Saturday, July 21, 2007

On Loss

There's something weird about finding out about people dying: when you think about it logically, we hear about people dying all the time. War, famine, disaster. Terrorism, violence, disease. Thousands, millions, dying constantly in a variety of human-caused chaos events and others the result of the rippled effects of destructive actions (climate change).

So why does death more immediately affect me emotionally when it is the individual, the result of a relationship, the personal?

Perhaps, cosy as we are in relatively affluent western society, I can recognise the impact of such death(s) more intimately when the numbers are singular? And yet, following such horrors as the London bombings on 7/7, the plane attacks of September 11th 2001, the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, the numerous dead moved many, stirred many, politicised many. I was moved too. But was the feeling of loss made harder, more emotional, when names and biographies were put to those numerous bodies? Or when they failed to be so named and made individual?

Lacking a large family, most of the deaths that have most affected me have been those belonging to friends: the various parents, siblings, and partners of those around me. Almost always these are tinged with the awareness that these deaths have often come 'too early'; for people who - in an age where medicine appears endlessly able to postpone the inevitable - could be described euphemistically as 'gone too soon': as if there was ever a time where we could comfortably feel that there was a 'now' that was apt.

(There's always an exception, mind: when my father died in 2004 I'd long since done all my grieving for his death long before. Aged 80, I had no delusions he had not had long enough).

Still, logically, a parent's death should not be 'too soon' and yet it so often feels that way as we seek to stretch out the time we have with them. My own mother died aged 68: that felt too young even though I was already approaching 33. Others have lost their mothers at much earlier ages. I can hardly imagine how 'too soon' those deaths felt with parents only in their forties, their fifties. To experience the loss in my early 30s was hard enough; to have been younger - my twenties, my teens, a child - I'm not sure how I would have been able to process that, even as I watched friends talk through their own horrors and mixed emotions. My mother postponed acknowledging and exploring her illness for far too long and in the end died less than two weeks after first going into hospital: by then, the cancer was far too advanced for there to be any positive outcome.

The recollection of loss can strike at the most unexpected moments: for me, it's usually when I see a film or TV programme I know my mum would have particularly enjoyed - or at least appreciated me enthusing over (we had plenty of 'did you watch...?' and quick 'are you watching...?' calls and letters over the years.) "She'd have loved that" is still perhaps the most oft-invoked phrase about my mum.

All this musing is, I guess, by way of my working through that I only know by association how it feels to know long-term that someone is dying, even if I know too harshly how each death takes place in a period of time that is both too short and yet infinitely lengthy.

So, to all the McDonald family and their friends, condolences.

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