Two friends have died in recent days. One expected. One not. I’m wresting with both losses.
I’m no stranger dealing with death. Loved ones have died; I covered many tragedies during 40 years as a reporter; I’ve been a hospice volunteer and board member. All involved issues of death. And the process of dying.
When we live longer, death becomes more a fact of life. As our friend Maxine says in her cartoon wisdom “being older means having less peer pressure.” Of course that’s because there are fewer older people in our lives we feel we have to respond to. But, as in the case of one of my friends, he was younger and his death was out of the normal sequence of life.
Parents who have stood by the grave of a child know what I mean by “sequence.” The natural order of things: children bury parents, not the other way around. We expect death to be “in order” like the Dewey decimal system in a library. When that “order” is interrupted, it seems to jolt us even more and magnifies the loss. It’s just not supposed to happen that way.
The death of younger people also sharply points out to the older our own vulnerability. I’m never more aware of my age than when someone I know dies who’s many years younger than me. The rest of the time, the number of candles on my most recent birthday cake is just that: a number.
There is also the question of selection. Why him or her? Why not me? In the order of things, they should be reading my obituary; not me reading theirs.
Few things in life are as universal for everyone as death. Yet grief is as individual as we are. On confronting the news, some are overwhelmed while others seem to take to the role more slowly. I’ve also found the severity of grief has little to do with how close someone was or how often our interaction. I’ve shed more tears for some acquaintances than for some family members; for people I hadn’t seen in years rather than some who were around every day.
I’ve been told by professionals the holes left in our lives by loss will eventually be filled. That has not been my experience. For me, the holes are still there even if we reorient ourselves to new people with new experiences and new relationships. We make room for them. But there is still the large cleft in death of a loved one that remains unfilled. The pain is ever sharp. Even if we’re open to new people offering love and hope, they don’t replace the previous. They can … and I believe should … co-exist.
How a person dies and at what point in his or her life also affects my grief. In these most recent experiences, one friend was nearly 80-years-old and had one health problem on top of another for several years. For him, I feel a sense of gladness for relief from suffering and for his family who had sacrificed so much being caretakers. Death, in his case, prompted a grief tinged with joy for all concerned. His release means freedom.
The other friend was 10 years my junior. While being diabetic, he was faithful in diet, medication and exercise. Married to a health professional, he was the longtime executive of a state association of physicians. He had many medically-involved people in his daily life to help keep him on track. His health was otherwise fine. Except, one recent day, riding his bike, his heart stopped. Suddenly.
My grief in his case is a mixture of shock, sadness, curiosity, loss and that sense of out of “sequence.”
One can look at these examples and say, “When I go, I hope it’s sudden so I don’t wind up lying in a bed with all sorts of health problems.” Yes, death … sudden or otherwise … can be talked of in such a dispassionate manner. When in the abstract. I’ve done it, too.
But when you factor in the will to live, the desire to continue when others would have given up, the discussion of death is no longer dispassionate, no longer clinical, no longer just thoughts off the top of our heads. Living, for most of us, will mean the exertion of all our strength and the exercise of all our will to continue as long as possible.
To you who’ve read this, thank you for participating in my loss. To Frank and Bob, while the pain is sharp, thank you for participating in my life.