We grow up with the conventional thinking that we will become adults and our parents will grow old and die before we do. Furthermore, our children will grow up to be adults and we will predecease them in old age.
Fortunately for most, the flow of life and death follows that pattern. But for some, the sequence and timing get messed up and it takes an emotional and behavioral toll. Sometimes our parents die prematurely. Sometimes our kids don’t make it to adulthood, or they reach adulthood, but die while we are still in midlife…
I had a great dad. But when I was six, his work took him to northern Canada. He was killed in an air crash two years later on the way home. I was eight. My mother was an amazing mother, but she died in a car crash when she tangled with a drinking driver. I was sixteen.
Of course these losses were hard, but life went on, I married and had two children. For the first few years I was a great father. It seemed so natural. However, when my son passed six years old, I began to feel bewildered about how to be a father. Nothing was coming to me instinctively anymore.
Later as I looked back, I realized that I was lacking a model because I hadn’t experienced my own father after the age of six.
I bumped into the deaths of my parents again in my early 30s. You see, they had died at age 40 and 41, and I had come to believe I was going to die by around the same age as they had died. I got a little more reckless and took up drinking. As age 40 loomed before me, it dawned on me my belief was totally irrational. I didn’t want to die. I toned down my recklessness, and I stopped drinking. I admit I breathed sighs of relief as I passed age 41 intact and shifted my thinking to the years ahead.
The next lesson was an even harder one. In a two-year period my 41-year-old biological son, my 40-year-old step-son and my 51-year-old adopted daughter all died. It crashed into my consciousness again that the “natural” flow of life and death is an illusion.
The big question: How do you cope with the emotional turmoil and the behavioral inadequacies that surround such rifts in the natural flow of life and death?
Sorry, there is no formula. I dealt with living past the age my parents were when they died by focusing on the kind of future my parents would have wanted for me. I set an intention to do them proud. That was the context in which I made some major life changes and created my own plans for the future.
Neither is there a formula for dealing with the premature deaths of one’s children. The hardest lesson I had to learn was one of acceptance. While my soul was shouting “I’m supposed to die first,” I had to learn to accept that there are painful anomalies in the continuum of life and death…and to pause to celebrate life… and then to get on with living life the best I can.
Heavy heart? Yes. Give up on life? No way!