The news that Whitney Houston died at the age of 48 spun me back to the moment over a decade ago when I learned that a close friend's life had been tragically cut short. She was not yet 40 the day lung cancer claimed her and even though she had been ill for some time, I was unaccountably stunned by her death. I think that on some level, the loss of those dear to us always comes as a shock. An untimely demise is particularly painful to bear, of course, and so is a sudden one. Still, we're never really ready.
As we age, though, more and more of our friends are likely to -- in the language of the obituaries -- predecease us. I remember my mother when she was a ThirdAger blinking away tears while she crossed yet another name out of her address book. At the time, I didn't understand the layers of her grief. Now I do. In this chapter of our lives, the deaths of contemporaries not only cause us to mourn but also remind us of our own mortality.
In fact, even the death of a friend who is older can have that effect. My longtime mentor in the dance world was also a bosom buddy in spite of our 16-year age difference. I recently called to wish her a happy 85th birthday and I was devastated to hear the receptionist at the retirement community tell me that I was too late. My friend and I used to speak fairly often and she had always sounded as hale and lucid as ever. The article online on the funeral home site said simply that she had "passed away peacefully."
I slept fitfully that night, thinking about how I never got to say good-bye and wondering if I had thanked her enough for her guidance and for all the good times we had shared. And I probably don't have to tell you that I had to deal with the unshakable realization that I might have only 16 more years to live. If I die just shy of 85, as Sheila did, my grandsons will be 18 and 20. I might see them graduate from high school but not from college. And I probably won't dance at their weddings. As I tossed and turned, I simply couldn't get my mind around that fact.
The next morning, though, I made the choice to "seize the day" -- and for that matter, all of the days to come. There is literally not a minute to waste at this point. I also did some research to find balm for my soul and to see whether I could be better prepared for the next time a friend dies. Here's what I learned:
Feeling angry at the person for "leaving" you is normal.
I found this emotion to be embarrassingly self-centered so I was relieved to discover that I'm not alone in experiencing it. Experts advise not trying to tamp down the anger but to let it run its course.
"Survivor's guilt" is also very common.
Why am I here looking at this gorgeous sunset and inhaling the first scent of an early spring while she's gone? Some version of that thought pops into many people's heads during the grieving process. Again, time is the only solution and it isn't actually a cure. The best we can do is to get past a loss. We can't really get over it.
Wishing you had expressed your love more often is a frequent source of pain.
All we can do is use this lesson to help us communicate more freely and more often with those we still have in our lives. "Hug someone you love today" has the ring of a corny bromide, but it's not so foolish when you come right down to it.
Whether or not to look at photos and mementoes is a very personal choice.
One woman I know spent hours making scrapbooks of pictures of her with a friend who died in an auto accident. She also added souvenirs such as greeting cards they had sent one another, corks saved from champagne bottles, and candles from birthday cakes. For her, this activity was a great comfort. But another friend of the same women who died couldn't bear to go back over the times she had spent with her. She preferred meditation and prayer to deal with her feelings. Grief counselors say both approaches are healthy and that this is truly an instance of "to each her own."
In fact, grief is a personal journey in every way. A key statement in the Grief Counseling Resource Guide of the New York State Office of Mental Health says that a good counselor "sensitively and caringly helps individuals to grieve their losses in their own unique ways."
Speaking of counselors, though, please do consider getting professional help or joining a support group if you find that you're not coping well on your own. After all, a friend's death shouldn't go on darkening your life. Instead, it should illuminate your existence so that you can make the most of the time you have.
Sondra Forsyth is a Senior Editor at ThirdAge.com.