Sunday, August 31, 2014

Contrast In Truths: Dying too young and Living too long.

"Only The Good Die Young" rocked Billy Joel in 1977.  I was 24 then and loved the song but the lyrics didn't penetrate my soul or cause me to reflect on some deep hidden meaning.  In fact, maybe there wasn't any. It was just a fun song with a great rock and roll beat that pulled me to the dance floor.  Now, at 61, I am older, wiser, and at times, very much sadder.  Friends and family members, whom I loved dearly and miss daily, died way too young.  And yes, they were good.  If fact, they were great.  They were husbands and wives, friends, parents, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons.  They were loving, caring, giving members of their communities who succumbed to disease or fell prey to an accident and left those who loved them mourning and asking "why"?  For years it felt true.  "Only The Good Die Young."  I believed that if you lived a long life, death would always be sad, but not tragic.  But guess what?  It's not true.  The "Good" can live to be too old.  And perhaps their death  itself is not tragic, but the process can be excruciating and so, very, very. sad.

Most of us dream of a long life.  But what if that life becomes riddled with disease, dementia and crippling pain?  What if you experience chronic pain, fear and anxiety but can't communicate your thoughts and feelings to your family or caregivers?  What if your family and caregivers can't ease your pain, calm your anxiety, lessen your fears or even understand what you are trying to tell them?  What if you lose trust in everyone trying to help you?  What if you feel lost and confused but don't understand what's happening?  What if you aren't you anymore?  Alzheimer's is not the only devastating disease of the elderly.  It just happens to be one of the most common and one of the most devastating for the patient, their family and their caregivers.  It can go on for years with no clear end in sight.  While the patient succumbs to the symptoms, their family members experience an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness, frequently mixed with feelings of anger, frustration, guilt and defeat.

My mother suffers from Alzheimer's.  I remember one day she asked me why was she being punished?  She had always tried to be good and if there was a God why was he punishing her?  I had my own thoughts and beliefs but was struggling with how to answer her in a way she might find comforting.  I bought the audio version of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" by Rabbi Harold Kushner and we listened together.  I'm not sure it consoled her, but it did me.  I thought of this book when several of my dear friends and beloved brother-in-law died of cancer.  I think of it frequently when I am trying to care for and support my mother.  Because I see and feel her fear and there is nothing I can say to console her except, yes she is good, and sometimes, bad things do happen to good people. I'm not sure if she understands concepts anymore, but I say it anyway because I don't know what else to say and it makes me feel better to say something rather than nothing.

And this is what I have learned and how I try to stay centered within myself while being emotionally supportive and available to those I love.  There is no better or worse scenario to dying too young or living too long.  There is only the reality that we are all going to die and most of us don't get to choose when or how.  For some, death comes way too soon.  For others, death takes way too long.  There is no comfort in losing those we love, only relief to the end of their suffering.  We are left with the loss, but hopefully, we find some comfort in the knowledge that the love, patience, empathy and compassion we brought into their lives throughout their illness and during the process of their dying, eased their fear and calmed their panic, if only for brief moments.


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