Sickness is but a reminder of the transience of our existence and of the ultimate fate of all living things – death. How far from our mind is our own mortality when we are young and healthy and feeling full of vigour, ready to overcome all obstacles in our path? On the other hand, how our mind dwells on morbid thought when our body becomes assailed by illness and our vital reserve is diminished… Disease has always been with us, and it is doubtful whether we shall ever be able to completely eradicate it from our life.
Advances in medicine, public health and knowledge in the 19th century have done a lot to decrease the incidence of many diseases that were scourges of the past, but as soon as we eliminate one such enemy, a new one takes its place. In the West, infectious diseases were the major cause of death until the early twentieth century, but as we conquered those, we became victims to cancers and degenerative disease such as atherosclerosis and heart attacks. The advent of AIDS, SARS and new deadly forms of influenza have created panic on a world-wide scale as they claim their victims. New viruses lurk in Africa and will, no doubt, cause many epidemics in the near future, as the recent Ebola epidemic has shown.
There is nothing more distressing than to see a loved one being tortured by an illness. Especially a chronic disease without a cure that one is powerless to do anything against. How to deal with that suffering is a conundrum that has no answer. The pain that our loved one feels hurts us also, but our incapacity to help them causes even more anguish. We try to deal with this torment of every-day existence, if for nothing else, to give strength to the ill person whom we love. However, at the same time we have another reality to deal with – we are confronted with the mortality of our loved one. Someone whom we have always considered as strong, healthy, young, invincible is suddenly reduced by disease to shell, a shadow of their former self.
It is inevitable that once we have wrestled with the morbidity and mortality of our loved one, we should start to question our own health, wonder about our susceptibility to disease and ponder our own death. This may be easier to do on the personal level, once we have dealt with these matters in the face of our loved one.
The saddest thing that one may have to cope with in terms of mortality is the death of one’s child. Children are meant to bury their parents, not vice-versa. No parent is prepared for a child’s death and it is important to remember that how long one’s child lived does not determine the size of one’s loss. Parents are intimately involved in the daily lives of young children, and death changes every aspect of family life, often leaving an enormous emptiness.
The death of an older child or adolescent is difficult because children at this age are beginning to reach their potential and become independent individuals. When an adult child dies, one not only loses a child, but often a close friend, a link to grandchildren, and an irreplaceable source of emotional and practical support. If one loses an only child, one may also feel that one’s identity as a parent is lost, and perhaps the possibility of grandchildren.
In addition to grieving the loss of a child, bereft parents may find that they grieve the loss of the hopes and dreams they had for their child, as well as the potential that will never be realised and the experiences they will never share. The pain of these losses will always be part of these unfortunate parents. Yet, as is the case with even the greatest tragedies, the greatest pain, with time, most parents find a way forward and begin to experience happiness and meaning in life once again.
Death is part of life and the sooner one confronts one’s own mortality, the better our life will become. Without death there is no life, and while there is life we must live it to the full so as to make the most of it before we die. The sooner we accept our eventual demise, the more meaningful and fulfilling out life will become.
The painting above is: “Memento Mori - To This Favour”, oil on canvas, by William Michael Harnett, 1879, Cleveland Museum of Art.