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The Fall and the Fear of Death

June 15, 2017

By J. David Lankutis, Guest Author

The text reflects the author’s views only, and we neither endorse or disapprove of its content but rather publish it to foster the conversation about end-of-life issues.


When we were born, it was as if we began falling from a flying airplane. Without some miraculous intervention, we are guaranteed we will someday splat on the ground, and die.

Life as a Fall

This metaphor can be expanded in numerous ways. Varying ideas proliferate about how this earthly experience came about.

  • Who is the pilot of the plane? Is there even a pilot?
  • Were we pushed or did we choose to jump?
  • Do we have access to a parachute or to experienced guidance during the trip down?
  • Do we still have communication with the pilot, directly or through others?

Concern about what happens after the splat also propagate many other perplexing questions.

  • Do we go somewhere else after a resurrection and stay there forever?
  • Do we board another plane and experience another fall or is this our only fall?

Thousands of writers have investigated these ideas for centuries. You may or may not have a strong belief about what happens before and after the fall from the plane. One belief may disagree with other beliefs causing arguments and even war.

Fear of Death

It is not the intent of this article to even begin to scratch the surface of this infinitely complex ongoing discussion of why our fall began or what happens after it ends. I will focus on two facts that as far as I know, are universally agreed to by all who think about these things:

  1. We are going to die.
  2. We have some level of fear, trepidation, dread, anxiety, distress, unease, apprehension, concern and/or worry about #1.

For the rest of the article I will use the word fear, knowing that one of the synonyms listed previously could be substituted by a given person for a given situation.

Being fearful can have two distinct components:

  1. We are afraid of being dead.
  2. We are afraid of the dying process.

If we fear being dead, Michael Kearney suggests, “We have an ego which is happiest when in control of a world that is familiar and predictable. We feel threatened by the approach of utter chaos and the ultimate unknown.”

Or, we might be afraid of an eternity of suffering if we don’t quite get it “right”. Or maybe we are just having such a good time here, we don’t want it to end.

If I get the opportunity to vote on a Death with Dignity law…I want to make sure my vote does not end up being based on fear.

Fear of the dying process includes pain, loss of control, and inability to continue a lifestyle. According to Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon who wrote the landmark book, Being Mortal, “Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against the constraints of our biology. But again and again I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be.”

Choices for the Fall

As I see it my choices as I fall are:

  1. Close my eyes and pretend everything is OK.
  2. Scream and yell, flailing around as I fall.
  3. Enjoy the experience on the way down for as long as reasonable.

If I get the opportunity to vote on a Death with Dignity law, my vote will of course depend on the details of that specific proposal. As I evaluate my decision, I want to make sure my vote does not end up being based on fear. I want it to be based on allowing me to appreciate a fall for as long as I think it is meaningful.

About the Author

J. David Lankutis was born and raised in the Little Snowy Mountains of Central Montana on the ranch his grandfather homesteaded. He started volunteering for hospice work 30 years ago. He recently retired after 45 years of helping keep the lights on for electric utility consumers around the world. He is now on a full-time quest for the Meaning of Life. The quest includes gathering the marvelous insights of grandkids who demonstrate how to live for the moment.

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Afterword: Physician-Hastened Dying Concepts

Vermont Patient Rights Advocates Challenge Agreement on Aid in Dying Law

Four years after the Vermont legislature passed the Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act (Act 39), the law continues to be challenged both through the legal and legislative systems. Beyond debating Death with Dignity Act pros and cons, groups opposed to the law are working instead to shape its implementation. They secured an agreement earlier this year with Vermont’s attorney general’s office that doctors would not be required to raise the Act 39 provisions with their patients unless prompted. In turn, the groups party to the agreement agreed to give up their right to an appeal of the law. Two patient rights groups are asking that this agreement be struck from the court record.