My grandmother was dying of pancreatic cancer. She faced her terminal diagnosis with grace and faith. While we, her children and grandchildren, were terribly sad, her Christian peace in the face of dying comforted us all.
Except, that is, for one night when I panicked. I was lying in bed, waiting to fall asleep. This was the first time I had faced the death of someone close. All at once, it occurred to me that we had no idea what would happen to my grandmother. None of us had closed our eyes in death, and that meant none of us knew what she would see when she opened them. The horror of the unknown washed over me. I realized it wasn't really her death that I was afraid of. It was my own.
Fear of the Unknown
I'm not alone in being frightened by how little we know about the experience of death. The fact that books about journeys to heaven and back repeatedly land on the bestseller list testifies to our need for someone to tell us what death is going to be like. We want to hear that we will be met by someone we know. We want the assurance that the light at the end of the darkness is real, and that someone dear to us will be holding the lamp. Who in their right mind would want to go into a tunnel without knowing what they would find on the other side?
When faced with the unknown, I've watched my cousin's children adopt roles that suit their birth order and personalities. The older is cautious and worried about danger. The younger is foolhardy and tough; he's unaware that there is anything he should fear. When confronting a new—and potentially scary—situation, the older will send the younger in first. He waits for his little brother to come back and assure him that he won't get hurt.
Following Our Older Brother
In our case, it was our older brother, Jesus, who ventured into the dark unknown. He didn't leave us behind indefinitely to wonder what happened. He conquered death and came back to let us know that it is now safe to follow. He speaks to us these comforting words: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17b-18).
That night, my panic lasted for several minutes until I remembered that simple truth: Jesus died and lived to tell about it. Death is not a total unknown to the human race. Jesus has been there and come back again. I felt enormous relief as the implications of his resurrection rebuked my fearful imagination.
Oh, how comforting it is to follow someone who knows the way! The Christian has the assurance that to depart this life is to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23). Jesus won't be holding a lamp because he himself will be our light. The bestselling stories of journeys to heaven may or may not be true, but we have a guide who is himself the Truth.
My grandmother died a few weeks after that night I panicked. One minute she was in her bed, drawing difficult breaths, and the next minute she was somewhere that I have never been. But I know she was welcomed by her older brother and mine. At her funeral, I sang with peace, joy, and expectation these words:
Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!