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The Raw Feeling of Losing a Fiftysomething Friend

The death of a friend provokes difficult reflections for this writer


Part of the Living to the End of Life Special Report

(Editor’s note: This story is part of a special report for The John A. Hartford Foundation.)

My husband’s friend died last week. He was 57. That’s how old my husband is.

His friend was a great guy, married, a father of three, always kind and generous, thoughtful and considerate. We both liked him a lot. He developed a chronic form of cancer about 10 years ago, and for a long time he just lived with it. Every so often, he’d have to go off for chemo or tests or surgery, and then he would come back like before, still the great guy he had always been.

Until a few weeks ago, when suddenly the cancer was everywhere and no one could do anything except watch him die.

So it wasn’t like we were surprised.

It was more like shock. How could a 57-year-old man with children barely into their 20s die, even if he’d had cancer for 10 years? Even if that was what the doctors had told him would happen? Even if he had grown weaker over the last few years, and no treatment seemed to be working after a while?

It’s hard for us to wrap our brains around it.

Considering Our End-of-Life Wishes

My husband and I have talked about death a lot. I don’t consider us weirdly obsessed with the subject, but we have definitely talked about it. We talk about what we will want when we are dying — not to be kept alive by artificial means or if in pain that will result in death anyway. My husband has a living will (an advance directive laying out wishes regarding medical treatment when you’re not able to convey them); I do not, but I will get on that soon.

We’ve discussed, at length, what I will do if my husband dies — he is especially prepared for that one. “Go right to the special green folder,” he’s told me more than once. The green folder is filled with codes for me to get to our money and his life insurance.

We talk about what we might do if the other dies. How long is it okay to wait to look for a future spouse? My husband says, “At the funeral,” but I’m pretty sure he’s joking. I say: Not for at least a year. In fact, I’ve told my husband, friends and family, I can never imagine being married to anyone else. Which is why when someone my husband’s age dies, I think: Would I be happy being single the rest of my life? I am 50. Would I really want to start all over, to date?

What I Imagine Would Happen

I know some things I would do. I would sell the house. It’s too big and unwieldy for me to manage myself, and it will be too expensive — mortgage, maintenance — to deal with. But then where would I go? I don’t know. All my friends would still be married. I would be alone.

Of course people wouldn’t tell me I was alone. They’d tell me they were right there with me. But they would still be couples, doing couple things together. They would invite me for dinner now and then but not when they were having date nights, or on vacations because who wants your single friend to come on vacation with you and your spouse?

Fifty-seven is too young to die. You miss out on all of the good stuff. Retirement. Vacations. You don’t get to go to the movies during the day just because you feel like it. You don’t get to have lunch at the diner with all your friends because no one is working anymore and there’s nothing else to do.

You don’t get to ever hug your spouse or kids again. You don’t get to watch your grandchildren grow into awkward teenagers who you think are the cat’s pajamas, even though you know they are actually royal pains in the neck to their parents and you sort of enjoy it after what you went through with your own kids. At 57, you feel like you still have another whole life to live.

But then it’s all gone. All of it.  And you made the most of it while you were living it, but you are still missing so much. While you might not know anymore, your family will know. They’ll name kids after you and talk about you at all the family functions. Your kids will desperately try to keep you alive, even though you will never be old enough to need to be kept alive.

Fifty-seven is too young to die. My husband is 57. But our friend was 57. So it happens, and more than we would like to think. When it happens like this, you can’t help but wonder, will it happen to you, too?

judy walters
By Judy M. Walters
Judy Mollen Walters is the author of six women's fiction titles. Her latest, The Natural Order of Things, can be found on Amazon or by visiting her web site at judymollenwalters.com. She is also the author of essays which have appeared on WaPo, HuffPo, the week and other sites.  She can be reached at [email protected] gmail.com.

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