Dying too early

Jane McGrath’s recent death is a tragedy for her friends and especially for her close family.  But the amount of press coverage strongly suggests that public interest in her life and death goes beyond what might be expected for the attractive wife of a popular cricket player.

Here is a couple with “everything” yet they turn out to be as vulnerable as anyone else to one of the most brutal facts of human existence: that death sometimes comes far too early.  We use the phrase “mere mortals” to describe those of us not living under the spotlight of rare talent or fame, but when it comes to illness and death we are uniformly “mere mortals”. Money can sometimes buy time. Courage can sometimes bring time. Love can certainly transform whatever time we have.  But money, courage and love cannot always save us.

They also cannot save those left behind, although love and courage especially can be transformative.  That doesn’t mean they make grief easier, just endurable. I feel as though there has been no time in my own life when I was innocent of the realities of death.

Growing up, I was aware that before I was born my beloved maternal grandparents had “lost” two adult children in their early twenties. When I was eight and my mother was thirty-eight, she became the third of their adult children to die. A few years later, another daughter died. Seven of my grandparents’ children grew to adulthood and only three outlived them.  If anyone thinks that death becomes easier to survive, or that “things were different then”, they are harbouring an illusion. It is sobering to realise that my mother’s closest friend, older than she was, is still alive as I write this. Decades of relationship are lost in every early dying; countless moments of intimacy, joy, encouragement and mutual discovery will never be born. In defending ourselves against our fears of death we can easily trivialise other people’s losses, imagining that poverty and lack of education, for example, make it easier for parents and children to endure the deaths so commonplace in less developed countries, or that children don’t feel at least as deeply as adults, or that other relationships or “lots of money” make up for everything, None of that is true.

The loss for parents of any child is agonising. The loss of a life partner tears people into bits. But a child’s loss of a devoted parent brings extreme challenges. The child loses the centre of their emotional existence and they also lose all those future layers of affirmation and memory that they would ideally take into adult life. The fact that Jane McGrath’s children could smile at her funeral tells us nothing about what they will feel, acutely at times and intermittently at other times, for the rest of their lives. I was brash and often “”funniest”” when I literally could not bear my grief or others’ pity.  Parents who know they are dying sometimes bravely ask me what they can “do”. There is no recipe but remembering my desperation to know my mother better, I urge them to write down what they would most want each child to know as they grow older, what has made life good and meaningful for them, and especially what it is about each child that they most appreciate, as well as how it has been to be that child’s parent. Focusing on those loving, appreciative details, they can use a journal, a series of letters or create a book of photos and commentary. Each child should have a “story” of their own when possible. It is beyond precious to hold this in their hands when they can neither hold their parent nor be held. Because it means accepting the reality of death, it takes immense strength for the dying parent to do this, but the enduring benefits for the most vulnerable will be profound.

First published in Good Weekend, 2008.  Please do not reprint without permission.