One of my all-time favorite philosophers and theologians is Soren Kierkegaard. Not only does he have a super-cool name that can give you bonus erudition points if you pronounce it correctly, but he really gave me the keys to understanding modern (and thus, post-modern) theology. Our hyper-individualistic religious bent really began to develop during his time, and his exploration of the existential crisis still rings true.
He described the "sickness unto death" (a reference to Jesus' raising of Lazarus, in which Jesus remarks that Lazarus' sickness is not unto death), which is, in a word, despair. The sickness unto death isn't cancer, it isn't AIDS, it isn't dementia, it isn't even doubt. It is despair. When we despair, we lose the self, and when we lose the self, we lose our ability to relate. And without relationship, it's all over.
I've been reading through some bedside services of healing, hoping to find some resources to take on pastoral visits to the home and hospital. Even after several years of doing this, it's sometimes hard to know what to say, as you sit with someone taking slow, rattling breaths, counting the seconds until they die. You know they probably can't hear you. But you still feel like you need to say something.
"Often those who are closest to the patient will not discuss the illness for fear of upsetting the person. More often than not it is a fear of one's own feelings that does not allow the topic. There are times when wholeness is accomplished not by physical healing, but by dying. This may not be the way in which we would wish it to be done, yet sometimes it is God's way. Accepting this kind of healing is the province of the person who suffers and each person does it in their own way - if at all" (The Book of Offices and Services of the Order of St. Luke, p. 63).
If only we could see that the illness that we fear isn't the illness that will kill the person. The illness that will kill us is a loss of relationship with one another and with God through Christ. Death is separation, which is painful, but it is not the end. The end comes when we refuse to acknowledge what we were created for, which is to experience life and death together with each other and with God.