Two of my closest friends have recently sustained the most profound losses. My friends and I are 60+ years of age. Not old, but certainly experienced in life’s ways. My father passed away at the age of 64, so the reality of death is closer than I like to admit sometimes. Yet, I’ve held on to the gift of health and feel like a person much younger than my years.
My friend, Toni , lost her daughter to chondrosarcoma two years ago. It is hard to imagine such a loss! Our kids grew up together and my boys remained friends with Jennifer to the end. There is no recovery from a loss of that magnitude! Fortunately Toni has two beautiful granddaughters to cherish. Whenever Toni and I get together, we share the hole this has left in her soul. As a friend, I can’t quite wrap my head around her experience of loss, although I try. I imagine what it would be like to lose one of my sons and there is a momentary sense of it and then I push it away…..too awful to imagine having either of them taken away in an “untimely death”. How would I accept such a loss, I wonder? What is an untimely death? No rules exist about when or where, although we like to create imaginary lines about what is acceptable. Some folks wish they could die while many long for a little more time. Jennifer certainly wanted a little more time to watch her two young daughters grow up. Jennifer’s death, riddled with great suffering, made me wonder about what I might chose in a similar circumstance. Fearing that magnitude of suffering, I believe I might chose to take things into my own hands and end things on my own terms. I realize, one never knows unless they are faced with the reality of the situation.
Karen, my cousin, just discovered that her husband and life partner, Craig, has stage four intestinal cancer. Modern medicine failed them by delayed diagnosis, which allowed his cancer to progress to the point where it will be difficult to treat. Again, the intensity of her shock and fear washes over me, as I attempt to put myself in their shoes. Isn’t that what we do when those close to us undergo extreme grief or loss? We try and imagine our own strength and coping ability in similar circumstances. How would I handle such an event? What would I do if left with these choices? And ultimately, how would I handle being left alone in a world that can be harsh and uncaring? Feeling another’s pain is an imaginary or practice run. We can’t quite go there, but it causes us to think about the prospect.
The other day, I drove up to my mother’s condo, and saw her sitting alone on her little wooden bench looking through her mail. She has been widowed since 1990. Overall, my mother has been a wonderful role model for how to age gracefully and live life to the fullest, in spite of osteoarthritis. She cooks weekly Sunday dinners for the family and finds purpose in her life at age 86. Yet, that image of her frail and profoundly aged body surviving alone all these years made me feel sad and humble.
Over time, I’ve changed my beliefs about where we go when we die. The hope and safety of heaven in the beyond has been replaced with a sense that we go to where we came before we were born. Life’s energy goes back to the flow of the universe. The reason our lives are finite is that we make room for the ones that come after us. Like the trees, we become compost to the earth and create nourishment for the little saplings that are striving to grow. The cycle of life is part of the natural plan and cannot be negotiated. All is right in the greater scheme of things. It is the individual loss of those we love that feels unfair, unacceptable and untimely.
I’m not one to brood or be overly focused on death and loss. As a counselor, I’m often led to process the losses of my clients along with them. Their journey is not my own, but I do walk a little way with them. I often feel honored that they allow me to share the voyage. It enriches my life. To avoid feeling the grief of others, takes away from what makes us all human.