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Home » Relationship Advice

I’m Afraid I’m Gonna Die!

14 November 2013 2 Comments

   “Because with every action, comment, conversation, we have the choice to invite Heaven or Hell to Earth.” ― Rob Bell, author of Love Wins.


Bret phoned. “I need an appointment. Today!”

I had not heard from Bret for months. I had enjoyed counseling him.  Like Moses he was meek—he was willing to learn.

We met that afternoon in my office.  Sixty-one, tall and athletic, Bret’s shoulders slumped. Once captain of his college tennis team he is now a low handicap golfer.  Dressed in coat and tie he wore his usual winning smile but his pale blue eyes were cloudy.

“What’s the matter?” I shook his hand and motioned toward the blue sofa.

His voice quavered. “I’m about to get the results of a lung biopsy.”

My throat tightened. “You must be frightened.”

“I’m afraid I’m gonna die!”

He sat forward on the sofa, his forearms on his legs.

I sat in my black swivel chair facing him, our eyes level.  A low leather-topped coffee table between us held a glass of water for each of us–Kleenex too in a purple upright box.

“What scares you most about dying?” I asked him.  “Sharing your fears can calm you.”

He raised his hands in front of his chest, palms up.  “I don’t know whether I’m going to Heaven or Hell!” Can you tell me?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t know either.”

“Oh.” He dropped his hands.

I leaned forward. “Bret, I’m more concerned where you are right now.  Are you in Heaven, or are you in Hell?”

He frowned. “What d’ ya mean?  I’m talking about my after life!”

“Heaven and Hell are right here! You don’t have to wait till you die.”

His eyes searched my face. “What d’ ya mean they’re right here?”

“You live in Heaven or Hell every day!”

“I don’t get it. I was taught Heaven and Hell come after we die.”

“That’s one way to look at it.” I settled back in my chair.  “Have you ever asked yourself where you’re living right now? Are you in Heaven, or are you in Hell?”

“How would I know?”

“In Heaven we live through love.  In Hell we live through fear.”

His eyes narrowed.  “Tell me more.”

“Love is an open palm.  Fear is a closed fist. When you live through fear you worry a lot.”

He sighed. “I do worry a lot. Right now I’m worried about having cancer. I’m worried about my weight and eating enough—I’m worried whether I’m going to die.”

“That’s a painful way to live.  Worry saps your energy. It destroys your confidence.”

“Yeah,” Bret nodded.   “I look to my wife to reassure me.  Maria tells me I’m all right–no worse than our friends.”

“Comparisons are Hell; at least mine are.” I chuckled.  “We compare our insides to our friends’ outsides, at our expense.”

He smiled nervously.  “Usually I think I’m not as good as they are. I worry about gaining their approval.”

“When I’m in Hell I focus on what others think of me. However, the only valid comparison is with myself: where I am today versus where I was before.”

Bret laughed.  “I know what I feel about myself should come first. I guess I’m in Hell a lot. My grandmother used to tell me what other people think of me is not my business.  It’s just about them.”

“Your grandmother was a wise woman. It took me years to learn to respect my self-evaluation.  When someone would compliment me I’d dismiss it. I’d think they’re just being nice, or trying to get something.  On the other hand when they criticized me I took it to heart.”

“When someone criticizes me I give it ten times the weight I give a compliment.” Bret took a deep breath. “How is Heaven different?”

“Heaven is living in the sunlight.  Hell is living in the dark. Heaven brings peace and joy; Hell, fear and pain.”

“I like the sound of Heaven.  How do I get there?”

“You see how you’re similar to others with empathy, not judgment.”  I looked into his eyes.  “You have respect for yourself and all people as children of God.”

“What do I have to do to start living in Heaven?”

“First, become aware when you’re in Hell.  Are you worried, angry, hurting, or comparing yourself?”

“How will that help?”

“You can’t change anything until you own it.  If you don’t see your fear it will run you and you won’t even know it.”

“I know they’re times when I don’t see it. Like I wasn’t aware how much pain I was in until we started talking.”

I smiled.  “That’s common. We deny our fear or we distract ourselves hoping it’ll go away. We act like an ostrich putting its head in the sand.  If you can’t see the lion you’re ok.”

He looked at me carefully. “Do you always know when you’re afraid?  Can you always own it?”

“No, I don’t always know it.  At times I act like an ostrich.  The sooner I wake up and take my head out of the sand, the sooner I can deal with my fear.”

He wiggled his foot. “What do you do about your fear?”

“I pray.  Instead of worrying I start talking to God.”

He chuckled. “That sounds pretty easy. I think I could do that.”

“It is easy,” I agreed, ‘it’s just that I forget to do it.  Prayer is how we talk to God. Intuition is how God talks to us.”

“Does God really talk to you?” He raised his eyebrow.

“Yes, He does. The problem is I don’t listen.  Remembering to listen is as challenging as remembering to talk to Him.”

Bret’s eyes brightened. “I’ll work on talking and listening to God.  I want to live in Heaven.”

“One more thing.  When you listen you must do what He says. Otherwise, it won’t help.”

“I will.”  His tone was firm.  He looked at the painting over my shoulder. “I feel like that tugboat battling the storm.”

I glanced at the painting: ominous dark clouds filled the sky. Roiling seas buried half the boat, yet the bow was surging through a big wave. “The tugboat will make it,” I said as I turned toward him. “With your permission I’ll keep you in my prayers.”

“Please do.”  We both stood.  “I want time to practice praying before we meet again.”

“That makes sense. Call me when you wish.  If a problem comes up don’t wait.  Problems are easier to solve when they first arise.”

“I will call.”

We shook hands.  His grip was firm and his eyes shone.


Two weeks later we met again.  No frown troubled Bret’s forehead. His eyes were clear.

He started speaking as soon as he sat. “You’ll never believe what’s happened.”

“Like what?”

“I’ve been praying and listening. Things have really changed!”


“Maria forgot to give me a gift on my birthday last week.  I was hurt.  I told her I felt angry and she apologized. She explained she was so busy with her job she just let it slip.  I told her I understood.  When I went to bed that night I was still upset.  I had trouble falling asleep.  That’s when it happened.”

“That’s when what happened?”

“That’s when God spoke to me.”

“What’d He say?”

“He told me to forgive Maria if I wanted to sleep.”

“Did you?”

“I did. When I forgave her I suddenly remembered I’d forgotten to bring the flowers I’d promised her on our anniversary.  I realized we all forget things.”

“What happened when you forgave her?”

He smiled. “I slept like a baby. Every night when I go to bed I now take a few minutes to forgive anyone I’ve resented that day.”

“Has it helped?”

“You bet. My body’s relaxed, I sleep better, and I wake up refreshed.  Most importantly, I feel at peace.”  He sat back on the sofa and relaxed.

“When you forgive others you live in Heaven.”

“I got it–Heaven and Hell are right here.”

I chuckled. “I believe in Heaven and Hell cause I experience them. On any given day I can go from Hell to Heaven and back again. Last night I slept soundly for six hours until I awoke at four in the morning. I began to worry about our finances and whether we could afford our house.  A half hour later I realized I was in Hell.  I shifted to thanking God for helping me. I fell asleep listing all the things for which I’m grateful starting with my health, my wife, my children, my grandchildren, and my church community.”

He laughed. “That’s what I’ve just gone through! At first I didn’t believe I was in Hell even though I was frightened about dying. I didn’t feel joy until I accepted being in pain. When I realized I was in Hell I committed to reaching Heaven.”

I nodded. “We can’t see what we don’t believe. If you don’t believe in miracles you won’t see them.  If you don’t believe in Heaven you can’t experience it.”

“That’s kind of sad.” He glanced out the window between the bookshelves. “Don’t most people live somewhere in between?”

“I used to.  I didn’t believe I deserved the joy of Heaven. The simple truth is that we don’t see things as they are.  We see things as we are.”

“You’re saying our beliefs determine our perceptions.”

I nodded.  “I grew up being taught that seeing is believing.  I’ve learned the opposite is just as true: our beliefs govern what we see.”

Bret glanced down momentarily. His voice dropped:  “The biopsy was positive.  The surgeon is going to remove a lobe from my lung next week.”

My throat tightened.  “Are you frightened?”

“Before I would’ve been scared.  Now I’m just apprehensive.”

My throat eased. “What’s different?”

“In addition to Maria, I have God at my side.”

I smiled. “With God all things are possible. If it’s all right with you I will ask my Bible study group to pray for you.”

“I’d appreciate that.  I need all the prayers I can get.”

“It’s ok to pray for yourself too.”

He frowned. “I always thought that was selfish.”

“I was taught to think that way too. We’re confused about what’s selfish.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So how is praying for yourself not selfish?”

“Praying is the way we glorify God and become more like Him.  The more you’re like Him the more you can help others.”

“I hadn’t thought of it like that. I will pray for myself!” He left smiling.

I felt relieved that Bret had connected with God and had forgiven Maria.  I knew from participating in my Bible Study group how helpful it is to have faith in God and the support of other people.

Three weeks later Bret dropped by my office on the way home from his post-op check-up.  He moved slowly and sat down gingerly.

“I got out of the hospital last week.  It’s great to be home.”

“How’d it go?”

He pointed under his left arm. “I had a ten inch incision from my chest to my back.  The surgeon had to break two ribs to get the lobe out.  It hurts even now.”

“I remember when I got hit in the ribs by a line drive playing baseball.  Even though I didn’t break any ribs the pain shocked me.”

“The surgeon said I could have pain for another nine months.”

I winced. “What’d the path report show?”

“The cancer was in one spot only.  He got it out.  All the lymph nodes were clear.”

“Thank God for that.”

He sat straight.  “My surgeon says I have a good chance to be a cancer survivor. I’m grateful to God, to Maria, to my doctors, and to all the people who prayed for me.”

Our meeting ended so he could return home to rest.  We stood.

I put my hand on his shoulder. “God bless you,” I said.

Bret smiled. “He always has–it took cancer to wake me up!”

Doug Welpton, M.D. ©


  • Eric J. Ruby, M.D. said:

    Dear Doug,
    I am not a religious person so I need to reframe much of what you advise and put it in secular format.
    If one thinks positive, if one counts his blessings, if one lives as best he/she can and makes each day count, outcome is important, but not measured as heaven or hell. The outcome is life with the help of a skilled surgeon and an early diagnosis or a slow and possibly painful death. As a physician, I am realistic and choose for myself quality of life over a number of days in the ICU being subject to the tyranny of technology.
    As you stated, we make heaven or hell in the here and now. It’s our own choice. We can live with inner peace or turmoil. What happens after we die is our legacy; our life lives on in those who survive us.

  • drwelpton (author) said:

    Dear Eric,
    Thank you for your response. Thank you for reframing my article on Heaven and Hell for secular readers like yourself.
    I do not think you need to be religious to experience Heaven and Hell in your life. Heaven is joy, peace, passion, and love whereas Hell is fear, anger, guilt, shame, and pain.
    When we feel like we are living in Hell and recognize that is how we are feeling, we can then take the steps to feel like we are living in heaven.
    Those steps include choosing not to take offense, taking self-responsibility instead of blaming others, and forgiving those who have offended us, hurt us, or done us dirt.
    Forgiving does not mean forgetting. At first I did not forgive because I mistakenly thought that meant I was supposed to forget too, and I couldn’t forget.
    Forgiving means letting go of our pain, resentment, and anger. By forgiving we sever the cord that ties us to the person we are resenting. We free ourselves. Forgiving is a favor we do ourselves. I used to think I was letting the other person off the hook. Then I woke up to realize as long as I held onto my resentment/anger I was the one on the hook!
    Our bodies and nervous systems are grateful to us when we forgive and stop holding onto resentment.

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