I've been encountering death an awful lot this last 18 months. An unusual number of people close to me have passed. The majority of these friends were in their Golden Years. I knew what to say. We have a vocabulary for this situation. "It was his time." "She's out of her misery now." "She led a long and productive life and now she's at peace." One can comfort the family and oneself. They had achieved and made their unique mark on this world. They had led a full life.
However, when a young person dies, our language is woefully inadequate. When a young person dies, there's always a stunned silent chill that grips the heart. Recently the world shared this experience when Peaches Geldof was found dead in her home. No one had anything to say that could even remotely begin to comfort the family. Nor could most of us comfort our own fearful hearts. She was barely older than my kids, for goodness sake. And the question the world was asking was, "What went wrong?" For surely it must be wrong. Mustn't it?
The only vocabulary we seem to have for expressing condolences on the event of a young persons death, communicates this sense that it is somehow wrong.
We say their death is senseless.
We say they died before their time.
We say they had their whole life ahead of them and now that's been taken from them.
All of these sentiments are inadequate in answering the need for comfort and a way forward. All of these express a lack of acceptance, a deep heartbreak and an underlying belief that there is something wrong. Though we know death is the final act we will all perform here on Earth, we still maintain a refusal to be non-judgemental about it. In general, we brush it aside, refrain from educating ourselves about it and figuratively bury our heads in the sand. And, as a society, we leave ourselves unprepared when it comes at us from out of the blue.
This became so very apparent to me when a close friends son, whom my boys had grown up with, chose to suicide. Even with someone so close to me, I had no idea what to say. I was frozen with dread, guilt and a sense of inadequacy because I could not think of any way to mitigate her horrible grief. I couldn't get past my own judgments. I felt cheated that social norms had not prepared me for this kind of death.
We have come so far, as a culture, in unwrapping stale taboos and showing them the light of day, finding that the darkness takes the light rather quickly when we do. Can we not begin to find a vocabulary that lacks such judgement? Isn't it time to develop a protocol for accepting, grieving and moving forward, even when the future will lack the presence of a dear loved one whom we had planned to see there beside us?
Surely it's time to address, in the open, the questions that come up when a young person dies.
How does one embrace a son or daughter who passes before we ourselves?
How does one let go of the expectation of a lifetime loving, nurturing, planning, laughing, comforting, exploring the possibilities with, another being?
How does one honour a life, so brief, in a way that lives the grief and the celebration in proper measure?
And perhaps in doing so we can discover a way to begin altering our perception of deaths' timing, an acceptance that each life is always exactly the right length? Perhaps we can begin to pick apart the difference between death and loss, find a way to teach ourselves to keep the energy and sparkle alive in our awareness, not as a haunting memory but as a tangible presence. Some people already have this ability. To hold the essence of their loved ones in their field even when the physical vessel has gone.
It's a tough one to embrace. I can hear my upbringing saying, "Surely letting go of the pain is a betrayal to their memory." But is it? Perhaps the bigger betrayal is to hold onto the pain and allow it to define us. To hold onto the belief that somehow their death was wrong.
Feel the heartbreak, yes! Grieve and feel the emptiness and fear, absolutely. But do so with an aim towards accepting the complete uncertainty of anything in life. Including life's finale.
We all go when we go. Each one of us. When will we begin to make a concerted effort to add acceptance of that fact to our cultural perspective?
And how can we do so?