Grooms tend to be older than brides and men tend to die younger than women. Given these two facts, in the United States eleven out of every twelve women become widows. Most married women know that in all probability their husbands will die before them. But when death comes it comes with shock, pain and a sense of betrayal.
Knowing about something is not the same as experiencing it. In a sense, you can never be ready for the death of a loved one.
Equally, while the death of the old is inevitable and does not have about the same sadness as does the death of a younger person, no one is ever fully prepared to lose a parent. Even after a long and painful illness, even when death is a welcome relief from suffering, there often are feelings of remorse, a sense of things unfinished, a feeling that perhaps more couldhave been done, that things could have been different.
The death of a young person is most painful, most unbelievable of all.
Once when I was in Kenya my friend Anna took me to meet Paul, her brother-in-law. Paul had been a student at the University of Nairobi and one day, suddenly and mysteriously, he fell ill. He lay in a coma when I met him, nearly a year after the onset of his disease. His eyes were open but he didn’t move. Neither could he speak and the family didn’t know if he could hear or understand what was said to him. Despite the numerous examinations by doctors throughout the country and the various treatments he received, nothing could rouse him.
Anna explained that doctors had given up hope for his recovery. The family exhausted all possibilities and had resigned itself to his continuous comatose state and they knew that in all likelihood he would die soon. They kept him at home and each morning took him from his bed and seated him in a chair in front of a window looking out upon the family garden.
The family didn’t know what Paul thought or felt, or if he thought or felt anything at all. But in case there was some consciousness, they wanted him to enjoy the pleasure of seeing his family and looking at the trees and grass. No one knew what caused his illness and they received no encouragement from doctors regarding his recovery. Meanwhile, they tended to him and introduced him to each visitor.
For more than two years the family had fed him, cared for him and sat him by the window in his room. But just as mysteriously and as quickly as he had fallen into a coma, Paul died. Within minutes word spread about his death. Friends and relatives throughout the district gathered at the family home and together built a coffin, dug the grave, and, on the third day, buried him in front of his own house.
The family was overcome with grief. Although they had anticipated Paul’s death daily, when he died it still came as a shock. Two years of waiting didn’t lessen the pain.
People expect their parents will die; wives know that the chances are great that their husbands will die before they do. But a young person’s death is nature betraying itself. It is a wrenching out of the normal order of birth, growth and decay. The death of a child turns the world upside down. It is such a profound wrenching that nothing any longer seems real or worth- while. There is no way to prepare for the death of the young.
On some level of awareness we know that accidents don’t choose their victims and fatal illnesses strike people of all ages. We also know that the older a person becomes the closer that person comes to death. Despite this, no matter how well prepared we think we are, even though death is inevitable and spares no household, it always takes us unawares.
Whatever the time or circumstances of death, survivors feel anger and guilt - anger that they have been abandoned and left alone, guilt that they might have done things differently, that things were left unsaid, that there was unfinished business. If only: he took care of himself, I made him take care of himself, I didn’t let her go out that day, if we hadn’t had that fight yesterday. If only we had loved each other more. Anger at what has been done, guilt over what was not. Only the bereaved can know the depths of these emotions and only they can transcend them in time.