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Death Becomes Us

by Anne Udall

July 7,2008

When I was in my 20’s, I remember attending a funeral with my dad. As we left the church that day, he turned to me and said—“This is what you do after you turn 50—attend funerals and weddings.” I laughed. As I grow older, I know now that dad was not being funny but simply speaking the truth of our lives as we age.  

If you are lucky, death does not enter your life in a very big way when you are in your 20’s and 30s (and I was very lucky). Of course there are losses, and important ones—grandparents, favorite family friends—but such gatherings are the exception, not the norm. “Normal” life resumes very quickly. 

And, then, inexorably, death becomes a more constant companion. As I enter my 50’s, like my dad did so many years ago, I attend funerals and wakes as a regular part of my life. I buy sympathy cards in bunches. I find myself occasionally looking at obituaries and I have friends who do so regularly! Tim Russert was close to my age. I find myself wondering—have I done everything I want to do? 

This growing familiarity with death is an inevitable part of growing older and quickly becomes a shared experience for all of us entering our 40s and 50s. When friends and family gather, we talk, without even realizing we are doing it, about who is ailing and who we have lost. It connects us in a way that did not happen in our earlier years. Then, it was about newborns, marriages, divorces. 

I have a special connection with those of you, who, like me, have lost your parents. My parents’ deaths shifted my experience of the world in a dramatic way. I entered new territory, and sometimes, without even knowing it, I look to see who my fellow explorers are and who has yet to arrive. My friends are in two camps—those who still have their parents and those who do not. Someone once said to me—‘After you lose your parents, you move to the front of the line.’ Yep, that’s it. Frightening, freeing, sobering, humbling. 

My relationship with my parents was complicated and not easy (now there’s a surprise!!). And I miss them terribly, at odd times and in odd places. Time has not changed that feeling—in fact, the opposite has happened. Time has smoothed the regrets, the residual questions, the ‘what ifs,’ leaving me with the deep desire to simply enjoy some time together again. Father’s Day and Mother’s Day can be painful. Seeing my friends with their parents can bring back an unexpected and profound sense of loss. 

And yet, I don’t envy my friends who are struggling with the confusion and ache of parents growing more ill, or the deep complexity of family dynamics over caretaking and property divisions, or the struggle with the immediate and gut-wrenching emotions of loss. I have a dear friend who is spending countless hours—both physical and psychic—as she finds care for her dad, and sleeps in the hospital with her mom. Sometimes, and I am ashamed to say this, I am relieved that I am not dealing with all of that again. The bonds of love, the responsibility of caring exact a high cost from each of us. 

As I experience this growing role of death in my life, I understand a bit more the adage –‘Growing old is not for sissies.’ The death of one’s parents is one of the many ‘rites of passage’ for all of us. The physical changes—the aching knees, the impact of gravity, the lines in my face—seem more manageable and easier to acknowledge as part of the price we pay for the privilege of still being on the planet. Acceptance is harder in the realm of the heart—living fully and fearlessly through the now continual presence of loss is challenging and new for me. And yet, a wise friend in her 70’s, gently told me that one day the death of my parents, as well as my own death, will seem like an inevitable and welcome part of the human journey.

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