Dying scares us. For most of us few things are as frightening as the thought of our own death. We speak of it in hushed voices, tiptoeing away as if we could hide.

But what if we stopped hiding? What if we looked openly at the fact that life, in all its complex goodness, includes the reality of death? We might then discover the surprising possibility that dying is nothing to fear; it is only part of the process of life.

I have come to believe that dying is far from the worst thing that ever happens to us. The death of someone else, someone we love and miss and now will have to do without, may well be the worst thing, but I doubt that our own dying is. My belief comes from what I have seen: the example of others who came to terms with their own dying, and who showed me how gracefully death can be put into the perspective of living.

I have come to believe that dying is far from the worst thing that ever happens to us.

This concept broke through the barriers of my own fearfulness only over a period of years. As a young woman I volunteered at a county-run nursing home, where I saw old and infirm friends die in a manner suggesting they almost welcomed the event. But they were, after all, old or infirm, and thus set apart from me at the time. When I was 54, I found my father--just hours after we'd had lunch--dead in a kneeling position at the head of his bed. From the spot where he had said his prayers for 90 good years, it was if he were silently saying, "OK, I've showed you everything I can about how to live; here is how to die."

In between those events I began working as a hospice volunteer. Not, I have to admit, out of any great motivation to be of service so much as in a sort of dare to myself. Being around dying people, holding their hands and listening to waning breaths? It seemed something so impossible as to be worth trying. I do not know how much I gave my hospice patients, or friends I knew later while volunteering with AIDS groups; what I know they gave me was the absolute certainty that dying can be met without fear.

Each story of someone's dying is unique. Among the stories of those who die unafraid, though, are threads that run strong and true: the ability to laugh (especially at ourselves), the usefulness of kindness and honesty, the need to keep control of our own destinies as long and as fully as possible, the healing power of forgiveness.

Spiritual framework is central to all of these. I no longer believe (as I once did) that the faith which is at my own core offers the only avenue toward an unfeared death. I have heard stories of fearless dying from and about Christians, Jews, Buddhists and agnostics, and about children too young to have formed their own spiritual beliefs. What they all shared was a sense that each of us is indeed part of something larger; that once mortal life ends, there is something more--a heaven with gold-paved streets, a reincarnation, linkage with an ongoing heritage, a mystical connection to those we love or to the universe. All showed, in their dying moments or days, an unmistakable openness to whatever lay within and beyond their dying.

They used what they knew to reach this openness: music, a sense of humor, friends, family tradition, ancient wisdom. And almost always, in one way or another, they made peace. That comes as no surprise. Most of the world's great religions teach the value of peacemaking, and those who have made peace where brokenness existed often tell of benefits they received in the process. In dying, being at peace in this world seems a key to fearless entrance into the next--or into whatever lies ahead.

Our fears are as individual as our humanity itself, and there is no magic formula for making them disappear. But like most frightening things, they lose some of their power when exposed to the light. Most of us will admit to fearing pain, loneliness, alienation, or lack of control at the end of our lives, known quantities we can take steps to address. If we can find assurance that pain will be alleviated and that we will have someone with us, if we set our affairs in order and mend our fences, the big fear, dying itself, may be deflated like yesterday's helium balloon.

In other cultures, earlier times, people built structures around the dying process: the family-filled deathbed scene, departures to await death in a sacred place, traditional songs and celebrations. And there was talk. If we begin to talk about our dying, we can hold our fears up to the light--and watch them fade.

I believe that dying deserves a place in the light. The last great experience of this mortal existence, it need not be welcomed but it need not be feared.

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