My mother died a month after my 21st birthday. One year earlier, on my 20th birthday, her mother died. They had both moved into my aunt and uncle’s sunny front bedroom where a hospital bed was delivered by hospice in the months before their death. It was a place where they could get the care they needed and where our extended family was able to visit and help. Despite similar circumstances, my mom was 53 and my grandmother 94. As you might expect, they had very different expectations about what the end of their lives would be like.
When both my mother and grandmother fell ill, I was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in trumpet performance in a conservatory-like environment about a mile away from my aunt and uncle. As a result, I was able to visit daily during the final days of both of their lives. I was there to help with their care however I could, but mostly I came to listen to what they wanted me to hear, what they wanted me to know about their lives. I listened to their experience of coming to terms with the end of their lives.
My grandmother was ready for the end of her life well before she reached those last few years. She believed she’d given to others all she had to offer. She was driving and living independently until she was 91, continuing to go out to lunch, buy groceries, cook meals, take herself to the doctor, and drive friends who were no longer able to drive, to church on Sundays, or to bridge tournaments. She had no interest in becoming a burden on others, so when she was diagnosed with cancer in her 93rd year, she seemed relieved.
During her final years, she shared with me stories about her life and those of her extended family that she felt I needed to hear. These were stories she thought I could and should learn from. For as long as I can recall, she had offered such nuggets of wisdom, demonstrating the importance of people over things, and of meaning over money.
My mother went through a slow decline as she fought against her cancer, giving us, and probably her, the illusion that the end was farther off than it actually was. But during the final two or three months of her life, when it had become clear that she’d lost the fight, she made a valiant effort through the haze of pain medication to give me the pieces of herself that she wanted me to have. She was diagnosed with cancer only four days before I left for college, so I didn’t really have the chance to get to know her as an adult. But, when it came to those final days, we shared intimate moments that I am still learning from today. She offered stories of regret and happiness from her life, and the hope that I would take and build from the foundation she was leaving behind. She offered faith in my future happiness, and her confidence that I would do well in life, and the qualities she believed I could use to propel me there.
During the decade following their deaths, I went through several major transitions in my life, not the least of which included experiencing a dental injury that left me unable to continue my career as a musician. I got married, had my first child, fought depression, and graduated with a Master’s and PhD in Gerontology—a major change in occupation.
My draw to the study of aging was heavily related to their deaths. I was intrigued by how at peace my grandmother was at the end of her life. She had years to say her good-byes and intentionally gave away the best parts of herself to others. And I was sickened by the fact that my mother’s dreams and expectations about what later life would be like were derailed. After many years of saying, “Once I retire, I’m going to do that,” she had to face the reality that all that putting off for later left her having spent her life preparing for something that would never come. But in the end, she packaged together the best parts, and sought to send them forward.
I desperately needed to better understand the meaning of their deaths not only for my own life, but in the broader context. In the first semester of my master’s of gerontological studies program, I read a book by Jungian psychologist James Hillman(1). He was in his late 70s when he penned the manuscript, and posed the idea that aging wasn’t a process of adding new layers of ourselves, but rather one of peeling away the unnecessary parts, as a means of eventually finding our core self by late life. He contended that finding that core self was a necessary precursor for the important task of aging—giving back and offering wisdom to subsequent generations.
I found this idea intriguing. It resonated with my grandmother’s experience, to be sure. But it did not seem to fully explain the end of my mother’s life. She did not move through those same phases of life before she died, but nonetheless, found herself in a similar place of reflection and concern for how her life could best influence the next generation once the end was in sight.
Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University, offered another perspective(2). Her research shows that what we do and how we think about our lives is related to our sense of remaining time, and not our chronological age. When we perceive the future to be long, we tend to focus on long-term goals and are willing to sacrifice today with the expectation that our hard work or even suffering will be worth it later on. However, when our time horizon is shorter, we tend to focus on emotionally gratifying experiences, on generative offerings, and on cultivating our closest relationships.
So perhaps the process of moving inward, getting to our core sense of self as Hillman describes, is really a shift in perspective that is a necessary part of taking stock of the value of our lives for those who come after us. But do we need to reach old age or face impending death to be more cognizant of the present moment and what we are offering to future generations and the people we love?
The message here isn’t that we should enjoy life because you never know when it will be over. But it also isn’t that we need to be like Mother Teresa. There is a reason we seek to make immediate sacrifices for our future security when we are young. But, it is also true that we usually don’t know how long we have left, and if we focus only on our own lives and immediate happiness, our growth will stagnate.
A growing base of research shows that choosing to spend time engaging in activities that facilitate a strong sense of purpose; that provide opportunities to contribute to the well-being of future generations (especially outside our own families); and that allow you to feel like you really matter have a profoundly beneficial impact on your mental and physical health. As George Vaillant points out in his recent book—outlining the major findings of a longitudinal study of 263 men over 75 years—cultivating meaningful relationships trumps any other factor when it comes to finding health and happiness in later life(3,4).
Although we tend to be more drawn to jobs, volunteering, or caregiving opportunities that benefit future generations as we get older, we can and should consider how we are living our lives now, and how we matter to others well before we reach old age or experience a life-threatening condition. My mother and grandmother came to every orchestra performance, every recital, and listened to me practice my music, offering encouragement and expressing joy in how it made them feel. When they were gone, the empty seats in the audience of my performances were devastating and left me with lots of questions.
I offer a few to you—Where do you want your empty seats to be? How will you spend your years, however many are left, mattering to others?
(1) Hillman, J. (2000). The Force of Character And The Lasting Life. Ballantine Books.
(2) Carstensen, L.L., Isaacowitz, D.M., & Charles, S.T. (1999). Taking time seriously: A theory of socioemotional selectivity. American Psychologist, 54, 165-181.
(3) Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Harvard University Press.
(4) Carr, D. C. (2014). Triumphant discoveries about late life flourishing. The Gerontologist.