It’s a blessing to be 50 or more, in good health, reaping the benefits of a career well-executed and enjoying the gifts of freedom to seek new paths of enjoyment, travel or pursue whatever transition appeals to you. But there is a downside we may not think about until all of a sudden it begins to penetrate our life—the illness or death of close friends around us.
I remember visiting with dad one day a few years after mom had died. He was in his 90’s then, in reasonably good health, still living in his own home, driving his car and playing golf at least twice a week. As we chatted over coffee he told me that while he was glad to be alive and grateful to be healthy enough to be independent rather than living in some rest home, he did regret that at his age, he had now lost all of his friends—not one individual that he had known for years or connected with since retiring was living any longer. He outlived them all. Each one’s death had been difficult to deal with and now, here he was, alive, but all alone.
Now that I personally have reached a point well past 50, I wish I had sought his wisdom on how he handled grieving friends who he’d been so close to all those years. I wish I had asked him, because I now find myself dealing with similar situations.
While I feel blessed to be of pretty darn good health, mentally active and somewhat physically active, I find myself struggling to deal with many of those close to me who have not been as blessed.
Experts say that as each of us grows older, we will face more and more friends and family who will die because of illness, accident or simply old age. They say that figuring out how to cope with outliving others is both a proactive anti-aging skill and a mental health effort that we should all work toward.
In March this year, I lost my longest and closest friend from high school days. I knew she had been declining in health, yet the prognosis looked good for a time. Then with a combination of emotional and physical challenges, she simply died. To me it was unexpected and a painful reality.
Shortly after that, a neighbor man whom we had become very close to while working on some local politics simply went in the hospital one day and never came out. Although he was in his 60’s, it came as quite a shock because he was physically active and so mentally alert.
Within the same span of time, I got a call from a woman I mentored earlier in life. She’s considerably younger than me, which adds another element to the strife. Ten years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and through great treatment had gone into remission for all these years. Yet here she was, calling me to tell me the cancer had returned—in more places and more aggressive than before. My heart sank. I felt so helpless. And although she’s responding well to current treatment, the full prognosis has not been determined yet.
Add to this, only weeks ago we and several of our neighbors were hanging on the edge as one of our dear friends returned from a wonderful European trip only to be hospitalized and diagnosed with sepsis. Sepsis is a terrible diagnosis. People easily die from it. Fortunately, doctors were able to save her. Yet the threat of what could have been lingers as she recoups her health.
And then just early this week I was faced with perhaps the worst call of all. The son of my longtime friend in Kansas City had been found dead in his home. He was an amputee and my understanding is that he had been treated for an infection at the VA. But when home health care people came two days in a row and got no answers at the door, they called to police. An autopsy is scheduled to confirm cause of death, but whatever the reason, how much more can my friend really take? She, herself, is crippled with MS and has recently had to move to assisted living. Four years ago her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack; two years later her eldest son died of cancer and now her only living relative has passed as well. It’s all such a heartbreaking tragedy and in all honesty, it shook me to my core.
The point is, as much as one realizes that death and dying are inevitable parts of life, I’m not sure many of us are prepared for the grief that follows as we face this reality of life. And, most of all, how do we best support our grieving friends?
Grieving can involve a variety of emotions and behaviors. Feelings of guilt, anger, and despair are all common. Ours is not to judge or to take their grief reactions personally. For some, the recovery bereavement process may take up to 24 months, yet for others it may be longer or shorter. Allow your loved one to grieve as long as it takes because if you make them feel it’s taking them too long it can actually slow the healing process.
It’s important to let your grieving friend know that most of all, you’re there to listen if they want to talk. When it’s appropriate, ask sensitive questions but don’t be nosy. You might want to simply ask, “Do you feel like talking?” to let your friend know you’re available to listen. Accept their feelings; never minimize their loss and if your friend doesn’t feel like talking, realize that comfort for them can come from you simply being in their company. Offering help in whatever ways you can is welcoming as well.
Certainly, death can impact us at any age. Yet once you’re over 50, the reality is if you’re fortunate enough to live a long, healthy, active life, you’ll be faced with the illness or death of loved ones. How you prepare to deal with these realities will inevitably determine your own state of emotion and health. As for me—yes, I’m hurting from the recent situations I’ve faced and I’m grieving. While I’m making sure to reach out to my grieving friends, I’m also calling upon other friends to be there to listen as I share my grief. Just talking helps to process it rather than try to be stoic and burry the hurt inside. But most of all I’m making an effort to find small ways to cherish the memories of these loved ones.
As for my oldest classmate, I’ve shared photos and stories from our younger years with her daughter. Her mom and I were pictured in the local newspaper on graduation night and I even found an old copy of that photo to share with her. The photos bring back fun, fond memories and those are the memories I’ll always cherish.
As for my two neighbors, I’m staying in touch by phone and text and we’re even planning a few outings for lunch just to help get somewhat back to normal and move things forward.
As for my grieving friend in Kansas City, my commitment is to talk to her weekly—not just now, in her time of immediate grief, but for as long as we both are here from this day on. And God willing, one of these days we’ll make the drive to see her, but until then, she knows I’m just a phone call away.
And for my young friend who is battling a new round of treatment for cancer—thank heavens for her sense of humor as it gives us a wide span of communication. We’ve laughed about our mothers and some of the trials we’ve had with them and we’ve bragged about our kids and how lucky we are for all of them. And we’ve talked about the hard stuff too because we can. Most importantly, we’re making the most of this time while we can. In a way, we’re making new and additional cherished memories and that I treasure very much.
So, as you ponder your own life and how you will deal with the realities of dealing with the illness and death of loved ones that are certain to lie ahead, I share with you with four verses from Belinda Stotler’s poem Seasons of Grief which I found helpful to me in dealing with my grief:
Shall grief’s bitter cold sadness consume me,
Like a winter storm on the vast angry sea?
How can I fill the void and deep desperate need
To replant my heart with hope’s lovely seed?
Then I look at a photo of your playful smiling face
And for a moment I escape to a serene happy place;
Remembering the laughter and all you would do,
Cherishing the honest, caring, loving spirit of you.
For all the remaining seasons of my life on earth,
There’ll be days I’ll miss your merriment and mirth
And sometimes I’ll sadly long for all the yesterdays;
Missing our chats and your gentle understanding ways.
Yet, the lessons of kindness and love you taught me,
And the good things in life you’ve helped me to see;
Linger as lasting gifts that comfort and will sustain,
Until I journey to that peaceful shore and see you again.
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