How do you manage aging, and grief that accompanies acquaintances dying?
May 16, 2018 9:07 AM   Subscribe

Like everyone, I'm getting older. I'm thankfully healthy, sane, securely housed, have a wonderful spouse, and lovely friends who are like family. But as soon as I reached my 30s (and now approaching my 40s), I see more and more friends and acquaintances getting sick and dying. I understand this will continue as I get older, but it quite shakes me, so I'm wondering how to get a better handle on it.

I'm a nurse practitioner and midwife, so I am no stranger to the miracles of life and good health, and the precariousness and preciousness of it all. And as a medical provider, I understand that rare outcomes are just that. And yet, in the last few years, I've had otherwise healthy friends/acquaintances in their early/mid 30s diagnosed with colon cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, bone cancer, and leukemia; plus other traumatic deaths (suicide, trauma, accident, etc.), and those are just off the top of my head. None of the persons with cancer had any known risk factors so were all the more shocking.

Whenever I learn of a diagnosis, it really shakes me to the core. Partly, I suppose, because as a nurse, I know what some of the future holds for the person and their families, and my heart aches for them. But it also strikes a sort of terror in me, and I grapple with an irrational belief that I must be running out of my good luck and it's only a matter of time until me or my spouse are struck with X disease. I also recognize that there's not much to do to prevent any of these things from happening, as I've taken care of very complex patients in their 50s/60s/70s who you wouldn't imagine would be alive (e.g., decades of IV drug use plus alcoholism plus smoking plus homelessness plus malnutrition plus HIV, etc.) and also know that some of my acquaintances are the opposite--healthy eating, exercise, doing all of the 'right things,' except having the worst genetic luck.

I suppose the root of this question is: how did you get a handle on the inevitable death and illness that befall your acquaintances as you age? Is it a matter of time and just getting used to it? Or have are you able to just appreciate things for how they are in the present? And, will this just continue to ramp up each decade? I think that as a nurse and human, I'll never be able to let go and detach from my sadness for other people (nor do I want to), but I would like to learn to not be so affected and panicked by it, if possible.
posted by stillmoving to Human Relations (11 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I should also add that I don't have any social media accounts, as those seemed to show even more persons I wasn't close with getting sick and dying, and it was a bit too much for me. Oh, and I'm not a generally particularly anxious person, either. Thanks for any thoughts!
posted by stillmoving at 9:25 AM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

This may sound trite seize every day with both hands. Be there with the people you care about, tell them so, share experiences with them. Live, live, live.

I know how hard this is. After I lost my first child I almost had a breakdown trying to handle my feelings about my second (and my third), and I still have moments where I am so scared to go through that loss again. But as far as I know, after years of trying to figure out some mysterious other way, besides some therapy/yoga/meditation, the only way to really deal with that is enjoy the present with them.

I can't guarantee they will be okay. No one can. But I can love the fuck out of them and take them to the park for a picnic dinner today. That is kind of it.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:44 AM on May 16, 2018 [23 favorites]

I do think you just get used to it.

When it starts happening, it's a terrible shock. I was diagnosed myself with breast cancer at 38. The idea that something like this could happen to me - ME! - was absolutely astonishing. No family history, healthy weight, vegetarian half my life, et cetera. Since then, mostly through survivor groups, I've come in contact with many other people going through much worse situations than mine, many of them even younger and just as "healthy" as I was. The whole thing was a real crash course on the fragility and randomness of life as a human being.

I've come across so many medical professionals in the years since my diagnosis who seem fascinated with why I got cancer, and others who treat me like I'm a robot with a set of symptoms to be treated with very specific chemicals in a very specific order. As good as my doctors are, none of them seem to actually understand what it's like to have this happen to you. There's a professional distance there, a feeling that I am a problem to be solved. So, I think your job might actually make this more difficult. You're used to seeing people with illness, but they're your work - you only see them in a medical setting, not in their real lives, not as the people they were before this happened to them. Nearly all the women in my family are nurses, and I know that intentional emotional distance you have to have in order to do your job - you have sympathy for the people you care for, of course, but ultimately you have to see them as clients. When someone close to you personally gets sick, it changes the whole game. My mom has taken care of sick people for forty years but when I told her I had cancer, she didn't sleep for three days.

Anyway, as a breast cancer survivor of just over 3 years, I'm pretty much always talking myself off a ledge to some degree. It's not possible to unlearn what you learn when you go through something like this, or see others close to you experiencing it. The only thing that works is making a conscious effort to live in the present, to do things I like to do, to be with the people I love as much as I can. I often find myself trudging up the stairs of my house saying in my head, "Alive, alive, alive," with every step. I am here today, alive. My loved ones are here today, alive. None of us have more than that. It's always been true; it's not as if the world around you has changed. You're just better able to see the reality now.

I was talking to some of my survivor friends about this subject recently - how sometimes it seems like our world is getting unrelentingly worse and harder and sadder and that things will never get back to "normal." We can't go back to ignorance, it's true, but our do brains adjust, lives calm down, things seem better or worse at different points. The more unexpected terrible things I go through, the easier it is to instinctively appreciate the good times, so that's something. Cold comfort, maybe. Life is hard.
posted by something something at 9:52 AM on May 16, 2018 [29 favorites]

When I saw your question, it reminded me of this post and especially, this comment.

My grandmother is currently 98 and my grandfather and almost all of her friends, acquaintances, etc. have passed away. I bet it is really weird to be in that situation. Understandably, she seems sad when she finds out that someone else she has known for years has died too. I don't know for sure, but I'm thinking that she tries to enjoy each day as much as she can.

For me, I think that what helps most is to try to "live in the moment" as much as possible and appreciate people and life in general for being part of my experience. Ephemeral as it may seem.
posted by strelitzia at 10:13 AM on May 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is hard. For me, turning 40 was much harder than turning 30 or 50, for exactly the reasons you describe. And like you, it happened for me a while before my actual 40th birthday, in my case because of 9/11. For some friends, that was a near miss, and friends of friends were lost that day.
So my perspective is that your 40s are a time of learning to deal with the fact that death is a part of life, and becoming gradually more accepting of that reality. It doesn't mean I have become cynical about it, contrariwise, it means I have become better at caring and grieving than I was. Then, I was so scared of death that I wasn't always able to show my compassion. Now, I (mostly) know to go there and be there.
I'm nothing near perfect. Your post reminded me that I need to invite a friend who lives far away for a retreat ASAP. But it is no longer my fear that governs my decisions.
It is not that I grow used to losing loved ones, no one gets used to loss. It is that I am learning how to live with it, both in spiritual and practical terms.
posted by mumimor at 10:17 AM on May 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

The thing that's helping me the most is to take time to feel the grief and sadness that I'm feeling about losing people near and far. If I start to feel that chasm in my innards, I find a time when I can sit and close my eyes and just be with the feelings of loss and sadness and, if it's about a person, appreciation for who the person was and how much I miss them.

Doing this has made grief feel survivable, and has, for me, actually helped bring some sweetness to the ache of it. But it's still really hard.
posted by spindrifter at 10:21 AM on May 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

30 hit me harder than 40.

Not flippantly at all: psychedelics. I'm not into the woo at all. It's getting downright mainstream, with Pollan doing a book tour.
posted by booooooze at 10:26 AM on May 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

The people I know who are at ease with the idea of dying and have reconciled themselves to the loss of irreplaceable loved ones live the shit out of their lives, accept, on a profound level, that no one is spared at least temporary grief or misery (that we’re not special or owed freedom from pain), are flexible and able to adapt to their changing reality, cherish old friends and reach out to new ones, and generally approach life (even the boring stuff) with enthusiasm. I aspire to be like that, working on it :)

I think it helps some to try to work out your bottom-line take on big questions, via philosophy or religion. (For grief, making a practice of remembering lost people now and then, with others, in stories, etc., helps me.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:28 AM on May 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

From what I see you're not alone. Take some comfort in that.

I'm about the same age, and have a lot of friends in the medical field. I think they do sort of take it harder than the rest of us. Because we I'm given 30-70% odds on a diagnosis I can hit that news with irrational confidence of me, the ignorant individual, certain to be in that 30% not the 70%.

Because that's all I know in that moment. My doctor friend? She's seen 70 people die from cancer and seen 30 people barely survive. To her it's not an abstraction, it never has been, she's just been keeping work at work for 15-20 years. But now it's me or her mom or her postman and it's a lot for her because we're breaching that "work brain" v "life brain" barrier she's had up for decades.

The rest of us maybe have it easier living life for today and the best way we can because we don't know any better.
posted by French Fry at 1:41 PM on May 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't have good answers for you, though I agree that feeling the grief is important, as is seizing the day. Personally, I recently restarted therapy after many years away to get at this very issue for myself. It's already helping, so, you know - as much as I love askme, professionals are professionals for a reason, and can likely help you, too.
posted by ldthomps at 2:11 PM on May 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Bucket list.
It's a funny idea in your teens and twenties, back when you were immortal. Then friends, relatives, coworkers and neighbors die. Car wrecks. Drugs. Cancer. Homicide. Suicide. Stupid accidents.

At some point, living forever isn't so certain.
Certainties are the sunrise and sunset... good food... good friends... taking time for walks, and conversations, and listening to the world around you.
Certainties are the joy you receive and the joy you give back. You have an impact on others and they also change you, in many beautiful ways.

Embrace life. Some relationships are shorter, but don't discount the profound effect you have on others. You improve the lives of others. Let them have the opportunities to improve your life as well.

People die. We cannot change that. But we can work together to make the moments worth living.
posted by TrishaU at 4:11 PM on May 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

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