Feeling Cheated When People Die Too Young

by JoHarrington

Death is a fact of life. Yet it feels entirely unfair when the funeral is being held for a child or young adult. How do you make sense of that?

This week I was at the funeral of a thirty-eight year old friend. Not very young, closer to middle age than childhood. But that was the point. For him to have been middle aged, he should have expired at eighty.

Now he died too soon. Now it seems like we were cheated.

Last week was also the fourth anniversary of another tragic loss. My nephew's thirteen year old friend died suddenly after contracting meningitis. By anyone's standard, that was surely too young.

But was it? Before we can grieve, we first have to accept that our expectations were unrealistic.

The Sound of her Wings

People die at any age. There is no 'too young'. We will feel wronged no matter when our mortality is indelibly proven to exist.

Image: Death from SandmanThere's a scene in Neil Gaiman's Sandman, which sums it up.

A graphic novel doesn't seem like the most promising place for answers, but then those are generally the best places to find them.

The Sound of her Wings has us trailing Death, as she completes her rounds. A far cry from the usual terrible aspect of the Grim Reaper, this foxy, compassionate Goth Girl cares for every soul that she personally collects. Not with tears and pathos. She understands that death is merely the 'high cost of living'.

She is everywhere and nowhere. She is with a pigeon falling from the sky. She is with an old man, relieved at the respite from a long and exhausting life. She is with a baby, swept up from its cot, where its mother thinks it merely sleeping.

"But... is that all there was?" The infant asks, "Is that all I get?" 

"Yes," Death smiles kindly, "I'm afraid so."  Her brother Dream mirrors our reaction, as he stares down at the lifeless shell lying in the cot. Ignoring the lively child in conversation behind him.

Death hasn't finished.  She hails a comedienne, dying on stage, "Come on, honey. Time's up."  Later, she answers another person protesting their own demise, "You got what we all get - a life."

It's fiction, but it mirrors reality very well. From the second we are born, we could die, and no-one ever thinks that a life-span was long enough. There was always more to do, so much potential in the future. Things left unsaid, places unvisited, things remaining to tick off the bucket list.

We die when circumstances conspire to kill us. This has nothing to do with age. It's simply our time to go. Fate caught up with us.

Even when confronted with such brutal facts, it still doesn't seem fair. That sense of being cheated probably derives from the lies we tell ourselves, in order to sanely survive a life in the full knowledge of its eventual finale.

You and I Are Gonna Live Forever

We each secretly assume that we, and all our loved ones, are immortal.

There might be lip-service given in the form of writing wills, or requesting tunes to be played at our funerals. But what does that have to do with reality? 

Our greatest gift to ourselves is the denial of the fact that we really will die. The downside being the betrayal felt when the inevitable end occurs. 

Even if we shake ourselves and fully grasp the depressing reality of our mortality, then we find solace in a secondary lie.

More pervasive, and layered with spurious evidence, than the first, this one tells us that most people die in old age. It's backed up by CIA life expectancy figures and the Church.

As long as we're still young, we have many years left to live. Hence the additional shock when young people go and die on us.

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What Happened to a Lifespan of Threescore and Ten?

The Biblical Psalm 90 is the source of many unsubstantiated expectations of living to at least seventy years old.

Image: Elderly couple'The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.' King James Bible, Psalm  90:10

For Christians, it sounds like a divine promise. Barring accident or disaster, God has practically signed a contract allocating seventy years to every living individual.

If you went over it, then that was a bonus. If you fell short of it, then you have been robbed of your due lifespan. You died too soon.

Nor do you necessarily have to be Christian to believe in such a random figure. A tacit belief in this reality has left its mark upon our lexicon.  We state that people enter 'middle age' somewhere around 35 or 40, because they will die around 70-80 years old.

As medical advances and better living conditions are perceived to raise our life expectancy, then our notion of the middle aged moves accordingly. Life begins at forty, when we still seem so very young. Perhaps fifty, or even sixty, is more like it in 2013.

No. My friend Adam was middle aged at nineteen. He died accordingly at thirty-eight. Little Liam entered middle age at six and a half.

Those telling themselves that sixty years old is the new 'middle aged' are implying something quite remarkable. They, and all their peers, are going to live until 120.

The evidence is against them. Only one person in history ever managed that. Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment celebrated her 122nd birthday, before passing on. Her feat of longevity is generally viewed as an anomaly.

Yet no-one seems to regard her as having somehow cheated in the great stakes of life expectancy. It should be the logical conclusion. If a deceased child died too soon, then Madame Calment must have died too late.

But that is missing the function of the 'threescore and ten', as well as the life expectancy figures. They are rough guidelines, something to aim at, but never a guarantee. They are there as reassurance, but not a promise.

They are psychological touchstones, that shatter us when they're not met; then become meaningless when they're surpassed.

People cling to the belief in 'threescore and ten' years, because it has always been a comfort. Despite the fact that, historically, it was a rare individual who actually reached it. Turning over the statistics, it seems that seventy years old has ever been more about luck than likelihood.

As for beyond that, death appears to be more acceptable.  "They had a good innings," we sagely remark, even as we're breaking our hearts. Because then, more than any other time, we need to convince ourselves that death is not random. It comes after a certain age. We are still safely distant from our own end.

Making Sense of Someone Dying Too Young

We can waste too much time in regrets over things that never were. It's better to recall our young dead in beautiful memories. They existed, not they are gone.

Image: Young autumn treeOnce we finish wading through the layers of self-deceit, it becomes obvious that nobody is cheated by a young person dying.

At least not in terms of being robbed of their due.

Children have always died in droves. During America's early colonial days, 40% of youngsters never reached their fourth birthday. 

As late as the turn of the 20th century, life expectancy was only in the late 40s.

Even today, 5.9% of infants are delivered stillborn in the USA.

At no time was the promise of old age enshrined in the constitution or the law of the land. It was neither an inalienable nor a human right. Thus, in the vast scheme of things, it is not unfair for someone to die young. They got what everyone gets - a life.

But what does any of this matter, when you're grieving over the loss of a loved one? It's not about the vast scheme of things. It's much more personal than that.

Whether you believe in destiny or just bad luck, there was an expectation at their birth. It wasn't entirely fulfilled. A whole potential future was just snuffed out. While there may be no entitlement to feel cheated, it's perfectly understandable to be disappointed.

We may reflect back upon an older person's life and see all those milestones along the way. For a younger person, there are too many blanks and speculations about what might have been. Their eulogies become less a celebration of a life, and more a waste of regrets.

Yet perhaps the answer lies there.

By scrapping those expectations too, we are left with what was actually lived. Our young person was vital and beloved. They made an impact, or else why would we be mourning them? Their presence filled a life-time so completely that we now feel a loss.

There's plenty there to celebrate and that is where our focus should be.

Remembering the dead for what they were, not what they could have been. Recalling what they did, not what they might have done. Releasing our sense of injustice at their youthful demise, because it cannot be targeted, nor can it be helped. It was not real.

Taking instead all that they were and fixing our memories tightly around us. This is the shield that will carry us through our grief, and into the coping that must follow on.

Books about Coping with the Loss of a Child

I'm no psychiatrist, nor a grief counsellor. The above is largely me attempting to find my own answers. Below are people who have more professional advice.
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Beyond Tears: Living After Losing a Child, Revised Edition

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Updated: 11/09/2013, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 12/12/2013

Everyone on Earth being compassionate at the same time? That truly would be something to experience. Let's start with us and work our way up.

katiem2 on 12/12/2013

Thanks Jo,

You are right, I feel the pain (joys) of others, read them, know their problems when with them but I cannot be everywhere. I had not been around him for a while. BUT I always reach out and address the energy I receive from others. People are both amazed and relieved to learn someone actually sees their pain, their truth, acknowledges it, validating their reality, that in itself being a huge weight off most. It's not about what we can change it is more about being compassionate, noting the obvious ways we can all bring a bit of light into the lives of others. Imagine if all of us did this and what an impact it could make. So many people would come to know there are those who care about them.

JoHarrington on 12/06/2013

Oh Katie. I didn't even know the lad, but I've got tears in my eyes for him. It feels cruel when young people die, but so much worse when it was at their own hand.

Soul seeking is inevitable, but I think we can drive ourselves insane searching for answers, when we don't even know the questions. I guess that all we can do is look around ourselves often, and hope to notice when those in our vicinity aren't doing so well. Then do our best to catch them.

If we see a wrong, then address it. Reaching out always with kindness, compassion and the loud, clear message that people can come to us, especially if the only other solution appears to be suicide.

But we aren't mind readers and it's none of our responsibility to save the whole world. Just that bit of it within our sphere of influence, coupled with a huge dose of luck.

There's an old prayer that I heard once on a Sinead O'Connor track, which feels quite apt here: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I'm sorry to hear of your community's loss.

katiem2 on 12/06/2013

Just last week one of my 17 year daughters class mates hung himself in a tunnel beneath the bike path were they had jogged, biked and walked all their lives. It was and is earth shattering to the kids, and we adults. This young man is (was) the mirror image of my daughter in male form and this scares the hell out of me. He was a bright and happy child and young man, he and my daughter grew up in school attending gifted programs with advanced course studies. They were into their senior year; stood side by side in the public paper honored as national scholars. They were so close to accepting their international baccalaureate diploma and moving on to their slated Ivy League universities, and yes, he too had received a full ride to the school of his dreams.

He always laughed, was active in school, clubs, family (kind good people) never showed any signs of depression etc. Everyone is still reeling trying to process. The mother of one of our kids, IB, was jogging last Wednesday down that path were we so often do. You see the tunnel is one of those big tunnels running beneath roads, those accessing the bike and jogging path or continuing it across the busy street beneath it. She found David hanging in the tunnel that morning as she turned the corner to enter it.

HE is now dead, I have been so angry since. I cannot figure it out; the police insist it was a suicide to spite the fact there is not a shred of evidence pointing to it. I feel the best and the brightest kids in our community have had one of their own snatched from their tight inner circle with no concrete answer. I have watched them turn inward looking out at the rest of the world with cold glares only talking among themselves. I know they feel, to some degree, like me, mad and unsettled, unwilling to take this as truth. It is very sad to experience the loss of a young person by any means. So many young people are committing suicide and it worries me terribly, are we doing enough, seeing enough, hearing enough, listening good enough?

JoHarrington on 11/28/2013

I heard a saying recently. 'We do not own the world, we borrow it from our grandchildren'. That seems to say a similar thing here.

frankbeswick on 11/28/2013

Emma-Rose, that is one of my favourite quotes. It goes on to indicate by use of metaphor that what we can do is solve the problems now so that those who come after us have better fields to till. This ties in with my ambition to leave the world in a better condition that I found it.

JoHarrington on 11/28/2013

You raise a great point here. Everybody dies too soon, from the point of view of those left mourning them. My Nan, your Dad, all those beloved people should have been immortal. But they're human beings, so they were not.

I do like the exchange between Frodo and Gandalf. Wise sentiments indeed.

Guest on 11/27/2013

Jo, The poignancy of dying young is emphasized by your observation that "My friend Adam was middle aged at nineteen. He died accordingly at thirty-eight. Little Liam entered middle age at six and a half."
As I read your thoughtful journey through death's seeming unfairness, I'm reminded of my favorite lines from "Fellowship of the Ring":
Frodo: "I wish none of this had happened."
Gandalf: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."
As you point out, a more satisfying perspective is to recall what those who have gone before did accomplish, not what they didn't live to do. Again, you state so perceptively: "They made an impact, or else why would we be mourning them? Their presence filled a life-time so completely that we now feel a loss." That is exactly the conclusion which has comforted me concerning those whom I love who have passed away, all of them (from my perspective) way too soon.
My father passed away when I was 10, and in his library I found the words which have stayed with me all of my life: "Those whom the Gods love die young."

JoHarrington on 11/17/2013

Amen to that!

Mira on 11/17/2013

No good act is ever lost. I like the sound of that :) The last two comments from Frank and you, Jo, were so moving. They reminded me of a conversation from a long time ago, with a guy who believed that all the prayers around the world sustained (helped sustain) this world. And I LOVE what Frank says, "that the main talent is to give and receive love. Without this, no other talent has any value." This is really something to think about.


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