Today I just want to share a sad part of growing older: Dealing with the loss of those near and dear. Specifically, those beloved elders from my past who seem to disappear suddenly, like twinkling stars that wink out without much of a trace.
This has occurred to me earlier in life—teachers, friends and mentors who have died or descended into illnesses that prohibit communication with them. As I get older, though, this experience is growing more frequent, and with that comes a slight uptick in the sadness that accompanies each of these losses.
A recent story illustrates this phenomenon. A dear teaching colleague from my earlier years died quietly far away from where I live. She had been dealing with a life-threatening illness for a number of years, and eventually succumbed to its grasp. Because she did not want sympathy along the way, I found out several months after her death. That might have been enough to bring on sorrow, but what really made me sad was that I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, nor was I able to offer her comfort during the many months of her physical decline. Suddenly, she was not there anymore—the sparkling light of her life just shut off. An empty spot in the starry sky that has filled my life these many years.
She was not the first, nor will she be the last. Because Chris and I have lived in so many places over these decades, it stands to reason that distance and time combine to separate us from the twinkling stars who lit up our lives. Former teachers, coworkers, students, distant relatives, pastors, friends and admired leaders—one by one disappearing quietly from our lives. Because of the distance of time and geography over these years, we sometimes learn of these deaths and diminishments long after they take place.
In my life, these relationships have held together my sense of identity—Ted, Dan, Liz, Rich, Jan, Bud, Arthur, Gladys, Jerry and Ron are among those who helped mold me into who I am now. The loss of their witness or example—even though far removed from here and now—has been like small pieces of my well-being breaking off and disappearing. Each a small flash of grace in my life, but no longer available.
Over the years, I have made it a practice to pick one of these life-stars at Christmas, and write a letter of thanks to them—Gratitude for their investment in my life, with a brief summary of what I’ve done with the gifts they gave me. Not an actual goodbye, but close enough. In those cases, later news of their death or illness is softened by my previously written expressions of love and thanks.
I’m not sure that these thoughts offer any great insight or deep purpose for you. But perhaps you’ve had the same experiences, and perhaps it might be good to know that another older adult knows similar feelings.
One more thing: You are likely part of someone’s constellation of stars, a light for their lives over the years. Perhaps without knowing it, your remembered and current life remains critical for their sense of well-being. In that case, you can approach your remaining years with the sure knowledge that you have made a difference that endures inside the lives of those who follow you. You’re still shining brightly.
No sadness there!