The length of any human life is unknown; but common wisdom holds that there is a time to be born and a time to die. Anyone who has experienced the pain of someone dying prematurely has wrestled with this enigma.
Dying prematurely was brought home to me in mid-August when I was out for an early morning walk. In the middle of the street I saw a fully matured, beautifully colored, fallen leaf. Not far down the road, I found a fresh green one. Surely the middle of summer is when leaves should be enjoying mid-life, securely fastened to branches, purifying our air and shading us from the harmful rays of the sun.
Here were two leaves ostensibly having finished their work, a poignant reminder that premature death is one of life’s intense complexities, one that always breaks the heart.
There was such a stark difference between these two leaves, one mature with its beautiful colors, the other showing no sign of age. As with leaves, some of us get more time, others less; some experience and accomplish a great deal in a short time, others not so much. Short of a highly tuned medical prognosis, genetic pre-disposition, or death by suicide or euthanasia, there is no definitive blueprint for determining what the length of one’s life will be. It is a mystery beyond our knowing.
If we were able to choose our time to be born and time to die, most of us would beg more time. Whether we are young, in the prime of life, or among the blessed to have reached the autumn or winter years, we know that premature death, especially the death of a child, is a painful time for survivors. The best we can do is to know what comforts people when they are struggling and be cautious about reciting platitudes that can hurt rather than help.
It can hurt a parent, grandparent, relative, sibling or friend who loses a special young person to hear that “the good die young.” There is nothing inherent in being good or young that causes or initiates death. People don’t need to be reminded their young person was good, they know it and it can cause deep anguish to be reminded that death came so soon.
Another hard thing to hear when you’ve lost someone prematurely is that they “are an angel now”. You cannot see, touch or hug an angel, so being an angel is no comfort to one who yearns to hug their child one more time. It is just another reminder of what they have lost. To tell people, “it was their time,” merely deepens the depth of the complexity and mystery. Though someone may eventually come to believe that a premature death was rightfully “their time,” it will never feel comforting.
When someone suffers for a long time, particularly if they are young, it’s natural to experience relief when their pain stops. When a young person dies after suffering, it is hard to hear, “it’s a blessing.” For the parent who loses a child after months or years of a cancer or disease ravaging their body, the loss will never be a blessing.
The best we can do when someone dies prematurely is to engage survivors in talking about them. A good way to begin consoling someone is to say, “tell me about him/her.” Invite them to share memories, their suffering, joys, and their grief with you. What grieving people want is to talk about the person who is gone, and however you can begin that conversation will be a help.
A useful resource for people struggling with premature death is Freddie the Fall Leaf, written by Leo Buscaglia. This children’s picture book is a valuable parable for people of all ages to reflect on the mystery of life and death. The fundamental message is that there is a time to be born and a time to die, that we all die, and that we need not fear death. Freddie is a leaf, curious about the mystery of how and why other leaves fall at varying times. He is afraid it will happen to him, so he hangs on too tight. Counseled by an older leaf, Daniel, Freddie lives through all the seasons with a silent fear of someday falling to the ground. Available on Amazon or any good bookstore, Freddie the Fall Leaf makes a wonderful addition to any child’s library or as a resource for grief counselors and parents.
“It is not length of life, but depth of life.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)