Not Fearing Death

When I worked at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, I had an 82 year old cardiac patient named Wilson.  First name Mel, but he preferred just “Wilson.” He was one of those classic crotchety old guys, wrinkled, with a scruffy white beard.  He had been a Merchant Marine and could swear like it if he felt it necessary. But he also had a gentle sense of humor and was a favorite of the nurses, because he could make us laugh.

Wilson had come to hospital because of a heart attack, and he was still having frequent angina (chest) pain, requiring nitroglycerin for relief.  One day, Dr. Simon, the hospital’s top cardiac surgeon, a tall distinguished looking man in a suit, not a lab coat, came in and told Wilson, “We need to do coronary artery bypass surgery on you.”

“I don’t like that idea much,” Wilson replied, as flatly as if he was deciding on the lunch menu.

“Well,” said the doctor, “If you don’t have the surgery, you’ll die.”

Wilson immediately brightened up.  “You mean,” he asked with apparent excitement, “if I have this surgery, I won’t die? Great! When did you guys come up with that?  I’m surprised it hasn’t been in the papers.”

Dr. Simon had to backtrack, looking somewhat embarrassed and bemused at the same time. “I’m afraid you misunderstood,” he said.  “What I meant is, you won’t die from these blocked arteries.”

“Oh,” replied Wilson, as if greatly disappointed.  “So we’re just talking about timing then. You had me going for a minute. In that case, get out of here. Keep your hands off my heart.”

After Dr. Simon hurriedly left, Wilson broke out in a huge smile.  “I liked seeing that hot shot squirm,” he told me. “Acts like he’s doing me some big favor, wants to put me through Hell so I can live maybe another year, if I survive the operation. I don’t need to live forever. I need to enjoy myself while I’m here.”

We talked often in the two weeks he stayed on my floor. “I’m not scared of dying; I don’t mind talking about it,” he told me. “I’m glad you’re willing to listen, because most of you hospital people don’t want to hear. You’re part of the madness, wanting to live forever, whatever it costs, no matter how much it hurts.”

I asked him how he came to his acceptance of death.  “That’s easy,” he said. “I’ve lived. I’ve had fun; I’ve had love. Still do sometimes. I fought some good fights. Didn’t win many of them, but I did what I thought was right, most of the time. I think when people are so afraid of death, it’s because they haven’t really lived.”

Then he went home, and lived another four or five years, apparently enjoying most of it. Later, I did some research and found that the great psychiatrist Irvin Yalom used Wilson’s words almost exactly in his book Staring at the Sun. Yalom says it’s natural to fear death, because it’s the unknown. It’s normal to feel sad about it, because it means loss.  But the extreme, obsessive fear of death in American culture is not normal. It stems from a pervasive belief that we have not lived, at least not the way we wanted to.

Accepting Death
So how can we get to a place of acceptance about death?  Having a chronic disabling disease like MS helps, but frankly, that’s no fun.  A belief in an afterlife doesn’t appear to help much. If it did, why would Christian “right to lifers” be so bent on keeping brain-dead people like Terri Schiavo on life support? Why not let her go to Heaven, if you think there is such a place?

I think a better way is to live thoroughly while you’re here.  Be aware, be grateful, be brave.  Live like Wilson and have some fun. You’ll be a joy to others and have less suffering for yourself.

I hope I have accepted death for myself, because not fearing opens up my life. I don’t have to worry about everything I eat or everything I do. I don’t run to the doctor for every ache and pain. Accepting death doesn’t mean forgetting about self-care, but it does mean having a more relaxed attitude about it.

But more important, I don’t have to be afraid of people.  I can say what I believe and do what I want. I don’t hurt others, if I can help it, but I’m not scared to wind up on a no-fly list or be arrested for speaking my mind. I’m not going out of my way to court death, but I’m going to stand up (figuratively speaking) for what’s right.  At least, that’s the plan. Sound good to you?

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15 Responses to Not Fearing Death

  1. There is a concept called “the perfect present.” Yesterday is over and tomorrow is not here. We have only now–the perfect present. When I let myself get distracted–which is often–I remember that and serenity returns.

  2. DJ Woolley says:

    Dear David,
    This is superlative for so many reasons. Thank you for sending me the link, and for staying in touch – it means so much to me. You and Wilson rock!

  3. Sharon Pierson says:

    Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, body thoroughly used, totally worn out and screaming — “Whew, what a ride!”

    Live, Love, Laugh

    • Mary Nordseth says:

      And suffering, when transmuted into a higher form, can become informative especially when made into something else: poem, picture, macrame, photograph, song or good wishes for others.

  4. This is beautiful. Sometimes I feel out of step with others because I do have that same perspective — death at some point is inevitable, where we have control, to some extent, is how we live our lives. How much life we squeeze out of our lives. I love the idea that fighting (although for me, I would prefer it not be physical fighting) is part of life.

  5. Esther Roberts says:

    David thank you so much for sharing your blog with me. Just reading even this one entry, I felt myself “loosen up,” and feel calmer. You state this approach with such eloquence and beauty that just reading it evokes a quietness of mind. Thank you so much for sharing who you are in the many ways that you do. Take Care-

    • kait says:

      I agree with you completely, some days I will feel completely calm and happy with life and others an anxiety will bubble in me that I can’t control. Reading this gave me that same “calm” feeling, where really, I need to live to have fun, satisfy myself, live for me and what I believe in. When death comes I will be happy with what I have done for myself and others. Thank you for sharing and dissipating some troubling thoughts for me 🙂

  6. Will Fudeman says:

    Thanks for telling Wilson’s story so beautifully, David.

    One of the benefits of working with people near the end of their lives is
    having encounters with great teachers like Mel Wilson.

  7. Dick Wilmot says:

    Bravo. I like it.

    I try to avoid death but take enough risks to enjoy life. To avoid all risks I would not hike tall cliffs nor ski out in woods in cold and snow nor swim in oceans with sharks but then I would be avoiding life and that is certainly not my inntent.

    On the other hand I hope to go down bellowing and resisting — not quietly, not accepting but objecting. But I most certainly don’t want to outlive my mind. I hope not to go the way of Terry Schiavo nor my maternal grandmother’s last year of not really life nor my mother’s last dozen — wastes of time and resources. Better by far to follow paternal grandmother, though not quite so messy, and not while I can still contemplate, invent, love others, amuse others and myself.

    Thank you for bringing contemplation.

  8. Liz says:

    Thank you, David. I’m so glad you sent this. I needed it today!

  9. I’m so happy to meet people who celebrate the engaged life and are not harnessed to the proverbial magic pumpkin ready to whisk away all talk of death. I had a dear friend, who said while dying in hospice, “if i had known how easy dying is………” when my mortal coil unravels, i will have a good life to scroll through.

  10. Randy Peyser says:

    A beautiful reminder. Have you written a book about this? I’d like to help you with it!

  11. Anh says:

    David, thank you for this beautiful story and honoring “Wilson” ‘s memory.

    I appreciate the wisdom and insights you share with me and others.


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