Posted  from Tyler, Texas

On the day we are born, scientists tell us, we begin to die.

Death at an early age is a tragedy.  The death of a baby with an irreparable defect is heart wrenching.  A teenager who dies in an accident is shocking, filling us with a consuming grief of wonderful memories and sadness for a future that will never be.

We all react to death in a different way, personally and professionally.  The healthcare industry is unique among all others because we are there at the start of life and, frequently, we are there at the end.  We tend to see this as the inevitable, albeit very expensive, part of the natural order.  That does not spare us the grief and sadness when a friend dies, but it is such an ever-present element of our profession. 

For teenagers, the death of a friend evokes a raw outpouring of sadness and confusing disbelief, but at the same time there is a certain detachment that restores balance; death is an anomaly.  They are reassured by the belief that something this tragic could never happen to them.  As we move into the last 10 to 20 years of life, death takes on a new meaning.  It is now more than the obscure concept of existential inevitability.  It is a real part of our lives and we understand that death can come at any time. 

In the last quarter of our own life, the death of a friend, especially one so full of life, is startling, but we do not waste time asking how something so sudden, so shocking could happen because we know.  

When the person who dies is a successful and beloved physician — and a friend — the news may feel surreal but the understanding that comes with our own advancing age typically mitigates the disbelief and shock.  We know there are only two choices: retreat into grief or double down on the joy of life.  Death is inevitable, but what we do with our remaining days in this life is not.

In Henry Scott Holland’s 1910 sermon on death at St. Paul’s Cathedral as King Edward VII lay in state, he wrote:

“Life means all that it ever meant.  It is the same that it ever was.  There is absolutely unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?

“I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner.

“All is well.”

Happy Trails my friend.

© 2011 John Gregory Self