The news about the illness of your son, Matthew, has deeply distressed me. You asked me what can you tell him to make him feel better, to ease his fears about dying. Like yourself, I do realize that anything I can tell you or you can tell him are just words. Which, ultimately, don’t mean a thing, because the experience of dying can be different for each person, and, after all, it is Matt on the dying bed, not you or I. I know you’re an atheist, so I’m not going to tell you religious theories about Paradise. I know you didn’t raise Matt this way. However, I do want to help you and Matt, and I think I have a solution for you: Epicurus.
Let me explain.
Epicurus thinks that we should not be afraid of death because there is nothing after it. His philosophy revolves around the concept of “pleasure.” He thinks that physical stimuli are the basis for all our knowledge, and our quest for happiness is actually a quest for pleasure. Our fears result, basically, from a fear of pain. Thus, our fear of death is actually a fear of physical suffering. When we die, we don’t feel anything anymore. Our pain and our suffering are gone forever, thus there is no need to fear death. According to him, if you suffer on your dying bed, you should remember that this suffering is only temporary.
Epicurus believed that one’s own perception is linked to one’s experience of things. For example, if you feel pain for an extended period of time, you can tell yourself that it will end eventually, and this will make it easier for you to endure it. It all comes down to reason. You know that all things have an end, thus there is no need to worry about the present pain. You know that death is an absence of all sensations, including pain, thus there is no need to fear it. If there’s one thing that can help your son through all his torment, I think it’s this idea – that it will all end at one point. As Epicurus himself says in his Letter to Menoeceus, “Accustom yourself to believe that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply awareness, and death is the privation of all awareness; therefore a right understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life an unlimited time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. … Death … the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
In the hope that I was of some help to you and your son, I bid you farewell, and I hope you will let me know, when you have the time, how you and your family are doing.