Dying young…

It was April Fool’s day 1973. I was walking home from school for lunch when a neighbourhood kid told me my grandfather had died. Of course I thought it was a mean joke. When my sister and I arrived home, the house was filled with fresh tears. He had died the day before. This new wave of grief came from knowing his beloved grandchildren were being told that day.

That was my first experience with death. Besides being told he died, the thing I remember most was adults telling me, “He was so young!” To a 5 year old, that did not make sense. He was my grandfather. He was really old. He was 52.

Every other day, for the past year or so, I see birthday messages for my friends turning 50. My sister and I will join them in August. Yesterday the post was different. It was a message of RIP. One of those friends, from my junior high years, died of cancer. How is that possible? The grown-ups were right – he was so young!

Last year, I saw cancer take a young mom of 30. I remember decades ago, when my sister worked as a dietitian in oncology, she said the hardest loses for her were young adults, just about to start their lives, and parents of young children. As a grief counsellor (and a parent), I can appreciate that point of view. It seems so unfair.

As clients grapple with their grief, my answer to it seems clumsy and unsophisticated – you got ripped off. You lost your mom when you were a child, you lost your child (at any age), you lost your partner at retirement. It’s unfair. I grew up without my grandpa. A 10-year has to grow up without his mom. Now, two young men have to enter adulthood without their dad.

When someone dies, we don’t just lose the person. We lose all the hopes and dreams and expectations for our relationship with that person. It changes the future we had imagined for ourselves. That changes who we become. Our grief is now part of our story. We cannot possibly feel it all at once. I call it “layered-grief”. My dad died when I was 17. I missed him at my high school graduation that year. Sixteen years later, I missed him walking me down the aisle. New event, a lost dream, new grief.

Grief is a normal and natural response to loss, but we often get stuck in our heads trying to make sense of it all. We are trained from a young age to be rational. As we move through school, the less connected we become to anything other than our mind – less play, less gym, less music and art – until our body becomes a mechanism for moving our head from one subject to the next.

In 1981, Robert Kushner published When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It was a book he wrote trying to make sense of the tragedy of losing his young teenage son. It was his attempt at answering the question why. Why does a strong, healthy, loving man of 50 die instead of growing old?

This is how most of us are taught to grieve – rationally, in our head. Be strong, time heals, he/she is in a better place. People may be well meaning, but the messages we get around grief are not always helpful. Yes, your loved one may be in a better place, depending on belief, but you’re not! Grieving is not a rational act. It is the work of the heart. Grieving means sharing stories, developing rituals, and holding space for your tears, your anger, even your gratitude.

Knowing all that, today I am still grappling with why. Why did my friend have to die while I get to live? For me, that question means looking at his life of service and seeing how I measure up. If I get to grow old, can my impact in the world fill some small space of the huge hole left by his absence?

I hope my gratitude for having known such a great man encourages me to be a better woman. He lived a life of significance. If we follow his example, if we all pay it forward in some small way, he lives on. He continues to touch lives through our daily acts of service.

Goodbye my friend. Mingled with my sadness is comfort in knowing you are being welcomed home. You were a good and faithful servant. You will be missed greatly.