My great aunt died the other evening. She was 102 years old. At that age, death is aggressively inevitable. My family wondered aloud when it would happen, and how. She discussed it often with my mother.
The conversations were not taboo. They were rational, reasonable. We planned ahead, as if for a vacation, or a snowstorm. Where to put what, who to include, how to clean up afterwards.
Then a voice mail. She had a stroke. Bedside visits. Professional suggestions that we should count in days. Now count in hours.
A sunny evening. The dinnertime hour she looked forward to. There she goes. She is gone.
And there we were, her circle of onlookers, separated by an arm’s length or the distance of a text message. We admitted to each other that we were stunned. We confessed to feeling shocked at the sense of loss. Even as we laughed at pictures of her wearing large wraparound sunglasses over her reading glasses, or a video of her singing loudly off key, we were sad.
That these feelings were unexpected is not a reflection on our feelings towards our aunt. She was an integral part of our family, a loyal and constant presence, a surrogate mother and grandmother. They are a reflection on the cunning complexity of death.
It was time for her to go, but once she had gone, it felt premature. We’d had her for so long, but once she left, the loss was profound. It was expected that she would die any day, but once she satisfied statistics, it was a surprise to confirm that she was capable of dying.
Perhaps it is possible to be logistically prepared for someone to die. It seems doubtful that it is ever possible to be emotionally prepared.
A death is sad because we mourn the deceased’s lost opportunities. The children he won’t get to see grow up, the relationships she won’t be able to repair, the projects he won’t complete. It’s a sadness born of sympathy.
We know what we look forward to, and the future that is meaningful to us. We know how we feel when we imagine that future being denied. We transfer that imagination to the reality we confront at another’s death, and we express sadness on behalf of someone who can no longer express anything.
Death is also sad, though, because of the direct loss to those on the other side. The emptiness we feel when we move forward without the deceased. The loneliness we experience when we engage in activities that we used to share with someone no long able to participate physically. It’s a sadness born of selfishness, however pure.
She always used to prepare that dish for Christmas dinner. Now we’ll try to recreate the recipe. She always called to check in at this time of night. Now the phone doesn’t ring. She always welcomed us for a visit, regardless of the time of day. Now there’s a stranger on the other side of the door.
Death also encourages us to reminisce. We share memories and pore over mementos. We wonder if we should have behaved differently, communicated more, avoided less. It’s a guilt born of finality.
We tell stories and realize how prominently she was featured. We take stock of our behavior and worry he deserved better. We remark at how good she was at staying in touch, and we wish it was a lesson death didn’t have to teach us.
We spend our entire lives preparing for death, but we never get better at it.
Maybe we’re not supposed to.
Acknowledging and experiencing death, regardless of timing or circumstance, teaches us to appreciate life. It legitimizes the cliche that life is precious. It honors the value of the life that is no more.
My great aunt lived a long and healthy life. She died a comfortable death. We mourn in a way we didn’t expect, but in a way that is appropriate. With sadness and sentimentality, love and respect. And hope that we made something of her life, and that her example will help us to make something more of ours.