Age at Death
Death is a different experience at different times in life, it is very different to die at two years old than it is at 12, 22, 42, 62 or 82. An infant or mentally disabled person has a very dim light, very little self-awareness. Knowledge of or emotional attachment to their lives is minimal or non-existent.
A pre-school child imagines death primarily as a separation from her parents. She fears losing them, and she fears going to a hospital. These fears are more real than the fear of death. With some explanation, she may come to think of death as being like a long sleep or going to see God whom she imagines as an extension of her parents, an authority figure.
Between the ages of six and twelve, death is still a fantasy, distant and unreal. If a child this age has been told he will die, he may misbehave or complain of every little ache and pain to get attention and the reassurance that he is loved and won’t be abandoned. The child has become involved with people outside the family, but hasn’t much concept of the future. Death may be seen as an interruption of achievements “But I’ve just learned to ride my bike!” or a disruption of friendships.
These children should continue with normal activities like school, sports and hobbies, and with friendships as long as possible. Those are the important aspects of life for this age group.
In adolescence, there’s a growing sense of identity and the uniqueness of “me” as an individual. A teenager who is dying may feel that knowing she is valuable has a special identity and worth, is the most important feeling to embrace.
Adolescents still don’t have a sense of what it means to live for a long time, even though they’re beginning to plan for the future. That’s why young people make the best soldiers: they’re strong, daring, willing to risk their lives for glory and adventure and recognition.
This is the time of life when a peer group is important. Adolescents care about what their friends think of them. Physical image is also important, and the bodily changes that result from illness may be especially difficult at this age.
The adolescent facing death should stay in touch with friends as much as possible. Acceptance and love from his peers and social status may be more important to him than his parents. The adolescent’s tendency to veer wildly from mature self-sufficiency to childlike vulnerability will be more extreme when compounded by the stress of serious illness.
One young man, seventeen years old, was on his school’s football team when he found out that he had leukemia. He practiced with the team as long as possible, played in the first game of the season, and died before the season ended. As he adjusted to the idea of his death, his biggest concern was what his friends thought of him. He worried about letting the team down. The entire football team, including the coach and cheerleaders, visited him in the hospital. They reassured him that he was important to them. He died feeling validated in the way that mattered most to him.
In early adulthood, news of fatal illness is understandably met with outrage and fury. “It isn’t fair,” “I’m just getting started in life,” “Not me … not now.” The light of self-awareness is getting brighter, only to be snuffed out prematurely. There is so much to do and not enough time. Relationships may be fewer than in adolescence, but they are often better in quality and are more important. Family and a few special friends are the main sources of psychological support.
An adult under forty will greet death with severe feelings of disappointment, anger, and frustration. It’s unfair. There is unfinished business at this stage of life, we prove our worth by doing being involved in politics or community groups, working, having children, going to P.T.A or Little League meetings, traveling, learning, and achieving in our work.
Young adults must shorten goals and expectations for their life. They will have to settle for another birthday, as Edna did, or one more holiday spent with the family. The final time can be lived to the fullest, but the future is only tomorrow.
After forty, news of impending death may be somewhat more acceptable. Middle age, roughly forty to sixty-five years, is the time of life to enjoy the benefits of the work of the previous years. Sometime during their forties, many people experience another identity crisis similar to that of adolescence, as they face changes in physical appearance, a decline in stamina, status, and possibly reduced sexual interest. Sometimes it is an opportunity to turn inward and to evaluate life’s goals and work, to consider the quality of life instead of its quantity. Time perspective also changes, and people begin to think about the number of years they have left, instead of the number of years since their birth.
It is during the middle years that most people bury their parents and become the “older” generation in their families. Companionship becomes more important in relationships than sex, and new depth of sharing and understanding in marriage may result. Adjustment in the middle years may involve learning to shift from physically-based values to wisdom-based values, and finding new and creative solutions to current and future problems.
It is also the time when the nest empties. Children leave home and parents can live without the demands and pressures of raising them. In these years, there’s a high incidence of divorce, but the marriages that make it through become better than ever. Men generally become more gentle and sensitive, and women become more assertive.
Many of life’s tasks have been completed, yet these years are still active and productive, responsibilities are on-going, caring for aging parents, welcoming grandchildren. Death means that careers will be interrupted and loving relationships with spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends will be cut short. Death denies people of this age a chance to harvest the fruits of their labors: to develop leisure interests, to travel, to enjoy retirement and grandchildren and family. Death now ends life before it is finished, like a thief. Some of us are able to regard death during the middle years from a more philosophical position, thinking of the meaning of life and death, evaluating whether our life has had value to ourselves and others.
In advanced adulthood, we become aware that death is closer. In the sixties, we re-evaluate setting new goals and ways to use time. We may believe that living past sixty-five years is a bonus. Only a few decades ago, the average life span was much shorter: fifty-two for women and forty-eight for men. Now women live to seventy-two years, and men to sixty-eight years on the average. Many people live past the end of their work life.
In old age, one reviews one’s life and may feel satisfied that it has been worthwhile or may try to repair former failures.
Death now is less feared, sometimes even anticipated with interest. In the case of those with poor health or a chronic illness, death may be strongly welcomed. If life has been a disappointment, then death will be less acceptable until some of the problems of one’s life have been resolved.
On the other hand, old age and retirement can be the most delightful time of life, full of peace, happiness, and contentment. In such cases, though one may hate to go, death is more readily accepted as a natural part of the life cycle. Most elderly people who truly fear death have not yet made peace with themselves. When a life has been fulfilling and has had an impact on others, the light of this life can reach its peak of brightness, then flicker and, like a shooting star, streak across the sky in a final blaze of glory.
Other Fears: How You Die
For many, the fear of death is primarily about how you will die. Worries about physical deterioration and appearance, pain, panic, and dying alone or in an institution can preoccupy your thoughts and delay coming to terms with death.
Specific personal fears will be of great concern during the time when you are told the nature and extent of your illness. In the beginning, when you first acknowledged symptoms such as a tumor, pain, or unusual bleeding, you most likely also experienced a psychological fear about the nature and extent of the physical problem. Maybe all the facts were unknown and unconfirmed at that point in time. When you were told the results and probable outcome of your disease after diagnostic tests or surgery, you may have felt relief at knowing the truth. Yet feelings of numbness, shock, disbelief, great anguish, and fear might also be present at the moment of truth.
In old age death may be a welcomed friend, peace at last, the eternal dreamless sleep. Release from physical pain and lonliness. It is easier to leave if you believe you have lived a full and happy life.