One of the hardest parts of getting older: Friends, family, illness, and death

We write a lot on the blog about aging.

See my posts On not growing old gracefully, Invisibility, aging, and perspective, and Women who care most about their looks have the toughest time aging.

These posts concern issues about looks and self-esteem. And while it’s true that aspect of aging is tough, it’s not the toughest thing. It’s also hard having new aches and pains and not being able to do some of the things you used to do in your youth. Me, I’m also having a hard time recognizing that there are now some things I’ll never get to do. Not at all doors remain open. Hard stuff.

But the toughest thing isn’t any of this really. It’s coping with death. Remaining emotionally well as one makes one’s way through life means making peace somehow with death and loss.

When my first friends died I was young. They were young. Men in their forties. One died of H1N1. (Remember that?) The other of a heart attack. Goodbye Steve, goodbye Randy.

Both deaths were awful, tragic, but they felt like a fluke. Death still felt like something far away. I mean, something awful happened to these friends (yes, I think death is bad for the person whose death it is) but it seemed so distant and unlikely. Death wasn’t yet a normal part of my life.

My sister, Sarah, also died in 2009 at the age of 41, after decades of struggle with depression and mental illness. Death seemed closer then. More real.

Then more friends from high school started to die, men in their early fifties. One died of ALS. The other, a high school boyfriend and a sweet, gentle man dedicated to his family, died of cancer. Goodbye Justin, goodbye Kevin.

And yes we all die but these deaths seemed early. They were people in the middle of things, on whom others depended.

And then more cancer, more deaths. Goodbye Gerry, goodbye Peter. I don’t swear but even I say, Fuck cancer.

Two members of my feminist book group died.

And so many parents, Avis (see On counting almonds, searching for Devil’s Claw, and remembering Avis), Tom (On “special weather,” bike commuting, and missing certain people) and my father. Of course, friends of my parents have been dying too. 

Now this year it seems it’s the mothers of those close to me: Eleanor, Rob (see Remembering Marion) and Sarah.

So many parents. I mean on the one hand I know we all die. I know we mostly all have two parents. And that makes for a lot of parental deaths

Yesterday a friend and I joked about that line from Oscar Wilde, ‘To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune to lose both looks like carelessness.”

And in the midst of it all, Sandra Bartky died. See Saying Goodbye to Sandra. I’m away this weekend at a memorial gathering of her former students. I’m thinking again about death, how short our lives really are, and the legacies we leave behind.

I know I can’t keep track of them all but sometimes in my head I recite the list of names of friends and family members who’ve died over and over again. And I know it will get longer and longer, assuming I stay alive. I know I’ll lose track. There are probably people I’m missing now. I didn’t list friends of my parents. I didn’t list my friends’ parents.

Often now I buy sympathy cards in multiplies. I’ve gotten better at knowing what to say. I’ve been to lots of funerals. Always go to the funeral.

It feels selfish writing about some of these deaths since I wasn’t that close to the people involved. But it’s true for all of us that friends and family members die. It doesn’t let up. Sometimes I just want to tell the world I need a break. “Could no one please die this week?”

I don’t want to get tough in the face of death. I want to stay soft in my heart and open to love and to loss. People sometimes think that my quest to stay physically fit is about fending off death. It’s not. See Fighting aging? Why the battle language?

I’m all for aging. As my dad used to say, it beats the alternative.

But losing friends and family? There’s not much good to say about that I’m afraid. I’ve gotten very protective of the people I love. DRIVE CAREFULLY, I scream at them. I ask if they are eating well, seeing a doctor regularly, you know. I hang on to people tightly. I hug goodbye fiercely. It’s the toughest part of aging, in my experience. Also, so few people talk about it.

My mother lost a dear friend last month. They’d been close friends for decades. Old friends, the kind you’ve known for most of your life, won’t happen again. This is just normal aging, I know. There’s nothing tragic here really. But still. Nothing stays the same. Don’t get me started on the dogs.

Manny and Olivia, two black dogs, looking in through the screen door with a green chair in the background.
Manny and Olivia, two black dogs, looking in through the screen door with a green chair in the background. They both died in 2014.

Hug everyone. Hug lots. Hold people close. Tell them you love them.

How do you cope? What strategies do you recommend? Puppies, I know that one. Long bike rides. Walks in the woods. But what else? 






7 thoughts on “One of the hardest parts of getting older: Friends, family, illness, and death

  1. Snuggles, good food, good company and sharing stories of the folks who are gone. I find comfort in knowing once a story ends is when we find the meaning of it.
    I also come from a large, loud family that does the three days of food & family. Many tears but also many hugs & laughs.

  2. Thank you for this beautiful resonant hard reminder that keeping our hearts open and relationships strong means experiencing pain and loss.. it’s expected, we get better at the resilience, and it reshapes us.

    Last weekend I slept in the bedroom of my cousin’s son, coincidentally on the first anniversary of his death at the age of 18. As I fell asleep surrounded by the artifacts of his short full creative life, I felt wrapped in impermanence. It’s what we have to live with as we age, and it’s good to talk about and acknowledge it. Huge hugs.

  3. Tell the people you care about that you care. I’ve lost a lot of friends in a short period of time this past two years. You think you have time, but really, you don’t. My piece of advice on coping is don’t waste time. If you think of someone, send them a note. Give them a call. Don’t wait for the perfect time. As EM Forster said, “only connect.” That’s all we can do. Then you won’t be thinking I wish, you’ll be remembering the conversation, the response, the hug.

  4. It is reminder to ourselves to reach out our loved ones and make a few new friends along the way. The latter takes time. Sometimes sharing an exercise activity helps.

    I’ve lost a good friend, mentor this year. Will be a visiting long time cycling advocate-friend in Vancouver..soon who can’t cycle much anymore @80. But still in great spirits and loves to walk. This is someone who cycled across Canada solo as a retirement gift to herself. A mother and grandmother also. The volume of cyclists you see now in Vancouver….owes it to her and few others making it safer and easier.

  5. You post reminds me of a line in one of the Indiana Jones films when Indiana Jones’ friend and colleague said to Harrison Ford, “We’ve reached an age when life starts taking things away.” I feel the same as you do. When deaths occur in multiple sequence it can really place an emotional toll on your well being. I had three relatives die within 10 months of each other.

    I don’t know what strategies are the best ones to take in dealing with grief, but I do have a brief excerpt that was printed as a reminder for parents on how not to be too controlling of one’s own children. In a way we can apply most, if not all, of its strategies to our own lives, for we can never own a person or or even the objects we possess because they belong to themselves and to an era of time that is fixed. Like artifacts, we are the arrows of which our living god has sent us forth and we will all return to him at some future time. Here’s the brief excerpt:

    “Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
    For they have their own thoughts.
    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
    You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
    For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
    You are the bow from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
    And He bends you with His might that His arrow may go swift and far.
    Let your bending in the archer’s band be for gladness;
    For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.*

    *From The Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951), pp17-18.

    To me it seems a brief counsel on acceptance. I hope this helped.

  6. Focus on what you learned from the people you loved and lost, and incorporate those learnings in your life daily. Each time you do , thank them in your mind, and you keep their beautiful spirit alive.

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