The impact of age on the perception of death

Sometimes I have some thoughts go through my head and I feel I should write them down. Writing things down can help to order and to make sense of them. I guess this is one of such posts. I am not entirely sure what I am trying to say, so I will just write away and maybe it will make some sense at the end. Maybe not…

When a 90 year old person dies, people will say things such as “he had a fulfilled life”. Why is that acceptable? Probably because we all know we have to die at some stage and 90 years seems to be a pretty good number on the high end. It might be perceived as natural to die at an old age. After all, we all have to die. However, does such a statement make it any easier for the people left behind who will grieve the loss of a loved one? I doubt it, but I have used the same approach myself when my father died. His life was still way too short, but we seem to be able to make ourselves believe that another person had a good life and focus on the positive memories instead of only seeing what the person is not allowed to experience any more. Somehow it does seem to make it a little less painful. Or do we need to differentiate between grief and the pain it brings and acceptance of loss? The grief and the pain might be similar, but in the case of an older person we may more easily accept that death occured.

When a child dies, the reaction is the opposite. People are shocked. A life was cut far too short, the future is uncertain. It is perceived as unnatural that children die before their parents. However, strictly speaking the outcome is the same. A loved one died. A bond was torn. And such bonds do not necessarily form over time. Parents love a child in the womb already. It does not require years to fall in love, the bond is just there. In my mind time spent with someone is not really a good approximation of how difficult a loss will be. However, we often pretend or make ourselves believe that time or age makes a difference… Some people even told us outright that we can be happy that your child died very young because in their mind that will make it less difficult. After all, we did not have a chance to get to know our child very well. It would be far more cruel if our child was ripped away from us after a few years. If we were to follow such logic, we would end up with some kind of grief pain curve with a steady increase of difficulty that peaks at some point after which it becomes less difficult again.

Age and the perception of death
Now I have been pondering the question at what age the social norm makes it acceptable to die? When does society switch statements from “he died too early” to “he had a good life”? 15? No, still far too short. 30? Probably not, the average person would still have half a life ahead of them. 45? 60? 70? I certainly don’t know the answer. I think it might depend on context. A century ago people had a much lower life expectancy. At some stage in human history one might have been lucky to turn 30. In that context death at the age of 15 might not sound too bad. Before medical treatments got better and better, many women would die during labour, often with their unborn child. Was childloss in those times perceived differently because it was more prevalent?

Other context and the perception of death
If we accept that age can make a difference in perception, what other context might have implications? Does it only make a difference for the general public or for affected individuals as well? In marketing theory the confirmation – disconformation paradigm is often used to explain the concept of satisfaction. It basically says that your expectations determine the satisfaction with products. If expectations are outperformed, one will be satisfied and vice versa. Might something like this apply to grief as well? Context in the broadest sense obviously affects our expectations. With regard to age as context the expectation might be that it becomes more likely to die with older age. The question really is if that makes a difference to grief or not? If it does, would something else such as an expectation of a high probability of complications or loss during pregnancy result in a different grieving process if it actually occurs? Are people in war-torn countries or countries who suffer from famine and see lots of children die emotionally more hardened than others? Or is the grief itself the same, but we just have less problems accepting that something bad happened to us and not somebody else? Maybe there is less of the question why it happened to me? Or does it maybe have to do with the way we can express our grief?

Lots of questions and not a lot of answers. Please feel free to comment and to provide your perspective. I would like to close this post with a story a friend from Germany told me recently. He went to a funeral of one of his relatives who died at an “old” age. I do not remember the exact age any more, but something like 76 or so. However, the father of the deceased relative was still alive and approaching 102 years of age. In the normal context people might say 76 years is old and she might have enjoyed her life to the fullest. I can’t help but think about what the father would have said. I guess if we would ask that man how he felt standing at the grave of his daughter, he might not have spoken of the long fulfilled life she had. He might have spoken of the gap she leaves behind and how much he will miss her. There might hence be a clear separation between perception of society and of individuals.

For the people closest to the deceased, none of this will matter and the loss is a terrible tragedy. One will always be a parent, even when the kids have come of age. How society looks at these situations might be different though.

Help break the silence!

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