I hear the priest’s words intensify, “It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how many employees work for you, none of us can escape the problem of death.” My heart rate rises.

A few days later, as our family circles the loop of our neighborhood, we catch the eye of our elderly neighbor, a sprightly man who spends hours creating stunning wood projects in his garage in the Florida humidity. We pause and admire his callous hands sanding. I’m amazed at how he can turn an old church pew into a glorious garden bench. A generous man, he is always eager to show us his projects. Michael asks him about his Easter weekend, and he tells us that his wife’s arthritic joints are keeping them from hosting like they used to. He mentions how she recently broke her foot and that her skin has become so thin that it bleeds easily. As he’s telling us about the puddles of blood he sometimes notices in their bed sheets, I’m moved with compassion. I notice my chest tightening again, giving me a sobering picture of how love evolves over time.

The vow to love during sickness and in health feels palpable.

I find myself relieved when my four-year-old says she needs to get back to our house to use the bathroom.

I’ve had three brushes with death in my adult life: once when my whitewater kayak flipped in a Colorado river just feet away from being pinned under a tree; once from an anaphylactic reaction to an allergy I didn’t know I had; and once during the birth of our third child with a rare placental condition that never showed up on my ultrasound. Each time, I didn’t realize death was looming until after the rescue. The trauma of these experiences has left me at a place of hyper-vigilance, scanning my environment for threats of death, fearful that the next encounter will leave death victorious.

While I continue to work through the trauma of these memories, the notion of death still feels visceral. On an existential level, I am less concerned about being the grieving woman in black as I am about being the one in the coffin. Death sometimes feels like the ultimate of not coming through for my children, or the most intolerable feeling of aloneness. Even as I write this, I fear that naming and sharing my story around death will accelerate its arrival.

As I reflect further upon death, I am reminded of my neighbor who finds joy in the grit of sandpaper, the sounds of his saw, and the creation of wood projects that will outlive his own life, while still bearing the tension and ache of his and his wife’s body wasting away. Could it be that the paradox of life and death is that as we sink deeper into our bodies and simple God-given pleasures—touch, sex, good art, flavorful food, laughter, and play—they actually bring us deeper into the heavenly realm and closer to the real life we are designed to live for eternity? Perhaps that is where the terror lies, in the question of whether we will be more fully alive in this life or the next, and in the grasping of trying to hold onto the glimpses of true goodness and beauty this life allows us. May we bless our slow-dying bodies and our eternal souls.

Rachel Blackston loves all things beautiful…rich conversations over a hot cup of lemon ginger tea, watching her three little girls twirl around in tutus, and Florida sunrises on her morning walks. She resides in Orlando with her lanky, marathon-running husband and her precious daughters, priceless gifts after several years of infertility. Rachel and her husband Michael co-founded Redeemer Counseling. As a therapist, Rachel considers it an honor to walk with women in their stories of harm, beauty, and redemption.